...Archive for December 2023

October, November

As I have been for a while, I’m mostly blogging at drafts.interfluidity.com, posting occasional “round ups” here. Like this one!

It’s an awkward way to run a railroad. I am working on new infrastructures through which I hope to mend my shattered digital self, and to restore more of the interactivity that used to come with comments. But I am slow. For now, if you use RSS — the internet’s original and still best social network! (Thanks Dave!) — you can follow all of my several blogs here.

Please feel encouraged to use the comment section of this post to discuss any of the posts excerpted below (or anything else).

If you’d like to interact, I’m active on mastodon, and host live office hours weekly, Fridays at 3:30 PM US Eastern / 12:30 PM US Pacific. You are welcome to drop by.

Here are excerpts of what I’ve written October and November, in reverse chronological order. Do read the whole things!

From Obama was the most destructive political figure of my lifetime (2023-11-30):

[Y]ou discredit even the best of your ideals when you sell your coalition out. That’s the heart of it. Obama inherited a financial crisis that represented the market system itself working desperately to course-correct, to undo some of the concentration of wealth and power three decades of bad policy and exuberant malinvestment had engendered. “My administration,” he told the bankers, “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” The public, pitchforks in hand, observed just that.

People who had voted for Obama, who had placed their hopes and dreams in his soaring rhetoric, his promise of change, were left devastated. White midwesterners became so-called Obama-to-Trump voters. They understandably perceived the “progressivism” for which Obama was hope-poster-child to be a sham, a shell game, a self-congratulatory exercise by a class of people who disdain them, exclude them, pretend to help them even while they prey upon them, mock and of course deplore them for the slightest transgression of their pieties. The less white part of the Obama coalition, a Black middle class which seemed briefly, finally, to be joining an American Dream of building wealth through homeownership, was decimated by the Obama presidency. The very same disillusionment that drove the white working class to Trump brought a renaissance of the muscular racial politics of the 1970s, renarrated through the kind of ideas that thrive in academia because their cleverness and radicalness and intentionally obscured simplicity render them useful for persuading colleagues and students that you are cool and worthy of tenure. The “Progressive left” (Yglesias’ “Lizard People”) and downscale MAGA voters are polarized now into enemy camps, but they are sisters and brothers sprung from the same seed.

From How rights make wrongs (2023-11-15):

Sanctimonious application of a human rights regime laden with internal tensions and contradictions guarantees that eventually some rights will give way. Maximalists can credibly condemn any proposed compromise as an illegitimate abrogation of rights, and so forestall any action they dislike that might reduce the tensions.

The predictable effect is that some of these rights will give way all at once, in a crisis, provoking what will correctly be perceived as a terrible injustice to one or both of the parties.

From Pluralism or magnanimity? (2023-11-13):

Freddie deBoer likes to mock a “progressive tendency to act as though every political question has already long been settled and its answer obvious to all good people”. One example of this, I think, is to make demands for human rights as though they can simply be provided, as if to will the end is sufficient to create the means.

Securing peaceful coexistence — let alone productive coordination — between human communities that perceive themselves as having distinct identities is the most persistent, recurrent, and vexing problem in all of human history. You can universal-declaration anything you want. Ratification by the UN that a good should exist does not will the good into existence. If you want a social good actually to obtain, you will have to attend carefully to means, and accept that, in practice, you will have to navigate contradictions and trade offs between the goods that you desire.

The absolute language of rights — “inalienable”, “universal” — and its obverse, the rhetoric of condemnation, make thinking clearly about these tradeoffs difficult. A tradition rooted in the prevention of extermination may in practice help to provoke extermination, as the language of rights takes compromise off the table, and the rhetoric of condemnation becomes a sanctified form of dehumanization.

From The bad war, like all the wars (2023-11-07):

World War II — or rather our misremembering of it — has dangerously distorted our understanding of human affairs… [D]espite the carpetbombing of Dresden and the burning of Tokyo and the two atom bombs, we came out of that war with a notion that it had been “worth it”, that the good guys had defeated the bad guys.

War is never worth it. World War II was perhaps the single worst event in all human history.

War is crime.

There are times when crime is necessary. I would steal bread to feed my child, but I would still become a thief. I would take up arms to defend my country, but I would still become a murderer. Whenever crime is necessary, there has been a profound social failure. The work, the main work to which the human spirit is devoted, organizing ourselves for mutual survival and prosperity, has collapsed.

From Price rationing (2023-10-19):

[W]hen industries are competitive, supply tends to be price elastic, because producers fear that if they raise prices very much, competitors capable of expanding production will undercut us and gain market share at our expense.

But under monopoly, supply tends to be price inelastic. From a producer’s perspective, the very sweetest outcome is when you can get more profit by simply raising prices, without incurring the costs and hassles of new production. (Hat tip Steve Roth!) Further, price elasticity requires that suppliers produce inefficiently, in a static and narrow sense. Firms have to invest in capacity that under current price and demand conditions will be “slack”. If no new demand materializes, that investment will be wasted.

So, without the discipline imposed by rivals who threaten to steal market share, monopolies tend to optimize for current or narrowly foreseeable market conditions. While they may be unprepared for them, they are very glad to be surprised by positive demand shocks. Sure, they will be unable to actually meet that demand at current prices. But they will enjoy the jump in prices by which they ration the insufficient level of production they are prepared to manage.

From The rhetoric of condemnation (2023-10-17):

I find the way people use “war crimes” and “genocide” to be lazy and evasive of the actual questions that need to be answered in order to address the situations that provoke those accusations.

To be very clear, I am not to in any way exonerating, defending, minimizing the many atrocities that attract those labels. They are reprehensible actions that anyone ought to find abhorrent. But those atrocities occur in the context of histories and unfolding events for which “just don’t do that” is nowhere near a sufficient answer. Speakers often use the accusations to place themselves on the side of virtue and the accused on the side of evil, without owning up to the consequences they would require of those they admonish.

Whatever some treaty or document held up as “international law” does or does not say about the matter is immaterial. Situations actually need to be addressed, and “international law” as it stands is far from being a system to which states or nonstate actors could simply agree to conform and then expect that their rights and vital interests will be protected.

There are disputes. They have to be addressed with solutions that antagonists can be persuaded at least to live with. Until such solutions are found, there will be conflict. When the terms of conflict create conditions in which the alternative to war crimes is unacceptable to any or all the parties, then war crimes will be committed.

From National self-determination is a vicious idea (2023-10-13):

“The Jews” do not have a right to national self-determination. “The Palestinians” do not have a right to national self-determination. Neither “Ukrainians” nor “Russians” nor “Estonians” nor “Chinese” have a right to national self-determination. There is no group or tribe called “the Americans” who have a right of national self-determination. There was no such thing as “the Germans” when Bismarck began to unite the state that is now Germany, which is not Austria or Denmark or Switzerland or Holland despite historical and ethnolinguistic entanglements.

“National self-determination” is a stupid, vicious, pernicious idea. It should be counted among the most destructive ideas in all of human history. The conceit that there are a priori nations to which some set of rights and dignities must inhere even at the cost of violent struggle pits human against human in the name of fabricated, ever shifting flags. However powerfully our emotions may become mixed up with these identities, they merit no moral deference. People engage in violence on behalf of sports teams. Their passions may be deep and sincere. But those United for Manchester have no right of self determination that justifies defiance of the laws of their state.

Nation is a flame that burns hot and fickle. It offers no foundation upon which to build a humane and peaceful world. Modernity is not built of or on behalf of nations. Modernity is built upon sovereign states.

Without an effective state, no one has any right to anything except death, sooner or later. The rest of us should stop fanning any party’s stupid self righteousness and do whatever we can to help them all choose later, much much later.