Pragmatic Utopia #27

A few weeks ago I got interested in market socialism and promised to go learn more. To review, market socialism is a catch-all term for egalitarian economies that combine some form of public or cooperative ownership with the market system. Obviously “socialism” and “central planning” have been combined in common parlance, but market socialism is an effort to sever that association. Today, I’ll report back on one of the most sophisticated proposals for a market socialist economy, John Roemer’s idea of “coupon socialism.”

Bears on the Alaska pipeline. The Alaska Permanent Fund is probably the closest thing in America to Roemer’s coupon socialism proposal (although not THAT close)

John Roemer is a rare breed: a Marxian economist. He is closely associated with a school of thought known as Analytical Marxism, whose proponents tried to reconstruct Marxian theory using the tools of modern social science (in Roemer’s case, equilibrium analysis and game theory). There is one big difference between Roemer’s version of Marxism and most others: he thinks the most pernicious inequality is unequal ownership of productive assets rather than unequal power between workers and management. I find this focus on capital ownership appropriate for the modern day; in Piketty’s Capital, in data on the racial wealth gap, we see that ownership drives inequality–especially at the very high end of the distribution–more than income.

Roemer presents his big idea in A Future for Socialism, but I read a condensed version in Equal Shares: Making Market Socialism Work, an edited volume where Roemer’s proposal is followed by commentary and criticism from ten or so sympathetic reviewers. I think this is an awesome format for a book. You read the proposal, it seems brilliant at first, then you watch the very thoughtful reviewers poke holes in it from every practical and philosophical angle.

What problem is Roemer trying to solve? It seems that his main objection to our current political economy is that a small group of individuals actively fight, through politics, for high levels of profit-inducing public bads–environmental degradation, consumer fraud, socialized financial risk. This is Bernie Sanders’s millionaires and billionaires speech overlaid with a Mancur Olson-style warning about the pathological behavior of special interests. The task for market socialism is to distribute goods through the price system and distribute the profits relatively equally among the population “without unacceptable costs in efficiency.” We stick with the price system because by now almost everyone has been persuaded that Soviet-style planning doesn’t work and Hayek and the Austrians were right about prices as signals. So the question is, can you preserve a market economy and just share the profits equally?

Here’s how Roemer would do it. There are two kinds of money: dollars and coupons. Dollars are what you’re used to; coupons can only be used to purchase ownership rights in firms. Upon turning 18, everyone receives an equal number of coupons from the government. You can’t trade your coupons for dollars (except with the Treasury); you can only allocate them to mutual funds who then buy shares in firms on your behalf. When you hold the shares of a company, you get certain ownership rights, primarily the right to receive dividends and the right to vote for directors. When you die, all shares and unspent coupons revert to the state.This 100% inheritance tax and the non-transferability of coupons prevents ownership from becoming concentrated in the hands of wealthy capitalists as we have today. Instead, we all receive roughly equal capital income except insofar as you choose better mutual funds than I do. The employment system works the “normal” way, so you can make as much money in the labor market as you’d like if you get nostalgic for inequality.

Some more details on how the financial system works. Firms raise capital not by selling stock (since coupons can’t be exchanged for dollars) but by taking on credit from banks, which are themselves public companies in the same system. Roemer’s vision of using banks to monitor firms (rather than the threat of takeover we have in the U.S. stock market) draws heavily on the Japanese keiretsu banking system. Finally, Roemer leaves it as an open question how to deal with new private firms that crop up: whether they would be purchased by the government and auctioned for shares in the public sector, or whether private firms could coexist with public ones. There are lots of other details needed to make this system work which I won’t go into; if you see a glaring hole let me know and I’ll tell you if and how Roemer tried to solve it.

Roemer’s interlocutors all share an interest in some form of market socialism, but that’s about it. There were many types of criticism, but I’ll share two main buckets. First, a handful of the reviewers were skeptical of the technical details of Roemer’s proposed financial market. Even if rich people aren’t allowed to use their cash to buy equity in companies, they could find workarounds. They could buy a derivative that tracks corporate share prices. Or, since some forms of debt allow for variable returns, the rich could just become lenders rather than shareholders. And on that topic, since firms would have to finance their activities entirely through debt, one commentator worries that citizen shareholders would encourage firms to take huge risks since from their perspective there’s only upside. Finally, the 100% inheritance tax would warp investors’ time preferences: older people would want to invest in companies that basically liquidate all their assets and pay out enormous dividends in the short term. This concern is why Roemer specified that all investing would have to go through mutual funds, but there’s nothing preventing certain funds from specializing in these “cash cow” companies and recruiting older investors. The solution to this problem might need to be a less severe inheritance tax.

Second, a larger group of reviewers raise philosophical concerns about the kind of citizens and the kind of democracy Roemer’s proposal gets us. A common criticism was that while Roemer’s proposal achieves a more egalitarian resource distribution, it does not achieve much more egalitarian control over the economy. William Simon, Debra Satz, Josh Cohen, Joel Rogers, and Erik Olin Wright all express an interest in a version of socialism that affords some control over investment decisions to organizations–like trade associations, unions, worker cooperatives–that facilitate democratic participation. Indeed, it’s unclear what the value of citizen ownership of the coupons is supposed to be.  Simon argues that coupons would bring out the worst aspects of lotteries, where people take unwise risks. It seems to me that most of us are more qualified to contribute to local governance and the management of our workplaces than we are to invest in the stock market.

I still take away some very helpful ideas from Roemer’s proposal and the responses. First, although I am unsure about his solution, I find his articulation of the problem very accurate, re: the divergence between the public interest and the interests of wealthy capital owners. Second, I appreciate how Roemer challenges us to think about property on a spectrum between “public” and “private.” His coupons are a clever example of a property form that has both private characteristics (you choose how to allocate it; you have a right to dividends) and public ones (you can only spend it on stock; you can’t transfer it). I think we should be more creative in imagining new forms of property. Third, the thoughtful reviewers suggested many good ideas that deserve their own full exploration. One that stood out was Fred Block’s comments on “design principles” for financial markets. He thinks that financial markets should be segmented (e.g. separate firms specializing in mortgages vs. currency vs. stocks) to prevent funds flowing into speculative investments and to encourage specialized expertise in each arena. This idea will require a separate post.

1. The massively multiplayer role-playing game of life
Ryan Avent will be the star of this week’s links. In his first appearance, Avent wrote about the trend of men dropping out of the labor force and spending much of their time playing video games. Avent is drawing mostly on the research of Erik Hurst, which I’ve discussed here before. Throughout the piece, Avent is careful to remain agnostic about causation; it’s unclear when people are just filling their unemployed time with something, which happens to be video games, and when they are actually more willing to leave work in the first place because the alternative of gaming is so attractive. The second possibility shouldn’t be so shocking; games have gotten extremely compelling and many low-wage jobs are…not. People who love any hobby “do not need to spend much time on the job each week before the income gain from another hour at work starts to look a poor trade-off for an additional hour away from it.” Avent closes on an impressively realistic note, free from the moralizing you might expect: “Whether it is emptier and sadder than [a life] spent buried in finance, accumulating points during long hours at the office while neglecting other aspects of life, is a matter of perspective. But what does seem clear is that the choices we make in life are shaped by the options available to us. A society that dislikes the idea of young men gaming their days away should perhaps invest in more dynamic difficulty adjustment in real life.

2. Poverty and productivity
Here’s Avent again. He’s responding to a frequent claim you see these days that goes: “Why is anyone worried about automation at work when the statistics show very slow productivity growth in recent years?” He thinks those two stories can be reconciled. Here’s the model–note, just a theoretical model that is consistent with our world. First, assume that the digital revolution has created an abundance of labor through globalization, part-time and contractor arrangements, and automation. The people who lose a job due to these forces usually don’t become unemployed; rather, they take a new job with worse pay. “Given the structure of our social safety net, automation tends to increase poverty and inequality rather than unemployment.” As wages fall, it becomes economical to hire people for low-productivity work. So then you get more people working in low productivity jobs, which looks like “declining productivity” in the stats (this is an empirical claim that someone should test…). Next, abundant cheap labor reduces the incentive to invest in future labor-saving technology, further slowing productivity growth. It’s a fascinating model that deserves a closer look. The bolded sentence is the really important thing to keep in mind.

3. Men are the worst, volume 52,831
In the NYT, Thomas Edsall reviews a bunch of research on “the decline of men” in higher education, the workforce, and family life (h/t Harrison Marks). David Autor and co-authors found that boys raised in single-parent households do significantly worse than their sisters in school and employment, which provides a mechanism for the “decline of men” to perpetuate itself and worsen across generations. There are some pretty dire warnings embedded in quotes from psychologists about potential political crisis and social dysfunction if men aren’t sufficiently “civilized” by marriage, labor unions, and organized religion. This stuff will make you think hard about the extent to which bad male behavior is biologically vs. socially determined. In sociology, we naturally hold that it’s completely socially determined but I personally have no idea. If you’ve read something good about sex/gender (this comment implies agnosticism as to which is the right term) differences in behavior that gives fair consideration to biology and social influence, I’d love to hear about it.

4. What is neoliberalism, in one paragraph (a hopeless attempt)
Neoliberalism is the most abused word in social science / political commentary. Matt Stoller read Greta Krippner’s book Capitalizing on Crisis, which I’ve mentioned here before and will do a full review on eventually, and shares the definition of neoliberalism he took away from it. “Neoliberalism is a kind of statecraft. It means organizing state policies as if they are the consequences of depoliticized financial markets. It allows moving power from public institutions to private institutions, and allowing governance to happen through concentrated financial power.” The point of this definition is to distinguish neoliberalism from “real free markets,” which Stoller likes. Wendy Brown also emphasizes that neoliberalism should be understood as a political project where the state “extend[s] and disseminate[s] market values to all institutions and social action.”

5. Could it happen here? It being universal healthcare.
You know a debate is getting involved when it moves from Twitter to Medium. Matt Bruenig and Lyman Stone had a six part debate about the extent to which Nordic social democracy is “exportable” to the American context (Bruenig I, Stone I, Bruenig II, Stone II, Bruenig III,Stone III). The content is very interesting but it’s a little frustrating because they each want to have a different debate. Bruenig wants to stick to the narrow question of whether the small size of the Nordic states makes it easy or hard for them to pull off social democracy. People often say their smallness makes it easy, but he thinks it’s actually much harder (and thus all the more reassuring for the U.S.). One, the Nordics rely heavily on exports and would suffer if their high taxes and wages made their products uncompetitive; and two, people could more easily immigrate to other European countries if they wanted to escape the high taxation.

Stone disagrees with the size argument; he says the Nordics are basically city states in that a high percentage of their population resides in the capital cities. This leads them into much back-and-forth about how to measure ruralness and whether the Nordics are more or less rural than the U.S. But Stone also has many other arguments about why social democracy works in Scandinavia and wouldn’t work here, mostly concerning their institutions and political culture. Bruenig takes a disappointingly mechanical view of institutions: “What I am trying to determine is if the US had its versions of Kela (SSA) and Vero (IRS) operate the same way as they do in Finland (collecting the same or similar taxes, providing the same or similar benefits and services), would it work or not? And by “work,” I mean “there is no technical economic reason why it would fail.” By “work” I do not mean “there is no cultural, political, or other reason why it would fail.””

Fair enough, but I don’t think this is a helpful question. Stone rightfully argues that you need to explain how and why people would consent to a radically different welfare state. Like him, I am skeptical of copy-and-pasting institutions and think you need to draw a path from here to there. I see that as one benefit of the coupon socialism proposal discussed above, i.e. that it builds on a tradition of stock ownership which, for better or worse, is embedded in American custom.

Paper of the Week: Hersh on Politics as a Hobby

In this weekly blog feature, I’m going to share an academic paper I admire and want to explore. This won’t be a roundup of the latest findings; as I’ll discuss at some point, I don’t know whether to trust most new empirical research. Instead, I’ll mostly write about old papers whose ideas still seem fresh and under-appreciated. I expect the papers will be equally distributed between sociology, economics, political science, and law.

In direct contradiction of the above, I’d like to start this week with a brand-new paper that hasn’t even been published yet: “Political Hobbyism: A Theory of Mass Behavior” by Eitan Hersh. This paper seems to be the core of an argument that Hersh is making in several empirical projects and plans to turn into a book.

The argument is that for many Americans, political participation is not a duty, nor is it the pursuit of self interest, but it is a hobby. Hersh thinks that viewing politics as a hobby helps explain many well-known findings, such as why people don’t vote in local elections. Moreover, this is a warning that mass political hobbyism may have contributed to our current political crisis. I loved this framing sentence: “The argument can be viewed as complementary to Kramer’s (2016) The Politics of Resentment, a book that explains the political engagement of low-SES, rural Americans during the Obama years. In my study, I especially aim to capture the politics of contentment, how a comfortable class of citizens has been engaging in politics as hobbyists.”

At a definitional level, hobbyism is the pursuit of pleasure or fun through political participation. This is distinct from other motives often used in political science models like self-interest or civic duty. Of course, it’s perfectly consistent with hobbyism to believe you are pursuing your self interest or civic idealism through your politics. But Hersh says we should be able to observe different behavior from hobbyists compared to the other rationales.

In particular, he suggests we compare political activities people say they do to activities they say they enjoy. For instance, when asked if they enjoy attending political meetings or rallies, about 10% of respondents say yes. When another set of respondents are asked if they actually participate in these activities, 10% say yes as well. If people were actually behaving out of self-interest or civic duty–or anything other than pure consumption value–we would not expect such a tight relationship between enjoyment and action.

There is other empirical evidence for hobbyism. In another experiment, Hersh finds that high-dollar donors say they would be nearly as willing to buy a seat at an event with a famous politician if the money went to a caterer as they would if the money actually supported the candidate or party. In a third experiment, people claim they would disapprove of their child marrying a member of the opposing party at the same rate they would oppose of him or her marrying a fan of a rival sports team. Hersh interprets this to mean people are exaggerating their commitments to both parties and teams. The point is that politics is not particularly special in encouraging attachments to games where there are winners and losers. Indeed, Hersh gets good mileage out of the sports metaphor. He compares low voter turnout in primaries and local elections to the perfectly intuitive pattern where far more people watch the Super Bowl than Week 8 of the NFL season. There might be nothing uniquely political about why turnout is low.

Has politics always been a hobby? Hersh doesn’t think so. He argues that there are several distinctive features of our time encouraging political hobbyism. First, people have more leisure time including spare moments at work suitable for checking political news and posting on social media. Second, the stakes have not felt high–at least for relatively affluent Americans–in recent decades. Certainly not compared to the Depression, World War II, or Cold War eras when political participation was dominated by the sense of imminent threats. Third, politics in the Internet era is relatively open to amateur participation. It’s an easy hobby to pick up.

Hersh makes an especially interesting argument about who is most likely to take up politics as a hobby. In general, hobbies can be compensatory–requiring skills very different from your day job–or cathartic, requiring the same skills as your day job but with lower stakes and easier rewards. Hersh thinks politics serves mainly as a cathartic hobby for white-collar types who work with words and ideas. “A person who takes a strong position without knowing the facts could be fired in a professional setting but faces no real consequences if engaged in political hobbyism. This is a core reason why politics can be enjoyable.”

If you want to increase political participation, you might read this paper and think the answer is to embrace hobbyism and attract more people to the game. Hersh is pessimistic about increasing interest in politics in general. He cites the research of Markus Prior, who finds that “political interest is extraordinarily stable over time, within individuals and within countries.” It does not rise around elections; rather it seems to be a disposition adopted early in one’s life.

Moreover, hobbyism seems like a dangerous way to motivate our interest in politics. It lowers the stakes. It severs repercussions from actions. There’s no obligation to do the tedious work of showing up. Hersh notes a parallel to research on religious organization, where “communities typically are stronger where religions are stricter and more demanding of adherents’ time.” It seems plausible to me that political hobbyism is actual worse than political apathy because the natural human impulse to form teams and defeat enemies encourages polarization.

Fortunately, I don’t believe that hobbyism is the only way to motivate interest in politics. I plan to read Prior’s forthcoming book on political interest, but I think there is plenty of historical evidence for people adopting self-interested politics even if they didn’t grow up as political enthusiasts. Labor movements seem like a classic example, whether in the early 2oth century under Eugene Debs or the contemporary Fight for $15 campaign. Such self-interested approaches to politics might just take more threatening, crisis-like conditions than we have appreciated.

The Darwin of Political Theory

I stumbled across The Discovery of Chance, Aileen Kelly’s new biography of Alexander Herzen, in this NYRB article. I had only vaguely  heard of Herzen, but I like reading about Russian intellectuals. The main reason I decided to check it out, though, was the reviewer’s mention of Isaiah Berlin’s fondness for Herzen. Though Herzen was a committed reformer, Berlin praised his “deep distrust (something that most of his allies did not share) of all general formulae as such…and…of the great, official historical goals—progress, liberty, equality, national unity, historic rights, human solidarity—principles and slogans in the name of which men had been, and doubtless would soon again be, violated and slaughtered.” Such a skepticism of grand ideals and formulae has struck me as the characteristic element of Berlin’s own writing; see friend of the blog Joe Carlsmith arguing as much in this essay. It seemed that Herzen might be an important addition to my personal pantheon of pragmatic utopians.

Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) was an aristocrat, writer, exiled publisher of the “Free Russian Press” in London, supporter of serfs and of agricultural collectivism, and “the founder of Russian socialism.” He has been a tough figure to pin down because he has no single most famous book, no pithy ideology, and no clear political affiliation. In his own life, he quarreled with every other significant camp of Russian intellectuals: Westernizers who wanted to emulate European liberal democracy, Slavophiles with their mystical belief in the superiority of the Russian spirit, and radicals who wanted violent revolution. That Lenin adopted him as a forerunner of the Bolshevik Revolution further clouded his reputation in the 20th century. In this new book, Kelly argues that no one besides Isaiah Berlin has gotten Herzen right. But she also goes further and shows that Herzen’s pragmatism (I think that’s the best word for it, even though Kelly does not label Herzen, anachronistically, as a pragmatist) was indebted to his interest in natural science and the burgeoning understanding of evolution.

The central political question for most of Herzen’s life was: how should Russia become modern? He and his aristocratic friends read French, German, and English books and followed the growth of parliamentary government on the continent. Tsarism was obviously backward and autocratic by comparison, especially when the Decembrist revolt was crushed in 1825. So it was understandable that many of Herzen’s contemporaries thought Russia needed to copy Europe. Herzen disagreed. He refused to believe that there could be only one path to progress. In particular, he was wary of bourgeois property ownership and instead romanticized the communal ownership found in Russian peasant villages (I learned that not all peasants were serfs pre-abolition; some villages were entirely free). Herzen hoped that Enlightenment wisdom might meld with the unique Russian legacy of collective ownership and form a new version of modernity better than the West’s. “Socialism” was a catch-all term for him; it referred broadly to making reforms in pursuit of a more egalitarian political economy. This deliberate vagueness seems distinctive of Herzen’s approach; he was careful not to elevate any ideology to religious heights. He bemoaned our tendency to subject ourselves to moral authorities of our own creation: “There is no universally valid idea from which man has not woven a rope to bind his own feet, and if possible, the feet of others as well…Humans are eternally on their knees before one or the other–the golden calf or the duty imposed from outside.”

Herzen’s enduring insight is that human societies evolve, making use of whatever materials are at hand, but without any ideal end in sight. This might sound straightforward today, but it was somewhat radical in the mid-19th century. Not only was it a far more religious time, it was also high time for utopian thinking, from Saint-Simon to Robert Owen to Marx. Nonetheless, in intellectual history, no idea comes from out of the blue. Much of Kelly’s book is spent reconstructing thinkers who influenced Herzen. I think it’s difficult to get a well-rounded picture of most of these intellectuals from potted histories, especially when much of the emphasis on their contrast with Herzen, but Kelly successfully piqued my interest in learning more about several of them.

Two that stand out are Ludwig Feuerbach and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach argues that the God of monotheism and several demigods of philosophy–Spinoza’s “substance”, Kant’s “reason”, Fichte’s “absolute ego”, Schelling’s “absolute identity”, and Hegel’s “absolute mind” are all “objectifications of man’s essential nature which he projects onto a transcendent Other.” This is what inspires Herzen to say that “humans are eternally on their knees” to either God or ideology.

Proudhon seems to have been the thinker most similar to Herzen in the way he viewed socialism. He famously said that “Property is exploitation of the weak by the strong; Communism is exploitation of the strong by the weak.” His proposed third way–“mutualism”–would entail cooperative associations somewhat similar to Herzen’s peasant communes. In some circles, Proudhon is best known as the target of Marx’s polemic The Poverty of Philosophy. But from what I’ve seen, Proudhon came out on top in many of their exchanges. In a letter to Marx he wrote: “For God’s sake, when we have demolished all a priori dogmas, do not let us think of indoctrinating the people in our turn…Let us not set ourselves up as apostles of a new religion.” Kelly praises Proudhon for “facing up to the contingency of his own most central beliefs and desires” and in this light dubs him “a liberal ironist” in Richard Rorty’s mold. This was, as far as I could tell, the closest Kelly comes to an explicit recognition of the link between her subject and pragmatism.

Kelly’s greatest contribution is in pointing to an unappreciated influence on Herzen, perhaps the most important of all: the brand new science of evolutionary biology. Herzen’s previous biographers had mostly skipped over his university years, when he studied biology, thinking it irrelevant to his political efforts. Herzen was an avid student of biodiversity, especially the work of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who argued against Carl Linneaus’s view of an orderly taxonomy in favor of a more chaotic view of the similarities and differences between species. Herzen also admired the naturalist Georges Cuvier, known as the father of paleontology, who figured out the historical fact of animal extinction and argued that there is no pattern of increasing perfection within the taxonomy of species. These views were radical relative to religious dogma of the time, but even Cuvier could not bring himself to acknowledge that one species might transform into another.

Herzen’s first serious essays, during university and after, were about the relationship between natural and human history. Well before the publication of The Origin of Species, Herzen was committed to the idea that social evolution is the nearly random product of countless tiny influences, that there is no grand design. Here is one remarkable passage in full, from his book of essays From The Other Shore (1847-1851):

In nature, as in the souls of men, there slumber countless forces and possibilities, under suitable conditions they develop…or they may fall by the wayside, take a new direction, stop, collapse. The death of one man is no less absurd than the end of the whole human race. Who guaranteed the immortality of a planet? It will be as little able to survive a revolution in the solar system as the genius of Socrates could the hemlock…On the whole, nature is perfectly indifferent to the result. She, having buried the whole human race, will lovingly begin all over again, with monstrous ferns and reptiles half a league long, probably with certain improvements suggested by new surroundings, new conditions.

Not until 1871 in The Descent of Man would Darwin spell out the most heretical implication of his work, that humans descended from apes. But there twenty years earlier Herzen confidently states that the human race is not cosmically special and its future is not guaranteed. But this is hardly a pessimistic philosophy. For Herzen, the opposite of predestination is opportunity. He later wrote,”Both nature and history are going nowhere, and therefore they are ready to go anywhere they are directed, if this is possible – that is, if nothing obstructs them.” The political opportunities of his own lifetime did not turn out as he hoped; he was burned by the violent failure of revolutions in 1848 and of the Polish uprising, which he reluctantly supported, in 1863. Writing from exile in London, Herzen and his newspaper The Bell were instrumental in pressuring the tsar to free the serfs, but he grew disappointed that the now-free peasants seemed less interested in politics than he had hoped.

I hope it’s clear from this brief portrait how misleading it was for Lenin to claim Herzen as the father of Russian socialism, especially in any way that drew equivalence between the 1840s and 1917. Herzen is important not for any specific political institution he invented, supported, or opposed, but rather for his general worldview on history and progress themselves. I wonder if John Dewey or other American pragmatists were aware of Herzen. Also, the connection between biological and social evolution in Herzen’s thought makes me think of the under-explored similarities between pragmatism and transhumanism. Nick Bostrom uses the word “pragmatism” in its colloquial sense in this piece on transhumanist values, but I think there’s a deeper historical connection to draw out. Perhaps you did not know that (arguably) the first transhumanists were Russian cosmists, only one degree of separation away from Herzen via Tolstoy…

Monday Links 3/13

Links I liked last week:

1. Against nutrition dogma
This episode of the Invest Like the Best podcast with Peter Attia was the best health-related thing I’ve heard or read in months, even better than the Gary Taubes sugar stuff (although reaching some similar conclusions). Attia is a doctor who is obsessed with extending human lifespan and healthspan (the period of life in which you are active). He’s a close friend of Tim Ferriss, so you might recognize a similar style of experimentation on the border between known science and speculation. But I will say that of all the quacks promoting nutrition tips and life-hacks, Attia seems the most knowledgeable about the state of research. Some topics I found exciting and plan to research further: muscle mass is important because it disposes of glucose and helps keep your glucose levels stable (Attia does continuous glucose monitoring); rapamycin, an mTOR inhibitor, might be a miracle drug that slows the aging process (at least in mice and flies); Attia thinks intermittent fasting (like not eating before 2pm) is more useful than caloric restriction for those who want to lose weight. Also here is Attia sharing a soft tissue preparation and stretching routine for use before exercising. In general, I find it strange that my knowledge of nutrition and exercise has barely progressed beyond whatever the conventional wisdom was ten years ago.

2. Against Hamilton
Back around the peak of Hamilton’s popularity, I saw a few think pieces arguing that Hamilton the man doesn’t deserve the admiration he has received. The most recent entry into that contrarian canon, Matt Stoller’s essay in The Baffler, is the most convincing I’ve seen. Stoller’s main points are that Hamilton did not believe in democracy, fought mainly for the interests of financiers, supported a near mutiny of joint creditor and military interests against the Continental Congress, and tried to create a partisan army where only Federalists could be officers. Plus, how about a revisionist history of the Whiskey Rebellion were the rebels were the good guys! Looking to the present, Stoller sees the plutocratic tendency in American politics originating with Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t deserve the blame for misreading the history so much as Ron Chernow does; Stoller and other academic historians I’ve spoken to dismiss Chernow’s work as hagiography. I think it’s possible to believe that Hamilton was a dangerous figure and that the musical is still great. Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) was, after all, the best character.

3. Against political correctness

William Deresiewicz, long-time gadfly of elite higher education, fires his latest salvo against political correctness on college campuses. I feel like I have more disclaimers and prefaces to lay out than comments on the piece. One, elite colleges are mostly irrelevant in the broader scheme of “normal” higher education. Two, college students have always done things that older people find objectionable, and we definitely spend too much time talking about campus controversies. Three, the interesting implications of this “political correctness” argument have little to do with the Charles Murray incident at Middlebury or other tests of “free speech”; the interesting part, as I see it, has to do with everyday life in a homogeneously liberal community. Deresiewicz argues that elite colleges are essentially religious schools, where the religion is the belief system of the liberal elite: “They possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted.” He shares stories of his own (liberal) students who have learned to keep their mouths shut when they suspect their opinion might be controversial. I imagine most of us can relate.

I think this is unfortunate. It’s not the worst thing in the world; it’s certainly less bad than many other features of our society like widespread racism and sexism. But I reject one common version of this conversation where people say we can only address one of these problems at a time. Deresiewicz suggests making private schools more like public schools, where diversity of opinion seems to follow other kinds of diversity. And of course the value of more diverse communities runs all the way back to childhood: “When different kinds of people grow up together, rather than being introduced to one another under artificial conditions in young adulthood, they learn to talk and play and study together honestly and unselfconsciously—which means, for adolescents, often frankly and roughly—without feeling that they have to tiptoe around sensitivities that are frequently created by the situation itself.”

4. Against everything
Just because. On Ivan Illich, who will merit a longer post from me.

5. From Medusa to Merkel
The classical historian Mary Beard has an essay about women in power from antiquity to Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. There is a narrative out there that the classical world had more room for women than ours does, but Beard argues that the Amazons, Lysistrata, Athena, and Medusa were all used in service of anti-feminist arguments about the danger and unnaturalness of women’s power. I hadn’t realized how many memes emerged with Trump superimposed on Perseus holding the decapitated head of Clinton/Medusa. How might things get better? You’ve probably seen those rankings of countries by the share of parliament seats held by women, but Beard wants to complicate our understanding of what power should mean for women. “You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means above all thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.”

6. Why did the Middle East fall behind?
Economic historian Jared Rubin discusses why the Middle East fell behind Europe after the 10th century or so. This is a huge topic, but this blog post is a nice entry point to get acquainted with some of the important arguments. Rubin mostly reviews his own argument from a new book as well as that of Timur Kuran, who wrote maybe the leading book on the topic. Both Rubin and Kuran focus on Islamic law, which they argue served Middle Eastern societies extremely well in the 7th-9th century but did not adapt well for more modern commerce. Traditional Islamic law introduced a structure for business partnerships that was more advanced than anything in the Roman world or Medieval Europe, but these partnerships had flaws (from our modern perspective), such as automatically dissolving upon the death of any partner. Kuran argues that partnerships in the Middle East remained small well after joint stock companies and the modern corporation emerged in Europe. Rubin takes up where Kuran leaves off and asks: well, why didn’t anyone change these laws after the 10th century? His answer is that “rulers relied heavily on the religious elite for legitimacy” and were unwilling to intruding on clerics’ authority over commercial law for the sake of business development. And now we’re back to Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic. Weber actually wrote about Islam too, though I haven’t read it. Here’s a 2011 New Yorker review essay which mentions the Kuran book, disagrees with the idea that Islam has much to do with economic stagnation in the modern Middle East, but doesn’t really address the historical argument.

Pragmatic Utopia #25: Women’s Day & Obamacare Repeal in Historical Perspective

This week, you might have spent some time thinking about the Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare and about International Women’s Day. I did, especially as I saw echoes and lessons related to both in the book I was reading, Theda Skocpol’s Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy. I’ll focus mostly on the aspects of the book related to current events, but first I’ll give some background.

At the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg in 1913, Union and Confederate veterans shake hands.

In the history of American social policy, the big, ever-present question is: why the U.S. doesn’t have a comprehensive welfare state like so many European countries do? Skocpol set out to write a book about this, and started off by researching the decades prior to the New Deal looking for clues as to why Social Security didn’t end up more generous or why universal healthcare never happened. What she stumbled upon, though, was evidence of a proto-welfare state in a period (pre-New Deal) when nobody thinks there was one. So the focus of the book shifted. She told the story of why Civil War veterans and widowed mothers got pensions, and why “regular” working men didn’t. The short story is that veterans and widows were seen as helpless, deserving recipients while working men were expected to provide for their families through wages alone. The longer story entails a theoretical move, which Skocpol calls a “polity-centered approach,” which explains the success of various interest groups based on the “fit” between their structure and the structure of the relevant government bodies. I’ll only be able to get into this theory as it applies to the examples below, but I hope to write more about it later.

Pensions for Union veterans were the most significant welfare state policy in the 19th century. In reading about them, I found myself thinking about how government benefits programs work in general, with direct relevance to Obamacare and perhaps relevance to the basic income debate down the road. One lesson–and there are many other examples of this–is that benefits programs don’t get taken away; if anything they tend to balloon over time. During the Civil War itself, Congress made arrangements to pay injured soldiers a pension. A benefits schedule dictated what you could get paid based on the extent of your injuries, with distinctions down to a missing finger versus a thumb. In 1877, Congress created a process for veterans to dispute the amount they had or had not received in prior years and apply for back payments. This quickly became the dominant activity in federal politics. In one session of the Senate, “private” pension bills–those adding a specific list of names to the pension rolls–accounted for the majority of bills passed.

The corrupt, patronage-oriented nature of 19th century politics is crucial  to understanding why pensions became so all-consuming. Skocpol, drawing on Theodore Lowi’s framework, says politics in this era was fundamentally distributive–oriented around giving out goodies–rather than regulatory or redistributive. So favorable treatment of pension applications (even fraudulent ones) could win votes. This became even more relevant after 1890, when pension eligibility was opened up to all veterans–not just those who were injured–and their dependents. Middle- and upper-class people, especially those interested in government reform, saw abuse of the pension system as the greatest sin of the whole Gilded Age. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, switched parties from Republican to Democrat because he was so disgusted by kickbacks being laundered through pensions (the pensions, as I discussed two weeks ago, were purely an instrument of the Northern/Midwestern Republican machine. Confederate veterans got almost nothing.).

And so here is the second lesson: even when a benefits program has too many beneficiaries to ever die, it can make so many enemies that no future reforms will be possible. In Skocpol’s telling, Progressive Era intellectuals failed to unite behind old-age or disability insurance for workers because the veterans pension experience had soured them on the idea of cash transfers. The notion of policy “lock-in” goes in two directions, then: the original program can never die, but if it’s too polarizing, nothing else can ever be born.

Skocpol contrasts the failure of the movement for federal workers’ pensions with the success of a campaign to provide pensions to widowed mothers. After rejecting the vision of a paternalistic welfare state, the nation installed a maternalistic one. In this section of the book I learned a lot about the history of women-centered social movements, and about the conditions for political movement success more generally. The place to start is to remind you what I’d forgotten: most of the really important social policy movements (or at least the successful ones) between, say, 1870 and 1920 were led by women. Temperance. Child labor laws. Settlement houses. Work hour restrictions. It’s an impressive list, especially for a political bloc that didn’t even have the right to vote.

Or maybe that’s less ironic than it seems. Skocpol argues that not having the franchise actually helped women’s groups (a) focus their energies on long-term visions of reform rather than short-term spoils and horse-trading; (b) articulate a unified agenda of “women’s interests” rather than splitting along party lines; and (c) and frame their interests as rooted in morality (feminine virtue, guardians of morality, etc.) rather than politics. Where men engaged in the distributive politics of the 19th century, women looked ahead to the redistributive and regulatory politics of the 20th century. It’s a brilliant argument, especially thanks to the initial shock value. Of course Skocpol approves of suffrage, but she was brave and original enough to point out that there are costs to being a voter, especially in a relatively dysfunctional political system.

The second lesson from the successful women’s movements of the Progressive Era is the importance of matching your movement infrastructure to the political institutions you are trying to persuade. Here, Skocpol contrasts women’s groups like the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) and Congress of Mothers (which later became the PTA) with the main group of Progressive intellectuals pushing for benefits for working men: the American Association of Labor Legislation (AALL). The AALL was a relatively elitist East Coast group lacking a strong relationship with unions and other workers’ groups in the states. It tried to exert influence on the national press, national politicians, and the federal judges who kept striking down labor protection laws. The women’s groups, on the other hand, had a more federal structure with affiliates in each state. These affiliates lobbied state legislatures to pass laws: in particular, laws allowing localities to give pensions to mothers and laws setting a maximum eight hour workday for women.  Skocpol argues that  elite, educated women were able to get on the same page with local women’s groups around the country (i.e., unlike the AALL and local labour groups) because “motherhood” / “womanhood” was a common identity across class lines. The upside of essentialism?

I see two weak points in Skocpol’s argument about the divergent success of Progressive women and Progressive men. First, on the topic of widows’ pensions, it doesn’t seem that there was ever much opposition to this policy from businesspeople. That, after all, was the perpetual enemy for Progressive attempts to protect workers. A second frequent obstacle was the courts. The women’s clubs successfully lobbied their state legislatures for laws restricting a woman’s workday to eight hours, but so did men; the difference is that only one of the two was ruled unconstitutional. In Lochner v. New York (1905), the Supreme Court ruled a maximum hour law unconstitutional for breaching “freedom of contract.” But in Muller v. Oregon (1908), the Court allowed a similar law just for women on the grounds that women had unique health needs. This latter outcome seems less an organizational coup than a product of the moralistic double standard women enjoyed(?) at the time.

These lessons from the achievements of Progressive women might strike you as a little troubling. The point about building a federal, state-based organization when state governments have authority is all well and good. But the idea about removing one’s group from the short-term incentives of electoral politics is harder to swallow. And the notion that women could win better treatment by playing up sexist stereotypes of vulnerability seems past its expiration date. Skocpol acknowledges this point in her conclusion, but sounds a note of regret that modern women have been so fully subsumed into party polarization that there is no cross-cutting feminist constituency (except in the pro-choice movement, which Skocpol seems to discount as a subset of party polarization).  It’s an ongoing question, I think, to what extent the feminist movement in American politics is coterminous with the Democratic Party. In our system, it’s hard for any issue movement not to get lumped inside one party or the other. The alternative, by the way, is not limited to courting Republican women; it might also be about leading Democrat and independent men to prioritize new issues. I’d be interested to hear what you think the future of feminist politics should be.

Jeff’s Blog #24: Pragmatism and Patriotism

In the weeks before the election and immediately after, a passage from the philosopher Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th Century America went viral. The passage seemed to predict the circumstances of Donald Trump’s rise in eerie detail. You can check out the excerpt here, but it includes “At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for” and “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.” Rorty’s argument aligns with a narrative I’ve explored in several posts: that in the second half of the last century, the Democratic Party abandoned workers. I’m not going to re-litigate that argument in this particular post, though it’s striking to see, in Rorty’s case, this isn’t just an argument liberals make after we lose elections.

Rorty’s prescient prediction is the hook, but it was actually only the fourth or fifth most interesting section of this brilliant, very short book. I’d like to focus instead on his views on patriotism, civic religion, and the attitude of the American Left. As an academic, Rorty is known for reviving pragmatism, the distinctively American school of philosophy created by C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. I expect to write about pragmatism several times in the coming weeks and months, and in some sense this is a weird place to start: at the end. This book is basically Rorty’s take on what kind of patriotism pragmatism demands, so it’s many miles downstream from the foundational tenets of the philosophy. But I view it as sort of a teaser. This book gets me (and hopefully you) excited about the payoff of pragmatism, which I expect will make learning the old stuff more rewarding. For now, the main thing to know is that pragmatism denies the idea of objective truth or the idea that it is possible for your thoughts to mirror external ‘reality.’ Instead of mirroring the truth, then, thoughts are valuable for what they make possible.

Should people on the Left be proud or ashamed of America? That is the divide to which Rorty addresses Achieving Our Country. Part of the leftist mindset is our awareness of the plentiful material for shame. This is a country built on slave labor and stolen land, a nation of forgetful immigrants always ready to shut out the next round of arrivals. Rorty dates leftist pessimism to the Vietnam War, which seems about right, if only for white people. But there is more than one way to respond to a sober reckoning with our history. The title of the book comes from James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. It comes soon after Baldwin considers Elijah Muhammad’s worldview: hateful and vengeful toward whites, convinced that black supremacy offers the only shot at redemption. Baldwin empathizes but disagrees. “In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation…we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” Rorty sides with Baldwin out of pragmatism. He says stories about a nation are not attempts at accurate identification or truth-telling; they are attempts to forge a moral identity. “National pride is like self-respect: a necessary condition for improvement.”

Rorty fears that modern Leftists have lost their national pride, but he has a suggestion for where to find it: in the writing of his two intellectual heroes, Walt Whitman and John Dewey. In both writers, Rorty sees a secularism that seeks to replace God with civic religion. Both wanted a struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle. He thinks both treated ‘America’ as shorthand for a new conception of the human condition “in which nothing save freely achieved consensus among human beings has any authority at all.” The word ‘nothing’ in this sentence is a rejection of the idea that political philosophy can provide us with a fixed goal to strive towards: not ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ or ‘tradition’ except insofar as people decide those are good things to pursue. Whitman and Dewey draw on Hegel’s idea of historically situated progress, but they use it as inspiration for discovering new, unforeseen futures rather an as a prediction, as Marx used it, of one particular preordained future. Whitman said “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Rorty emphasizes that this comment is about the act of creation: “Other nations thought of themselves as hymns to the glory of God. We redefine God as our future selves.”

This section helped clarify a nagging observation I’ve had for some while, namely that American conservatism is a more intellectual movement than American liberalism. And I think this is true: from William F. Buckley to the Chicago School economists to Bork and Scalia to the modern “reformocons” like Ross Douthat and Yuval Levin, conservatism has a firmer set of enduring intellectual principles about what kind of society they want. But reading Rorty, a lightbulb went off: of course progressives don’t have corresponding principles, because progressive political philosophy is fundamentally pragmatic. It’s about continually discovering new and better ways of living together. The difference goes all the way down to epistemology, if you want to trace it that far. In our huge diverse society, people have different experiences of reality and there can be no appeal to objective truth that will work for everyone. For a pragmatic progressive, the point of democratic institutions is to gain empathy about each other’s lives and widen the range of consensus about how things “really are.”

The second section of Achieving Our Country is about the history of the Left. Rorty’s main goal is to convince us to abandon the distinction between ideologically pure leftists and conciliatory liberals. This is something I’ve been pondering for several months whenever I go on Twitter. Instigated in part by the Clinton-Sanders primary, there is a subsection of political Twitter that is an ongoing war between these two camps. The leftists argue for socialism and accuse the liberals of being corporate shills; the liberals defend Obama and Hillary Clinton’s policies and accuse the leftists of being immature Bernie bros. I am wary of false equivalences and get the sense that more of the animosity comes from the leftists, but this could well be an artifact of the specific people I follow. My stance as an observer is that while I tend to side closer to the leftist policy analysis, I see nothing but goodwill and reasonable ideas on the liberal side and am totally unsympathetic to the internecine fighting. So naturally I appreciate Rorty’s view. He thinks Marxism has been very damaging to the American Left because it, like many ideologies, demands purity tests and the condemnation of the “reactionary.” Assuming that nationalizing the means of production is the only way to social justice is the antithesis of pragmatism.

Instead, Rorty sees common ground in what you might call “reform liberalism,” or continuous tinkering and experimentation to expand economic justice. He thinks we could tell a more coherent story of American history that takes pride in such moments of reform: adding the Pullman strike, Eugene Debs, and the Wagner Act to the pantheon with Selma and Stonewall. Young people should learn labor history and leftist history and see their own lives as the next chapter in an ongoing fight for justice. You might recognize Barack Obama’s rhetoric in these ideas, and I think Rorty would have approved of the lack of determinism in Obama’s recurring line: “Progress isn’t guaranteed. It’s not inevitable. It’s something that has to be fought for.” Some leftists (and I) have criticized Obama’s view of American history as unjustifiably rosy and hopeful, but for the pragmatist, as I’ve discussed, national stories are not attempts at retrospective truth but efforts to shape the future.

After concluding his diagnosis of the Left’s failure to put economic justice front and center with the spooky Trump prediction, Rorty turns to some slightly more theoretical matters regarding the role of philosophy and literature in politics. This is foremost a warning about the dangers of reading Foucault and other post-structuralist philosophers. Writing in the 1990s when French theory was at the height of its popularity in American academia, Rorty was understandably more concerned than we should be now. He sees, in Foucault, a justification for the pessimism that haunts the Left, the spectre of capitalism, patriarchy, and other forms of power around every corner. The way Foucault writes about power (it’s everywhere, and resistance only legitimizes it) reminds Rorty of Satan and original sin. “The Foucauldian academic Left in contemporary America is exactly the sort of Left that the oligarchy dreams of: a Left whose members are so busy unmasking the present that they have no time to discuss what laws need to be passed in order to create a better future.” I think Foucault has tremendous insights, but I agree that he is useless for political activism. And from what I’ve observed of the “academic Left,” I’m not worried that my colleagues are paralyzed by pessimism either.

What I found most useful in this section was Rorty’s argument for using literature instead of philosophy to motivate our politics. Philosophy provides grand frameworks in which we can contextualize our lives; it is, in a sense, “monotheistic.” Literature is polytheistic in that it requires us to internalize and tolerate oppositions; it recontextualizes what we previously thought we knew rather than being contextualized by our frameworks. Here Rorty provides a compelling justification for a literary canon: literature deserves to be called great, says a pragmatist, if and only if it inspires many readers. The point of a canon is to suggest to younger readers where they can find hope and inspiration. He says literature can only resist the colonizing efforts of philosophy if literary critics think of it as Harold Bloom does: “as having nothing to do with eternity, knowledge, or stability, and everything to do with futurity and hope.”

Perhaps the idea that most stuck with me from Achieving Our Country was Walt Whitman’s conclusion on the requirements for national greatness, which he reached after reading Mill’s On Liberty. First, a nation needs “a large variety of character,” or a diverse populace. This is the equivalent of a vast artistic palette in Whitman’s conception of a nation as the simultaneous process and product of creation. Second, it needs “full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” This is what you do with the palette. “Full play” requires the careful cultivation of laws and norms to encourage experimentation in art, business, and political institutions. This conception of the core activity of a nation strikes me as directly related to the conception of the meaning of life found in Finite and Infinite Games, which I wrote about a little while ago. Infinite games are not goal-oriented; they seek no particular end; they are about the joy of play. But don’t mistake infinitude for anarchy; the idea is that you need constraints to encourage creativity (examples include cell membranes and neighborhood boundaries a la Pattern Language, as this essay discusses). I think the infinite games idea deserves to be added to the pragmatism canon alongside Dewey, Whitman, and Rorty. I am very interested in writing that explores the rules and institutions that encourage “full play” in a society. In some sense this is the foundation of my interest in law.