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 Merlan 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
- 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;
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