Review of Don Herzog’s Cunning (from May 26, 2006)

On the surface, this book seems to be in the genre of cultural history, the history of an idea (Machiavellian maneuvering). But wait a minute! Isn’t Machiavellian maneuvering a timeless fact of life for us humans? Isn’t the idea of a history of cunning as odd as the idea of a history of sexuality? There’s the rub. It turns out that how we think about cheats and scoundrels has a history, and one can’t quite view it in the same way again once this comes to light. More: not only do our assumptions about scoundrelhood reflect a history, but they don’t stand up to critical scrutiny (the author’s beautiful final story of the gulled murderer at the end illustrates this, but I don’t want to spoil it for you by explaining it here). More: dubious assumptions about scoundrelhood are lurking in the deep background of how slews of people today think about rational choice, philosophy of social science, and the nature of morality, and though the author does not lean heavily on this point, if the reader is aware of what, say, economists think rational self-interest is, the implications of the critical history of scoundrelhood for all kinds of projects is quietly devastating. This agenda, if it is his agenda, sneaks up on you in the course of what you might think is just a really fun sequence of anecdota, revealing him as a stealth philosopher. The stealth philosopher seems also revealed in the very quiet undercurrent of insistence that we rethink our assumptions about morality, selfishness and deceit, and acknowledge them, and human life more generally, as the cussedly complex, theory-defying things that they are. Yet this touches the reader on a more intimate level–are you sure you are a good person? How do we draw the boundaries between dupe and knave? Can we? The author provides no answers, only lots of really uncomfortable questions. Last but not least, all of this is presented in one of the most delightfully wicked, jazzy, clever, fun prose styles I have ever encountered. There is a kind of brilliantly improvisational quality to the book which makes it a joy to read. The better to sneak up on you with its deeper concerns, sowing seeds of doubt that we know what rationality and irrationality, honesty and deceit, good and evil, really are. How very cunning.

What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Say it again.

Well, Pakistan may be killing our soldiers in Afghanistan, but at least they didn’t give nuclear weapons technologies to Iran and North Korea. Oh, wait, they did. Well, at least they share our values: massive social, economic and political inequality, intermittent military dictatorship, Islamic extremism. They say you always fight the last war. In this case, we seem to unconsciously think that we need Pakistan as a crucial ally in our struggle with the Soviet Union. Except that there is no Soviet Union.

The Bush Doctrine was to treat states that supported terrorism as agents who act through terrorism. The line from 9/11 to Al-Qaeda to ISI was clear enough for those purposes even then, even if destroying Manhattan was never Pakistan’s policy. So our response was to invade Iraq, and give Pakistan billions of dollars? And our “anti-war” president continues this policy of supporting Pakistan while battling its proxy? If I want to vote in the next presidential election for the “we won’t be snookered by our so-called allies who bleed us literally and figuratively” which party do I vote for?

Posner’s A Failure of Capitalism (from June 7, 2009)

There is a puzzling mismatch between the content and the purpose of this book. Posner insists that it is the market, not the government, that is essentially to blame. He then goes out of his way to show that low interest rates (set by the Fed, a part of the government) induced rational actors in the market to create the bubble. Though he mentions a variety of other factors, this seem to be the principal factor. So this is a very helpful book if you actually read it, because he seems to have analyzed the situation correctly. But this makes it all the more perplexing that he calls this a failure of capitalism. The only explanations for this oddity that I can think of is that he thinks of the Fed as a market participant, which of course it is in a sense, or that he calls “capitalism” the total system which includes all the markets and their participants and the government structures that sustain and regulate them. The problem with the former is obvious, since the Fed is more appropriately thought of as a market structurer, not as a participant; the problem with the latter is that the polemical tone of the title and matching passages within makes no sense if he means “what caused the system to collapse was… the system, collapsing.” If one can read past this pervasive oddity (explained, ultimately, I think, by Posner’s hostility to the current Republican Party and an unwillingness to be perceived as giving in at all to a demonizing the government line that might associate him with them) it is a useful book for non-specialists, simply because the party lines we are getting from both parties are so wide of the mark (the Democrats’ time honored target is “greed” [Wall Street] and the Republicans’ time honored target is “compassion” [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac]). Until people begin to grasp that the great inflation fighter Alan Greenspan panicked in the face of the dot.com bust and decided to stimulate the economy with low interest rates, thus making mortgage borrowing overly attractive and creating the bubble, we will not begin to grasp what the Austrians have understood for decades: the unmanageability of fiat money.

Review of Regional Orders At Century’s Dawn (from February 18, 2008)

Solingen tackles the question of the causes of war in the late 20th and early 21st century by comparing the empirical evidence for competing international relations research programs (realism, democratic peace hypothesis) with her own view, which proves to be not only surprising and intuitively compelling, but well supported by the facts. Briefly, she argues that there are two basic strategies for dealing with globalization (emergence of strong, extensive international markets): embrace or resist. Both strategies have self-interested factions within their polities competing with each other for control of the state. Coalitions which embrace international markets find that they have cooperating partners in adjacent states with similar motives, and a preponderance of states controlled by such coalitions in a region leads to peace. By contrast, coalitions with self-interested reasons for resisting trade tend to be aligned with military interests (and the ideological groups that support them: secular and religious nationalists) that regard their counterparts in adjacent states as competitors rather than cooperators. Consequently, regions in which trade resistance dominates tend to be regions of war. Solingen’s surprising claim is that the degree to which democracy takes hold is irrelevant, thus refuting in advance a central theme of Bush administration policy.

The themes of self-interested coalitions, and fundamental choices to compete or cooperate, lend the book an overall “game-theoretic” flavor. And yet the book is wonderfully clear and non-technical. Though her “economics explains politics” methodology sounds vaguely Marxian, (and perhaps discounts the role of culture too much, as the “nationalist-confessional coalitions” need some sense of communal identity rooted in history to organize themselves around), her implicitly classical liberal emphasis on the virtue of markets to bring peace and prosperity, rather than violence and exploitation, is anything but. One of the best books I’ve read in the past decade.

The Mars Trilogy (from Sept. 10, 2006)

I came to the series shortly after Red Mars was released and have lived with these books for the better part of a decade. Though the characters are not fascinatingly quirky or psychologically exotic, they all seem as real to me now as people in my life. But the most important sense of realism is the place. Robinson has made Mars live in an utterly convincing way. It is not a fantasy environment, as in Bradbury, nor a mere setting for hard SF antics. It has a sense of place. It is a world, in the fullest sense of the word. Not only has he created the experience of being in this world, but he awakened in me a powerful desire to actually do so. It is sad that I won’t live to see it.

The sense of place that Robinson conveys seems to have its roots in a genuine love of another place: California. Robinson is a Californian whose evident love for wild and barren landscapes haunts every page and comes from the center of his being. Perhaps as a Californian myself, I immediately “got” his love for nature at its driest, and it is this experience which underlies his clever inversion of the Reds and the Greens in the book (the Reds have an almost Heideggerian love of Mars in its unspoiled and hence lifeless state; the Greens are the pro-life, pro-technology terraformers). There are many books with an ecological message, but the Robinson effect is subtler: after reading him, you notice landscape, your embeddedness in it and dependence on it without having to be told what to do about it. I am more “green” (in our sense) for having read it, and never once felt preached at.

Also Californian is Robinson’s affection for ramshackle utopianism of all stripes: it is not so important whose vision is the correct one as it is that there be a discussion and contest of visions. The setting, a New World in which (for a time) anything will be possible, makes these kinds of discussions inevitable. Robinson’s progressive politics (rare for hard SF) is less a matter of critique and more a matter of stressing the open-ended, possibility-rich character of human experience. I don’t doubt that volume seventeen would have to have been “Hopelessly Corrupt and Bureaucratic Mars” either. But this is beside the point, which is to show that a central part of being human is deciding how we are to live, and this is something we do together. While mostly disagreeing with Robinson’s politics (utopianism must also be tempered with pragmatism lest it become violent and destructive) this didn’t bother me in the slightest–if anything I came away respecting certain positions more than I did coming in.

This is a very very slow read, with very little action and very loose plotting. If the idea of making friends with some very interesting people and spending a few years with them in a desert appeals to you, read it. If you don’t have the patience for that, this is not for you. For me personally, the Mars trilogy was an unforgettable experience.

What We Are

The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and garlands.
And it was their habit towards the festival’s end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that hardly any of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remembered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia.
But how they’d fallen now, how they’d changed,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.

–Constantine P. Cavafy

Quinian Political Science, Davidsonian Politics

Why is it that politics is as it is?

According to the Quine-Duhem thesis, theory is always underdetermined by data, that is, for any finite set of empirical data, there will always be more than one possible theory compatible with it. Even if we are good Viennese and eschew theories which do not entail observational consequences, no set of observational consequences ever entail a unique theory. At most they can conflict with some theories. Quine also noted that even in the face of anomalous observation reports, we may choose reasonably to hang on to the theory and discard the observation. Consider in this light the status of miracle reports, ESP reports, alien abduction reports, etc.

If all this is true even about domains which are quite orderly and susceptible to controlled experiment, how much more must it be the case with attempts to understand political reality? And yet political judgment is often made on the basis of large-scale hypotheses about how the social world works. The data will be at most suggestive, contrary data will be available but dismissible (yes, I am analogizing your political opponents to alien abductees), and controlled experiment in any serious sense impossible.

There is nothing wrong with interpreting the political world in terms of supportable, plausible hypotheses, even hypotheses that operate in a sweeping way. I doubt that we can avoid doing this: human beings need orientation beyond that which is strictly necessary for finding their way around their immediate environment. But in light of the preceding epistemic reflections, humility is in order. Indeed, humility will always be in order.

However, in the case of politics, how we interpret the world affects how we divide up resources, power and prestige. This opens the door to both wishful thinking and dishonesty. In principle, and happily, the inevitable existence of a multiplicity of views due to the above should keep one honest. But this is only true if we take what the other says seriously as a genuinely possible version of political reality. But now underdetermination of theory by data imposes a second burden on us: we must form “theories” about what the other is saying and why. Quine and Davidson pointed out that when we do this, in certain kinds of cases, the evidence that the other is uttering a falsehood may be equally good evidence that the listener has a false theory of the meaning of what the other is saying. One of the central constraints on effective interpretation, then, is to start from the assumption that what the other is saying, whatever it may be, is true. This, of course, will inevitably mean “true by my lights.” In short, we must be charitable in interpreting if we are to understand.

But in politics, to assume that what the opponent says is true is the last thing you want to do. It is tantamount to conceding defeat, or even, of changing sides. There is very little to be gained by trying to understand the opponent in a way that can be seen in public (though of course something to be gained by understanding the opponent well enough to outmaneuver him or her). So enlightened self-interest conflicts with the needs of communication.

Much of Continental philosophy is inspired by, or grapples with, what has been called “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” the exemplars here being Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. In all three cases, the distinction between surface and depth is the difference between apparently clear meaning and hidden interests embedded in conflicts. Our politics has become a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion. Yet it is worth noting that the prospects of getting even at surface meaning will be daunting enough–getting at what the “real” meaning is may be close to impossible, and insisting on engaging only with it runs the risk of engaging in a fantasy. At some limit, this is madness, quite literal madness. Its name is paranoia.

When an individual believes that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, he is being victimized by forces beyond his control, constructs an elaborate and difficult to prove false interpretation of social reality  that is consistent with that belief and some but not all of the available evidence, and regards those who suggest alternative hypotheses as either naive fools or secretly complicit villains, we call that “illness.” When 30% of the population eggs him on and tells him he’s essentially correct, we call it “Tea Party” or “Daily Kos.”