Monthly Archives: December 2016

Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes [Review]

Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes; an odd bit of fanfic based on the Stephenie Meyer original

One emerging theme of my post-election reading has been the importance of deep stories — the sorts of core beliefs, narratives, and faiths that people take for granted. One “deep story” on the Clintonista side was the notion of American progress, an almost cinematic tale of redemption and progress in which Hillary’s narrative would have coincided with a putative feminist triumph. At roughly 8:15 p.m. Eastern time on Election Night, progressives found themselves embracing a darker deep story of the farther left: America as an irredeemable bastion of the forces of reaction, in which every victory for progress is temporary and every activist effort ultimately futile because of the enduring power of—well, it’s hard to say of who, exactly, but “ur-Fascism” will serve as a label for now.

In Twilight of the ElitesChris Hayes supplies what I think is a more accurate, or at least more resonant story: the Betrayal of the Elites. Hayes argues that American institutions, refashioned after the Second World War to accelerate the assimilation of “ethnics”, women, and other minorities, have become a self-perpetuating ring of credentials and connections that betrays their original meritocratic rationale. As US elites have come to believe that they have received all the signs of the meritocratic elect–they went to Harvard; they went to the best grad schools or hedge funds; and their kids do the same–they are ever more affirmed in their belief that they are only enjoying their just desserts. If others have less than they do, well–they shake their heads sadly–perhaps those less fortunate are only receiving what they deserve.

Hayes’s deep story reads like the precise inverse of Hochschild’s deep story, in which rural folks see America as a queue in which Others are getting ahead by stealing their places. For the Elect, how long you’ve served, how loyal you are, how good a parent or a spouse or a neighbor you are–these are irrelevant compared to how good you are, as measured by smarts, earning, or prestige. A member of the Elect would have little sympathy for Hochschild’s line-waiters and their markedly inefficient view of distribution; don’t those at the back of the line understand that they need to retool to compete in the new line economy?

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How difficult should course readings be?

This came up in a Google search of “something hard to do.” It’s vastly harder than what academics pretend is work. 1942 photograph of carpenter at work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee (TVA).  Alfred T. Palmer, Farm Security Administration, 1942.

A friend about to teach his first course texted me the other day to ask, in essence, how hard course readings should be. In particular, when you’re teaching a political science course, should you be willing to assign “best-of-breed” articles to students who might not have the methodological or other technical skills to actually understand them?

There is no good answer to this question, and it depends crucially on two factors:

  • How big is the gulf between students’ preparedness (and willingness to work) and the difficulty of the reading material?
  • How much do you as an instructor plan to work to bridge that gap?

Instructors choosing course materials should be brutally honest with themselves about both questions, but especially the latter, if they care most about students’ ability to get something out of the class–besides, that is, the sheen of “knowingness” that “good” students are adept at performing.

My rule of thumb is that instructors who specialize in a course massively overestimate how familiar students are with their course material. I’ve come to believe that, especially in an introductory course, my baseline shouldn’t be “everyone knows” this or that fact but that “everyone knows” the wrong set of facts–that, in essence, I’m not working with people who have limited knowledge but, instead, with people who might have negative knowledge. The higher up the academic ladder one climbs, the higher the baseline can be, but instructors nevertheless need to always make sure that people they work with have some idea of what a basket is before they launch into Advanced Filigrees of Basket-Weaving. The result of assigning tough articles without the proper support system, however, is to be avoided: glassy-eyed students barely able to pick apart an article–and much less likely to be engaged in subsequent classes.

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Conditional Authority: When Centers Restrain Delegation

Just another day in the life of a state that only appears Weberian.

Attention Conservation Notice: Notes on making U.S. state and political politics legible to international-relations scholars.

Enough about the passing political scene. Let’s talk about something both less, and more, urgent: how do governments arrange their relations with sub- and super-ordinate authority?

Some quick background. There are many reasons to suspect that different arrangements of governance hierarchies offer different advantages and disadvantages. Centralized governments, for instance, can mobilize resources behind a single goal; consider that the North Korean government has been able to develop a nuclear weapons program despite having an economy on par with Kenya’s (by per-capita GDP) or Bosnia (by overall GDP). On the other hand, decentralized governments can pursue a wider variety of goals more efficiently. Splitting a unitary government into many can allow for different communities to have different policy outcomes or credibly commit that one community will not dominate another. Accordingly, real-world governance hierarchies appear in many different forms, from empires (which treat different peripheries differently, allow centers to act autonomously, and hold that centers can ‘invest’ subordinate authorities) to confederacies (in which centers are bound and invested by their subordinates).

These patterns combine and re-combine at many different “levels of analysis”, from internal office organizations (and re-organizations) to different accounts of how American primacy shapes global and regional orders. The rhetorics around such orders often obscure this; witness how many people still believe that ‘anarchy’ distinguishes international politics from domestic political orders, for instance. (What is more anarchic: intra-EU relations or intra-Somalia relations?) Similarly, contestations of hierarchy can obscure (or reveal) true hierarchical rankings, while great powers often have reason to behave as if they were just ordinary states. Accordingly, even though these considerations are a part of ‘international’ life, they remain obscured.

Yet the dynamics of center-periphery relations also remain occluded in the fora in which we should observe them readily. That includes not just relations we normally consider ‘domestic’, as between the federal government and the constituent members of the American Union, but also those we call ‘municipal’, as between a state government and the various local governments within its remit. The arguments for having a state government sponsor (typically many) local governments are manifold, but usually rest on some notion of popular sovereignty, the normative desire to allow distinct communities distinctive policies, a crassly reactionary desire to prevent redistributive or progressive politics, plain rent-seeking, and stealth arguments against democracy (surely one reason to divide school boards from ‘normal’ politics is to prevent Those People from winning elections, whoever Those People may be).

Yet a puzzling phenomenon recurs. Authorities delegated downward, from center to periphery, within U.S. states seems much more contingent than standard static analyses suggests. Why do states grant prerogatives they don’t want local governments to enjoy?

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White Rage, Carol Anderson [Review]

White Rage by Carol Anderson

White Rage by Carol Anderson

Like many people, my reaction to the 2016 election centered around shock and awe — “awe”, that is, in the sense of being present at some force that overwhelmed my senses. Over the past month, I have worked hard to divide my response into answering three questions:

  1. Why did Hillary Clinton lose?
  2. Why did Donald Trump enjoy so much support?
  3. What will a Trump presidency mean for international order and U.S. foreign policy?

The answer to #3 is my day job, and I don’t have much to say–yet–in this space. The answer to #1 is complicated, and the war over campaign strategy and tactics is being waged through leaks, analyses, and Twitter pot-shots. But #2 turns out to be something that many thinkers were well-positioned to deal with.

Carol Anderson’s White Rage is, with Arlie Hochshild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Kathy Cramer’s Politics of Resentment, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash (my mixed review is here) , one of the books I’ve read to answer #2. And note that #2 and #1 are really different questions: even had Trump “only” received 200 electoral votes and 45 percent of the popular vote share, that would still, I think, pose a puzzle.

Anderson’s book, written before Trump’s election, nevertheless provides a “deep story” to explain why Trump could be appealing for many. “The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement,” she writes:

It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up. A formidable array of policy assaults and legal contortions has consistently punished black resilience, black resolve. And all the while, white rage manages to maintain not only the upper hand but also, apparently, the moral high ground. It’s Giuliani chastising black people to fix the problems in their own neighborhoods instead of always scapegoating the police. It’s the endless narratives about a culture of black poverty that devalues education, hard work, family, and ambition.

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Nancy Isenberg, White Trash [Review]

Nancy Isenberg's White Trash.

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

Attention Conservation Notice: An ambitious but sprawling book that, amazingly, silences the people it claims to describe while also doing good work in de-mystifying colonial-era myths.

Class and race intersect in many ways. Until November 8, the most common contemporary invocations of such intersectionality came from the Left to justify and explain the grievances of members of their coalition. Sometime around 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on Election Day’s night, though, the discourse changed radically, and it was suddenly the intersection of Whiteness and Working-Classness that obsessed observers–including myself.

Like many people, I turned to three books implicitly or explicitly on this subject: Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

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Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]


Robin Hanson, The Age of Em

Robin Hanson, The Age of Em

Attention Conservation Notice: Robin Hanson has written a provocative book illuminating the contributions social science can make to understanding the future, even if the details are (amply) debatable.

What will the future look like? Social scientists pay a great deal less attention to this question than they should. There are departments of History, but no departments of Future–nor even a great number of academics whose primary research program explores the future.

There are good reasons for this. All of our evidence about how humans and human societies behave exists in the past (yes, literally all of it). The future, by contrast, may not even occur. Theorizing about the future, then, appears from one direction to look like nothing so much as a modern version of medieval Scholasticism–or, as the demotic version goes, like playing tennis without a net.

But the optimal level of effort to be invested in thinking seriously about the future is not zero, or close to zero. Indeed, it’s interesting that businesses and governments are more likely, not less, to invest resources in trying to estimate at least the parameters within which the near future will take place — for instance, as reflected in the US intelligence community’s Global Trends reports or Bill Gates’s now-forgotten The Road Ahead. More to the point, even though all of our evidence comes from the past, none of us will live there–and (almost) all of us will live in the future.

Robin Hanson’s Age of Em represents a significant intervention in debates about what kind of futures to envision, how to envision those futures, and why we should do so in the first place. Hanson’s future concerns a post-human society within the next 100 to 1,000 years in which whole-brain-scanned humans exist as emulations (or “ems”) within a joint virtual-physical world. Within this civilization, the limits of physics trump the limits of biological life, and ems are able to work and live in a population that expands at rates closer to insects or bacteria than to homo sapiens. As a consequence, the GDP of em-world increases rapidly—doubling every month or so—even as the population heads towards the trillions and wage rates plummet toward subsistence (which, Hanson notes, is the historical regularity within human societies over time and for most life-forms generally).

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The Starbucks Curse: A Research Design Thought Experiment


The face of a stone cold killer.

Answering research questions is one of the hardest and most valuable skills we can impart to students. But we often do this by teaching good research design–demonstrating the ideal, illustrating it with examples of designs that approximate the ideal, and then inviting students to imagine their own ideal research designs.

There are many pedagogical benefits to this method, but it overlooks a central fact: good research design is rare for good reasons.

People, including students and faculty, live in a world in which truth-claims are supported by research designs that wouldn’t pass muster with even the most generous reviewers. We can do a much better service by pointing out how to make a bad research design.

I present one here: The Starbucks Curse.

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