Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Reaganland by Rick Perlstein.

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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Perlstein on liberals vs conservatives

 Quick thought about a quote on page 812:

There is a saying: Conservatives seek converts, liberals seek heretics. And: Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.

There's a tension between these but it's a resolvable tension. Regarding the first point, it fits with history: Liberals trace their roots to the Puritans, who had a morality code to enforce, and oh did they enforce it! Conservatives trace their roots to the Scots-Irish, who have preferred revivals and conversions. They sin all the time and oh do they need redemption. Puritans sin, but they do so as blots on uptight perfect lives. They should know better, they know it, and they'll never let anyone forget it. The right, well, they're raisin' hell, ya know? Of course they need redemption. It all fits the history.

(For the record, I still prefer Puritans. I grade papers for a living.)

Of course, when you seek impossible purity you'll never find it, so in order to feel like you found it you'll have to fool yourself, and fools fall in love. And then you'll fall out of love.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

But what has he done?

The Cal State system has announced the selection of a new Chancellor to oversee the 23 campuses. He's been serving as President of CSU Fresno for several years, and if the campus is being run well then one can reasonably suspect that he'll do a decent enough job running the system. So far so good.

The announcement, however, says very little about his professional accomplishments and skills.  They're mentioned, of course. But far more attention goes to his ethnicity (Mexican-American), parentage (single mother), grand-parentage (immigrant grandfather), class background (first-generation college student), and place of origin (California's central valley). So what? Millions of people share these characteristics, and some of them would be great at running a university system while others would be terrible. Is he any good? We don't know.

At this point somebody could say that I'm treating him as a token, presuming that he must be lacking qualifications if they talk about identity, but that's not what I'm presuming. I think it's entirely possible that the CSU press release is doing him a grave disservice. (The CSU is well-known for doing people grave disservices on a daily basis.) Of course, it's also possible that he's an untalented and unaccomplished mediocrity, but that would simply make him utterly typical of CSU administrators. The CSU's untalented and unaccomplished mediocrities come in all sexes, genders, races, colors, etc. I've met pale and male administrators who couldn't manage their way out of a paperbag if handed a scissors and a map. I'm not presuming anything except that he probably reflects the CSU's administrators, and that the CSU PR office is serving him as poorly as the CSU serves everyone else.

And I still want to know what he's actually accomplished. Because, you know, he's just been promoted. It would be nice to know if the new boss is any good.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Interesting take on de Tocqueville

There's so much to say these days, both in the frustrations of my immediate work and the insanity of the wider world. I should probably blog more thoughts and mouth off on Facebook less, but blogging takes more effort. Hence social media slew blogs.

Anyway, today I came across an interesting essay in Areo about victimhood culture and de Tocqueville. de Tocqueville noted that competition in America is intense, and (aside from the richest, who are always secure) the comfortable classes enjoyed less surety than elsewhere, while the poor at least enjoyed a baseline of material comfort assured by a prosperous society that has made certain material conveniences cheap and abundant. The rich and poor being close to each other, they find more ways to compete with each other.

The author goes on to note that this can help explain victimhood culture in America. If you can't easily attain greater strength, why not signal greater vulnerability? Even the comfortable feel more vulnerable than elsewhere (indeed, 19th century British literature describes a secure class that is not noble-born but is essentially trust funders), and it's not like the uncomfortable can easily pull far ahead. So vulnerability is a plausible thing to reach for. The author goes on to note that humans are uniquely vulnerable among animals, a status that is necessary because our strength comes from an extended period of learning skills rather than relying on inborn strength and instinct. It has given us dominance over the planet, but also means that our species is wired to support others during their vulnerable stage.

Our desire to help the vulnerable can be channeled to great good and nobility, but it can also be abused. Like any instinct with a downside, we are wired with a compensating mechanism, in this case a desire to detect cheaters. We want to punish bad faith. So much of the culture war today arises from both an excess of victimhood and a resentful reaction to it. (You can reverse the order of causality if you like but the dynamic remains self-reinforcing.)

One thing I've noted before is that America's elite classes are justly proud of having slain a racist dragon.  Yes, there is still racism, hence I said "a racist dragon" rather than "all racist dragons." But still, a great victory was won, and multiple challenges to the system's authority came directly from racism. The elite classes know that the system's greatest tests have come from these dragons, and it brings out their best instincts. Of course, it also sets certain instincts to high alert, which has both upsides and downsides. We see those downsides in victimhood culture. We see their upsides in the very fact that victimhood culture is disproportionate: If those upsides hadn't won great victories there's be nothing excessive about claims of victimhood. It's an eternal tradeoff between false positives and false negatives. Our system's finest moments have come from confronting the true positives, so it's understandable that it's eager to find positives.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Perlstein on American business

 Just a quick observation from page 204: I've known for a while that mid-size and small businesses are more conservative than big businesses, and I attributed it mostly to the big businesses being more like bureaucracies distant from the founder, while the smaller to medium businesses are closer to their entrepreneurial roots. This is certainly still a factor. But Perlstein makes another point: Bigger businesses often have more exposure to consumers via brands if not direct sales, and rely on the mid-size companies for supply chains. And when mid-size businesses do interact with consumers, the media is often less important than local connections. So there's no need to filter things through a media-friendly liberal lens.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Latest book: Reaganland by Rick Perlstein

 The next book I'll blog about is Reaganland by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein has spent the past 20 years chronicling the rise of the modern American right wing, starting with "Before the Storm", a history of Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. He then wrote "Nixonland" about the 1968 and 1972 elections. After that he wrote "The Invisible Bridge", about Reagan's attempt to secure the GOP nomination in 1976. One common theme in this chronology of the right is that Republicans don't give up like Democrats do.  Look at Nixon losing in 1960. Look at the people who came out of the Goldwater campaign in "Before The Storm" to lead the right in decades to come.  Look at Reagan losing in 1976. The right is determined. They see every defeat as an illustration of why they need to double down, not an illustration of why they need to go to the center. Hence the Democrats are running the quintessential centrist, while Republicans are running a batshit insane Twitter troll.

Perlstein's books are thick, and I doubt I'll deeply analyze everything, but a few stray thoughts from chapter 2:

1) A frequent figure in Perlstein's work is Richard Viguerie, who spent decades perfecting mail-order campaign fundraisers. On page 35 Perlstein notes a lesson that Viguerie got from the leader of YAF (Young Americans for Freedom): Even though they have only 2,000 members, they should like and claim to have 25,000. If the lie is more effective then use the lie.

Democrats lie, of course.  Everyone lies. But mostly I think Democrats try to deny, while Republicans outright invent. I don't say that as disparagingly as you might think. Republicans, much like Keyser Soze, understand that the winner just has to be willing to do what the other guy won't.

2) On page 36, I learned that the right saw the appointment of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State as a betrayal. Kissinger was as Machiavellian as any right-winger, but he was willing to sit down and talk to the USSR, so he wasn't conservative enough. To the right, there's no such thing as too conservative, while to the Democrats moderation is a virtue. And before we mock the right for this, let me note something: Their batshit insane Twitter troll won. Because the right fights.

And as much as I might argue for traditionalism, I also want to be fair, so I don't fight as hard as I should. I pull punches. And this is why traditionalist academics lose: Because we aren't radicals. The progressive educators are radicals. They've got their kool-aid and they know that the only thing better than kool-aid is more kool-aid. We traditionalists lose because we don't fight dirty enough. And the thing about fighting dirty is you don't even have to choose to be dirty. You just have to choose to be relentless and go wherever that implies.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

More thoughts on the restlessness

My main goal is to understand why the people around me want to confer credentials on everyone possible without regard to whether the recipients need, deserve, or, upon introspection, even want what is being thrust upon them. Some of it is the self-interest of credential-givers who need to remain employed, but there are ways to structure our work that would profitably focus on a different balance of quality vs quantity. I read an interesting interview this morning with a bunch of ideas in it, some of which are abhorrent, and thus I will not link to it. But sometimes the people outside of your own value system see things that you cannot see as easily, and this guy said that in the 60's the WASP elites lost their confidence in their own rule. Separate from that, I read some commentary recently on how China and Iran see themselves as civilizations, not mere countries, and something became clear to me about how unworkable America is, and how profoundly sad that is.

The basic problem of human nature is that people can often get ahead if they don't cooperate, so they don't cooperate.  Nobody knows this better than real communists, i.e. people who have actually implemented communism. They try cooperation for about two nanoseconds, then everyone grabs at the same thing rather than waiting for the planner to decide who gets what, so the communists promptly implement a brutal system of control. If you want people following plans rather than pursuing their own agendas within a system of incentives or disincentives, you'll need to control them.

Free market types have an obvious answer: Instead of planners, just base everything on voluntary exchange. You only get what someone is willing to trade with you for. Instead of force there are market incentives. Sounds great, but there's one problem: Somebody will show up and steal. OK, well, then we'll have enforceable property rights.  So force is wrong except when countering wrongful force. Great idea, and I largely agree, but then we run into the problem that two people can't agree on who the rightful owner of something is. Maybe they don't have a clear property deed or undisputed transaction record, or the prior owner died and the will was never clearly written out. Or maybe one of them is just plain lying. So you need an arbitrator to decide which one is right to grab the thing away from the other while pointing a gun and saying "You can't have it!" (Or, God help us, actually squeezing the trigger on the gun.)

So you wind up with authorities and rules, and these things can be used well and sparingly, or be used poorly and frequently, or even used sparingly but poorly. So you need to figure out who should be the authority. And no matter how you dress it up, you're ultimately deciding who has the right to decide when to point guns at someone, when to say "Yep, this guy was right to point a gun", and when to say "Nope, that guy was wrong to point a gun, let's punish him." Of course, "right to decide when..." just begs the question of where the right comes from. Great philosophers and political thinkers have said far more about this than I could hope to say well, but that's the basic problem. The best you can probably hope for is a situation where most people see a benefit in trading without pointing guns or swords or whatever, and the people who carry guns and lock other people up only do so when somebody else really did start the violence or really did steal.

Of course, no system gets it perfectly right. Even the best cops screw up at times, but you hope that the errors are few and far between, and are of the honest sort ("The guy who actually did it looked just like the guy we locked up. I feel terrible about this.") rather than the malicious sort ("My buddy said this guy is a punk so I roughed him up. He had it coming."). So you try to inculcate a sense of duty and honor in the people doing this.

It gets worse: Some of the rules are inevitably going to enrich somebody to somebody else's detriment. Even a simple rule like "The person who owns property upstream can't dump crap into the river because it hurts people downstream" has stakes for both parties, especially since the actual rule will be more like "You can't dump more than X amount of this kind of crap each day." So now there's some calibrated tradeoff between the interests of the person upstream and the person downstream, and there are stakes in that rule no matter where you strike the balance. Or you have a rule like "You can only stable horses in this part of town but not that part" because the horse manure causes sanitation problems. How you zone the horse and no-horse sections of towns has stakes for property owners and renters alike.

So everyone wants to be in charge. It's really good to be king, and it's pretty good to be one of the king's officials. And you have to figure out who gets these positions. And hence we come to the problem of elites and confidence. Everything I said so far was pretty elementary political philosophy: You'll have a hierarchy whether you like it or not. Now we get to the specifics of a particular hierarchy in a particular society.

Historically, the people in charge needed to satisfy 3 basic requirements: Keep the loyalty of the people with swords, strike deals with the people who have enough money to cause trouble or prevent trouble, and keep the public happy enough that they would rather not riot. Many societies have tried many ways to do this, but universal equality has rarely been a problem for them. Sometimes the people of a particular class would see themselves as equal citizens, but the masses rarely enjoyed that level of citizenship.

In a modern western democracy, alas, that's not good enough. So we have democracy. Everyone can vote, and while most of them won't, they elect people who allegedly represent their wishes. (God help us.) Of course, gaining those offices requires campaigning, which requires resources and endorsements, which means intrigue, and where you start off in life affects how likely you are to succeed at that.  Even worse, it doesn't just affect your chances of reaching elected office, it affects your chances of rising to positions of respect and responsibility in the structures of society.  (Duh.) Well, if everyone's supposed to be equal, this is a problem.

In the 60's the WASP elites lost confidence. Ironically, they lost it around the time that they were racking up political and legal victories over the white southern elites.  If anything should legitimize the WASP elites it's a victory over the racists of the south, except that the egalitarian logic called ALL hierarchy into question. And we don't have a good answer for that. We can accept the necessity of decision-makers, but nobody (myself included) wants accidents of birth to be determinative.  Of course, I also don't want southern California to have a fire season, but I don't get to have what I want. We can sand off the rough edges of birth accidents, but we can never completely erase them. Everyone knows this.

But there's a lot of room between "Accept every accident of birth as a fait accompli" and "Work tirelessly to completely erase all effects of birth." How far do you go between those extremes?  How far is enough? Nobody has an answer.  There's no obviously right place to draw a line. And so you eventually get to the point where it's considered grossly politically incorrect for me to say that if you have a bunch of kids with sucky SAT math scores, most of them will probably not do well in physics, even with considerable hand-holding. Yes, yes, there's always "This one person" who defied the odds, but the whole point of odds is that they involve probabilities and averages, and just as some people will be above average some will be below average. The existence of non-zero variance hardly refutes statistical reality.

We lack any ability to say what sort of deviation from perfect equality is acceptable, even in the short-term. It would be one thing if we could say "Look, we should try to lift up people so that even if they themselves can't go as far as they hoped, their kids can." That would frame equality as a journey, not a destination, let alone an instant destination. I would love a goal of "Let's help most people do better than their parents" rather than "Let's help everyone do the same as everyone else."

I'm framing things in extreme forms to get at principles.  Everyone will say that universal A grades are not the goal. But the fact remains that there are some stark realities that people around me deny. We cannot get everyone with a shitty SAT math score to be an accomplished physics student.  Sorry, can't happen. We can get an exceptional subset of them, but we can't make everyone an exception.

But as long as we regard accidents of birth as utterly unacceptable, we have to try the impossible, even if the consequences are predictable.

China and Iran have no such compunctions, and not just because they are ostensibly a People's Republic and an Islamic Republic. Communism is a recent aberration for China. They're proud of being China, which was old when Marx was an infant. And according to the Iranians whom I know, Islam is a "recent" phenomenon in their society, a product of Arab invasions. Their memory goes back much farther than that. Both societies have made great strides in educating their populations, but not because of any modern notions.  While we Americans have lamentably held the descendants of illiterate Scots-Irish border raiders in high esteem (seriously, why?), the Chinese and Iranians have long traditions of learning. They don't need to take in any modern baggage with education, so they don't need to try the impossible.  They just need to build up human capacity, which is a distinct project. 

And while Iran is far more democratic than Americans think, whatever loyalty they have to their far from perfect system is not rooted solely in the extent to which it respects democratic equality.  They desire it, of course, but it's not their sole basis for loyalty. They are a civilization with ancient roots and accomplishments, while we're a society framed around a handful of English cultural strains. I say that with no notion of Anglo-Saxon supremacy; I think England is a perfectly fine civilization by global standards, but far from the top of the heap in a world that has China, Japan, Egypt, Iran, Greece, Rome, Anatolia, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Israel, Mexico, India, etc. The fact is that as much as our gene and skin tones are diverse, we Americans are rooted in English colonists. That's the society our ancestors assimilated into. The Puritans and Quakers were great, but the Cavaliers and Scots-Irish were mistakes.  I feel sorry for the Scots-Irish, but the Cavaliers were beyond contemptible.

We've done a lot since then--rock and roll, moon landings, the internet--but we're still a flash in the pan. We have a sinful past, and while other societies are perfectly capable of shrugging at their sinful pasts (God knows Iran and China have sinned) we don't know how to merely shrug. We either deny it (which inevitably leads people to double down on the racist mistakes), or else we self-flagellate endlessly. It's our Christian nature to do so. Christianity is a great basis for personal growth and redemption, but a society that takes it too far will either sink into denial or self-abuse. I feel terrible writing this, because I am too inquisitive and Christian for denial, too proud of learning to follow the egalitarian project to its utmost absurdity, and too Christian to escape guilt. 

I don't know what will become of us. We've done amazing things, and we will no doubt do more. But I question our stability, because we lack a proper way of answering our guilt or rationalizing our hierarchy. We can never completely undo the sins of history, but we cannot live with them either. But we will do some great things until we finally become undone in one way or another. Our egalitarian commitments will never enable us to accept the inevitability of hierarchy and elites' ability to secure advantages for their offspring. So I will have to continue to hand physics degrees to kids who can't do algebra, to try to wipe away the stain of a past that can never be erased.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Tacitus Book I: AD 14-15

I'm partway through Book I, which covers the political struggles after the death of Caesar Augustus.  One thing that's confusing is how many people have similar names, because everyone has long names/many names, and political families were always marrying, divorcing, remarrying, and adopting kids from other families for political purposes.

Tacitus is a more interesting writer than Plutarch. He's more of a storyteller than an instructor. I decided to read him because I heard that Catherine the Great (late Tsarina of Russia) admired his political insights.  Tacitus definitely understood people. I've particularly enjoyed his treatment of the mutinies in the Roman legions, and the ways in which shrewd commanders suppressed the mutinies. One commander allowed the men to punish mutineers themselves, and did nothing to stop brutality. Tacitus noted that if he had tried to stop them, then he'd be responsible for anything he didn't stop. This way he let the men own the bloodshed, both for good (they have staked their honor on avenging disloyalty) and for bad (the shame of excess is on them, not him). This is a shrewd insight.