April 30, 2019

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2019

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on income policy, the history of ideas, or even conspiracy theories.

Jane Langton, The Transcendental Murder and Dark Nantucket Noon
Favorite mystery novels of my youth, re-read after a lapse of many years with great delight. The device, with Langton's mystery novels, is that the characters get caught up in a setting or institution of high-cultural import, and those artifacts are themselves woven, intelligently and sensitively, into the story. Often, then, these are places lingering over past glories, the preservation of which may be part of the plot. (Here the two foci are, respectively, Concord and the New England Transcendentalists, and Nantucket and Moby Dick.) Like many great mystery novels, these are portraits of social setting as much as stories of cleverness and murder. (The gap between the assumed customs of 1963's The Transcendental Murder, the first book in Langton's series, and even the 1980s when I first read it, let alone today, is in retrospect startling, but quite went over my head as a boy.) Highly recommended to any mystery lover who doesn't require too much gore.
Robert Pinsky, At the Foundling Hospital
Excellent poems, as usual. Pinsky will for me always be the author of "The Figured Wheel", and there are some here in that vein (e.g., "The Foundling Tokens", from which the title comes), but also more elegaic ones. I will permit myself to quote one of the shorter poems in its entirety; "The Robots" would be a bit too predictable for this blog, so let's try "Genesis":
Where was the kiln, what was the clay? What drove the wheel that turned the vessel?

Who started the engine so late at night?
Which was the highway across the hills?

Why did the animal turn on its keeper?
How did the preachers forge the bells?

I drank the shadows, I studied the shell.
I heard the rain and I took the wheel.

(Thanks to Jan Johnson for my copy.)
David Wootton, Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison
Modern social and political thought tends to start from the view point of individuals driven by potentially boundless desires for more, whether more stuff, more fun, or more power. (Hence part of Wootton's title.) This raises the intellectual problem of how to form such unpromising brutes into a society. Turned around, if you're confident of your answer to this question, it suggests all kinds of possibilities for social engineering; that's why Wootton ends with James Madison and the Federalist Papers.
Even people who aren't really comfortable with some of the places this set of ideas leads to find it hard to get away from. This is Wootton's historical account of where that picture came from, and how it developed. It's interesting, well-told, and full of absorbing information (*) and provocative arguments, but necessarily inconclusive.
*: The detail which most blew my mind was about how Christians used to interpret the parable of the Good Samartian.
Anna Merlan, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power
Mostly, this is first-hand reportage on a bunch of different conspiracy theorists, or conspiracist communities. These parts are well-written and engaging journalism, as sympathetic to Merlan's subjects as they warrant, and valuable source material. There are some gestures at broader historical perspectives, which are OK but not special if you've read a lot about conspiracists. (To be fair, I don't think Merlan is claiming originality for these.) There are also some concluding perspectives about the meaning of conspiracy theorizing and its theorists, which I think are actually substantively pretty close to Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", though with just enough change in tone and language that the comparison would irritate both Merland and (the ghost of) Hofstadter.
Finally, the "surprising rise to power" bit means, of course, Trump. He is, as we all know, very free with tossing out claims of conspiracies --- climate change is a Chinese hoax, "the deep state", etc. --- but it's hard to see him as a conspiracy theorist, because he just doesn't have the attention span to work out a theory. Trump has supporters who are very in to elaborating conspiracy theories, most spectacularly QAnon, but it's not clear how much of QAnon is serious and how much is an alternate-realty role-playing game governed by a This Is Not a Game aesthetic. (Or, maybe better yet: it's not clear how many QAnon-followers actually treat it as real, in the pragmatic sense that their beliefs make a difference to their behavior, and how many are effectively treating it as an ARG.)
Edited to add, August 2021: It's still not clear to me how many QAnonists really take it seriously, but clearly more than I hoped.
Disclaimer: I got an advanced reading copy of this book (obviously this review is a bit late...), but I've got no stake in the book's success.
S. A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass
Mind candy historical fantasy: magical-dynastic intrigue among the djinn of the early 1800s, complicated by a Lost Heir being a small-time con-artist from Cairo. It's great and I want to see where Chakraborty is taking this. — Sequel.
Annie Lowrey, Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World
Lowrey is sold (obviously enough from her sub-title), but well-informed and not monomaniacal. She lays out the case for basic incomes fairly and lucidly, with reference to such social science as we have, and honesty about the limitations. If you feel like you only have it in you to read one thing about basic incomes, this is a very good choice. As a market socialist, I am very sympathetic to the basic-income idea, and have proposed something similar. (Lowrey does not, if I recall correctly, consider market socialism in this book, even in John Roemer's version.)
There are, however, three crucial issues which Lowrey's book doesn't really confront. These are the level of the basic income, its scale, and its incidence. Since I see little from other advocates about the first two, and nothing about the third, I will indulge myself by elaborating.
The point about the level goes back to basic bargaining theory. Whenever two agents have some potential gains to cooperation, they need to come to agreement about how those gains will be divided. In this bargaining game, the advantage goes to the agent which will be better off if they don't agree, the agent with the higher "disagreement payoff". If for one party, call them the "boss", the disagreement payoff is "go to the trouble of hiring someone else", but for the other party, the "worker", the disagreement payoff if "starve in the street", well, the bargain is going to favor of the boss. A thousand dollars a month of UBI is (literally, here in Pennsylvania) the poverty line. It would keep body and soul together, it'd improve workers' bargaining positions, but the gate to the kingdom of freedom this is not.
Even then: the US national income per capita is only about 64,000 dollars. So a poverty-level UBI would mean about a sixth of the economy would have to be funneled through this one program. It's not inconceivable, but it'd be about five times the budget of the entire US military and national-security complex, more than twice Social Security, etc. And there's no way all existing social-insurance and poor-relief programs could be eliminated in its favor, not without horrid effects.
Now, Lowery does grapple somewhat with both of these, basically admitting the difficulty but saying moves in the direction of a UBI are worth making. The point which I don't think she really addresses, and I don't recall other advocates addressing, is incidence, i.e., who will actually end up with the money? Put bluntly: why wouldn't every slum-lord in America raise their rent by $1000 a month the day after $1000 monthly UBI is passed? Of course if the land-lords, grocery and convenience stores, used car dealers, gas stations, day care centers, etc., which supply the necessities of low-income life in America all try to grab the whole amount of the UBI, there won't be enough to share, so maybe rents only go up (say) $200 a month. But it's very plausible that those offering low-end goods and services with fairly inelastic demand would just drive up their prices, if they know their customers have that extra money. (Note that direct public provision of certain goods doesn't have this issue.) "Plausible", but not certain; maybe someone has gone through the econometric exercise of trying to work this out, but the uncertainty would necessarily be very large.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Psychoceramica; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Beloved Republic; Writing for Antiquity; The Great Transformation; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; The Dismal Science; The Progressive Forces

Posted at April 30, 2019 23:59 | permanent link

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