Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, December 2012
Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.
- Tamim Ansary, Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan
- A history of the country from the beginning of the Durrani state in the
1700s to the present day, emphasizing the internal dynamics of the country, and
how these have interacted with the designs of rival great powers. In
particular, the rulers of the Afghan state have always had to be something of
an interface between the largely-rural mass of the country (and the rural
elites), and those same great powers. Ansary is very good at giving the Afghan
point of view in a manner accessible to American readers — or rather, as he
makes plain, an Afghan point of view, that of urbanized and
westernized educated professionals, who still nonetheless have ties to the old
world of the "village republics". His writing is clear and fast-paced, mingles
sympathy with irony (describing the
Abdurrahman when a boy of twelve or thirteen: "any fellow who can kill a
man just to see if his gun works is going to prove useful to someone"), free of
cant, and informed by good scholarship without being scholastic. It's the best
introduction to Afghan history for a general American audience I've seen, and I
hope it's widely read.
- Disclaimer: My grandfather and Ansary's father were friends, so
he's a family connection.
- — An
essay by Ansary about writing the book.
- Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga
- Mind candy.
- Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy
- A short, repetitious, impassioned book with an important point. Over
roughly the last 30 years, the US has seen a huge expansion of what Mettler
calls "the submerged state", whereby the government pays people, or
non-governmental actors (e.g., private firms or charities), to do things, often
to do things that in other places or other times would be directly performed by
the government. Sometimes the payment is direct, and sometimes it takes the
form of tax breaks. (From the viewpoint of the public budget, money not
received because of such tax breaks has to be made up somehow, so such "tax
expenditures" have to count as spending.) What follows from this?
Put this together, and you have a recipe for using the government as an agency
for upwards redistribution, especially towards particular interest groups which
will entrench themselves, in ways which will make it very hard for citizens to
notice, or for the consequences to be changed. Though I didn't notice Mettler
referencing any of the "public choice" literature, or
Olson, it's very much an application of similar ideas to criticizing US
policy from the (very slightly) left, as opposed to the usual public choice
to the right of Attila the Hun.
- The extra layers of indirection make it hard for citizens to know what,
exactly, their government is doing, which is bad on just about any view of
democracy. Whether you want to think of democracy as being about public
accountability, or popular sovereignty,
or problem-solving, deliberately obscuring what the
government is doing is not good. (It's cutting feedback channels, or at least
filling them with noise and distortion.)
- The indirection hides just how much the government intervenes in many
sectors, such as health care (subsidized through not taxing employer-provided
medical insurance), real estate (through not taxing home mortgage interest),
and even the arts (through not taxing charitable donations). Many
beneficiaries of the submerged state do not think of themselves as engaging
with a government program at all*. Even if one thinks that the state should
play a minimal role in the economy, this is not really getting there.
- The benefits of the "submerged state" tend to be much more tilted towards
the already rich and powerful than are direct forms of social provision,
especially through the use of tax breaks. Experimentally, as Mettler shows,
when you tell Americans about who benefits from things like the mortgage
interest deduction, support for them goes way down.
- Indirect provision tends to create interest groups of middle-men, for whom
the particular organs of the submerged state are not remote and hazy, but real
and vivid parts of their livelihood. Any change to their particular
tax break or provision is accordingly watched, and lobbied, with great concern.
- As I said, this is a short book, but still repetitious, and the writing is
not going to set anyone on fire**. But the message is important and sound, and
"the submerged state" is a handy phrase.
- — After writing this up, I
Farrell post on this, which points
own summary in The Washington Monthly.
- *: I reproduce in modified form Mettler's table 2.1,
which gives "Percentage of Beneficiaries of Specific Programs Who Report that They 'Have Not Used a Government Social Program' ". The first, italicized programs are among her prime examples of "the submerged state".
(Mettler reports to tenths of a percent. Since the total sample size was only
1370, I don't believe that third digit, and have rounded accordingly, but kept
her ordering.) — While something clearly very odd is going on when a
quarter of those who say they have used food stamps also say they've never used
a government social program, it is a different odd thing than 60% of
the beneficiaries of the home mortgage deduction saying they haven't.
|Program ||"No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program" (%)
|529 or Coverdell Tax-Deferred Savings ||64
|Home Mortgage Interest Deduction ||60
|HOPE or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit ||60
|Student Loans ||53
|Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit ||52
|Earned Income Tax Credit ||47
|Social Security — Retirement and Survivors ||44
|Pell Grants ||43
|Unemployment Insurance ||43
|Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) ||42
|G.I. Bill ||40
|Head Start ||37
|Social Security Disability ||29
|SSI—Supplemental Security Income ||28
|Welfare/Public Assistance ||27
|Government Subsidized Housing ||27
|Food Stamps ||25
- **: Though most of it avoids the spectacular
mixture of metaphors on p. 4, where, within the space of a paragraph, Obama
"steers" his policy agenda into the "looming precipice of the submerged state",
submerged precipice is simultaneously a "thicket" and some sort of machine.
It's the closest to "the Fascist octopus has sung its swan-song" that I have
ever seen from a non-student. — Update: Since people
are writing in with much worse manglings of metaphors from
Brooks and even
Moustache of Understanding
Friedman, which I had mercifully forgotten, I withdraw my remarks.
S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton
- Portrait of the transcendent genius as a deeply unpleasant man. (Hooke,
Leibniz, and Bernoulli do not end up looking much better.) Reading the key
chapters, on what Newton actually did to make himself immortal,
requires some grasp of analytic and Euclidean geometry, calculus, and classical
mechanics. Also some knowledge of what alchemy was about, and for that matter
the religious disputes of NW Europe circa 1700, would be helpful. With that,
it's a great picture of a truly incredible mind.
- Remark 1: Westfall is convincing that Newton, after an early infatuation
with "the mechanical philosophy" of Descartes et al., tried very hard indeed to
create a quantitative and experimental but non-mechanical natural
philosophy. The whole point of his saying "I frame no hypotheses" about where
the inverse square law comes from was to not present a picture of
a clockwork universe. The mechanical philosophers got this once
the Principia came out, and objected accordingly.
- Remark 2: Westfall is also good at how novel it was for Newton to try to
account for phenomena in quantitative detail — e.g., to use universal
gravitation to explain not just why planets orbit the Sun, nor even why they do
so in ellipses obeying Kepler's laws, but also to account for deviations from
those laws. This was a new ideal of explanatory precision and unification, and
in several places in the Principia Newton produced its appearance
only by sharp practice.
- Remark 3: The dominant impression I take away from Westfall's picture of
Cambridge University in Newton's time is that of a sheer waste of financial and
human resources. This wasn't the waste of trying many new things, most of
which fail, nor was the intellectual deadness of most of the fellows exhaustion
after having spent productive years competing for positions (as it sometimes is
in modern academia). It was just a corrupt seeking after sinecures. It's true
that this corruption kept paying Newtown while he worked, even though his
science had nothing to do with the university's mission (and he seems to have
been an awful and negligent teacher, and of course a heretic). One could argue
that one Newton was worth the cost of both English universities, even if they
produced nothing else of value. This feels a little like excusing my breaking
thousands of eggs because somebody took a few of them to make an omelet while I
- Remark 4: The Newton-Leibniz priority dispute, in this telling, seems like
nothing so much as a flame-war conducted with all the speed which
communications c. 1700 allowed, complete with ever-lengthening replies
to replies, and Leibniz using a sock-puppet to pronounce that lurkers support
him in e-mail. Something about communicating through print, with insecure
status hierarchies, perhaps?
- Dennis Tedlock, 2000 Years of Maya Literature
- This anthology runs, as promised, from ancient inscriptions (reproduced)
through astronomical codices to post-Conquest mythic poetry and dramas. Each
chapter begins with an introduction and outline of the piece translates, often
quite lengthy, followed by the text and a facing translation, and then
commentary. Tedlock's text is clear, and while I can't judge the accuracy of
his translations, he seems to be trying very hard; certainly he goes out of his
way to make everything accessible to those with no previous knowledge of Maya
civilization. It's also a gorgeously produced book.
- I have to confess that I was not much moved by the translated writing,
which may have to do with the translator (Tedlock has read a lot in the wrong
sort of literary theorist), or the sheer difficulty of making poetry work in
translation, or perhaps the subject-matter. (Monarchical inscriptions,
astronomical calculations, etc., from ancient times, or ritual drama from the
colonial period, are intrinsically hard sells.) But I learned a lot, and I'm
glad I read it.
- G. E. R. Lloyd, Demystifying Mentalities
- This is a very rich little book which I won't do justice to.
- Fundamentally, Lloyd is attacking the notion that different cultures have
different "mentalities" — that their members think in fundamentally different
ways. The roots of this notion go back to Levy-Bruhl's ideas, around the
beginning of the 20th century, of a pre-logical "primitive" mentality, which
didn't care about contradictions and thought of related things or ideas somehow
"participating" in each other. From there, the idea of multiple distinct
mentalities for multiple societies spread to other anthropologists, to
historians, and even to sociologists. (As Lloyd notes, Levy-Bruhl had some
second thoughts about this.)
- The idea of distinct mentalities tends to get invoked when members of some
ancient or distant society say (or more rarely do) things which an observer
finds extremely puzzling — the classic "apparently irrational belief" of
otherwise-rational people. What Lloyd hammers home is that invoking distinct
and divergent mentalities actually does nothing to explain such phenomena.
What might help is to look at the explicit concepts available to
people — e.g., do they have a clear distinction between literal and
metaphorical statements? — and at the communicative contexts these
statements get made in.
- Lloyd's claim, then, is that members of different societies don't have
different kinds of minds, but rather that different societies give
their members more or less opportunity to employ different, but
universally-present, modes of thought. Social and political contexts,
and patterns of communication, not only preferentially evoke different modes of
thought, they also create opportunities to articulate them, to refine the
conceptual toolkit that goes along with them. In every society, there are
opportunities for arguing and giving reasons, but some societies provide (some
of) their members with more opportunity for this. Some social
contexts encourage doing this adversarially, some more cooperatively; in some
there is a broad audience to persuade, in others there's just one
decision-maker to win over, etc. This will lead to more or less refinement of
different modes of thought, and to more or less self-consciousness about what
is going on.
- To be a little more concrete, Lloyd traces the ancient Greek concerns with
proof and foundations not just to the generally-adversarial aspects of Greek
culture, but also to the wide-spread participation in legal juries and
political assemblies, along with deep ideological divisions over how to run
a polis. The audience of the philosophers and the sophists were
citizens who were very experienced with weighing arguments, who had to be won
over in the mass (and so impersonally), and who had some experience of
quite fundamental and deep disagreements — not to say one-up-man-ship*.
(As an exaggerated slogan: Logic was the child of democracy.) The context for
Chinese philosophy was quite different, and while rhetoric and logic were by no
means completely neglected, the fact that there the goal was always to win over
a monarch channeled energies in very different directions. I find this
argument extremely plausible, but wish he had been able to add ancient India
into the comparison...
- The social psychologists speak of the "fundamental attribution error", the
tendency to over-estimate how much of what someone does stems from the kind
of person they are, and to neglect the kind of situation they
find themselves in. Though Lloyd doesn't put it this way, he's basically
saying that mentalities only seem plausible because we apply the fundamental
attribution error to whole societies.
- *: Lloyd in fact traces explicit distinctions
between myth and history, or myth and reason, and between literal truth and
metaphors, to such one-up-man-ship on the part of ancient rationalists. This
is part of a fascinating discussion on just why so many ancient rationalists,
such as the Hippocratic author
the Sacred Disease, were so much more cogent when attacking
predecessors than supporting their own positions. This is one aspect of the
book I won't do justice to.
- David A. Harris, Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science
- DNA testing very much excepted, most "forensic science"
lacks any basis in
actual science, or even any demonstrated empirical reliability. (This does
not stop, e.g., finger-print examiners at the FBI from saying that finger-print
identification is infallible.) Beyond this, psychologists have spent a lot of
time identfying the ways in which eye-witness testimony can be unreliable, how
the traditional identification line-up encourages false positives, and how
innocent people will confess to serious crimes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there
are now about 250 cases in the US of people who have been convicted of crimes,
and sentenced to execution or life imprisonment, whose innocence has been
established by DNA testing. It doesn't seem possible to extrapolate from this
to a general rate of false convictions, but it seems insane not to try to
improve the standards of evidence in the criminal justice system accordingly.
Yet, with a few exceptions (that Harris celebrates), reforms are
resisted fiercely by police and prosecutors. Mostly, this book is devoted to
documenting, and elaborating on, these themes, along with some suggestions for
reform which could be summarized thus: point to the places where things have
been improved and the sky hasn't fallen; find right-wing sponsors for reforms;
and, bang on the fact that locking up the wrong people leaves the actual
criminals free. This seems weak, and I am not optimistic.
- — Harris elaborates greatly on ideas like "loss aversion" to explain
why police and prosecutors are not eager to give up on unreliable forensic
techniques, switch to blinded sequential line-ups, etc. In this he seems to be
far more subtle than there is any call for. Let me mention three big things he
neglects. (1) Saying that police and prosecutors have been relying on —
have been swearing to — crappy evidence is going to be felt as
an attack on the institutions with which they strongly identify, and often on
them as individuals. Resistance and rejection are very natural defensive
responses. They are not so much intellectual acts (as cognitive dissonance
would suggest) as ways of saying "No, asshole, fuck you!". (2)
Admitting the problem will undermine trust in law enforcement, imperil the
livelihood of the forensic technicians, and open the way for an immense number
of law-suits and claims for re-trials, including many on the part of people who
are actually guilty. (Harris mentions the re-trials issue, but doesn't give it
anywhere near enough weight, it seems to me.) Law enforcement has a massive
direct interest in denying that anything needs to change. (3) At
least some people in law enforcement — I honestly have no idea of how
many — feel that that nobody gets charged with serious crimes unless
they're bad actors. Even if they're not guilty of the particular crime they're
charged with, they're guilty of something, and the rest of us are
better off with them in jail*. Matching crimes to criminals is a legal
fiction, the important thing being punishing undesirables.
- — A further quibble. Harris really dislikes forensic techniques
which rely on the technician making a judgment about matches or comparisons; he
complains they're unobjective and unscientific. Now, I was never very good at
experiments, but even so I put in enough time in physics and chemistry labs to
appreciate how a lot of the skills needed to make scientific apparatus and
procedures work are matters of muscular and perceptual skill, very
hard to articulate, or to pass on other than through demonstration. (It is no
idea of "tacit knowledge" came from an eminent chemist.) It doesn't bother
me that (say) finger-print examiners can't put in words (or math or code) what
makes them say that a match is good. What bothers me is that they can't show
that they aren't making tons and tons of errors when they say that a match is
good, or for that matter when they rule someone out as not matching. What
bothers me even more is that they resist elementary steps to control error,
like having identifications checked by a second examiner who doesn't
know what the first examiner concluded.
- *: I forget who said "spank your children every
day; if you don't know why, they do", and Google is unhelpful.
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur;
Writing for Antiquity;
Commit a Social Science;
The Great Transformation;
The Beloved Republic;
The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts
Posted at December 31, 2012 23:59 | permanent link