Thursday, September 21, 2017

Apparently we haven't learned our lesson yet, because the third ICBW podcast is now available.  We discuss all things free speech-related in part 1, and all things climate-related in part 2.  As always, listeners are encouraged to use the comments feature of this blog to respond as they see fit (within the bounds of basic decency, of course)...

Sunday, August 06, 2017

An internal screed circulated inside Google complaining about its "diversity" policies has generated an enormous amount of noise, both for and against (including by some opponents who seem determined to prove it accurate).  Most interesting to me is the document's claim that dissenting views about these policies are actively suppressed within Google.  As I pointed out a couple of years ago, such suppression is usually a symptom of an unaccountable organization, insulated enough from performance standards that it can be hijacked by political agenda-pushers with impunity.  One wouldn't normally think of Google that way, but in fact it makes almost all its money from its Internet advertising business, and many of its other technologies--employing the majority of its employees--may therefore be developing an unaccountable culture similar to that of nonprofit organizations, where various abstract ideals--including political ones pushed by internal factions for their own reasons--compete to replace the bottom line as the primary decision-making factor.

As for the public reaction to the episode, I'm frankly amazed at the number of people--on both sides of the issue--who seem to think that how Google evaluates its current and prospective engineers is a public policy matter, subject to political approval in the same way as, say, oil pipeline proposals.  One could argue that this is a natural extension of non-discrimination law, which first gradually expanded to include such concepts as "disparate impact", which effectively restricts how employers may evaluate job candidates in the name of achieving racial parity in hiring.  But I can't recall a previous instance where such concepts were applied in a white-collar professional context, where evaluation of talent is so crucial to success.  (Imagine, for instance, if medical practices were required to tailor their hiring and evaluation standards to suit current political conventions.)  I personally don't care whether Google adopts an outstanding, average or catastrophically bad set of hiring criteria for its technical employees.  But I shudder to think what will happen to the US economy if companies in general are forbidden to focus on competence in hiring even for positions requiring advanced skills and training.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The second ICBW podcast is now available for your listening...er...pleasure.  We discuss the latest Washington follies, and wonk out on medical care and "AI risk".  Part one can be found here, and part two here.  As always, readers are welcome to add to the discussion via comments on this post.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

David Brooks' latest column on class in America is typical of his keen social insight, but perhaps most interesting for what it tactfully omits, rather than what it actually says.  Most of the attention has focused on his discussion of the cultural signals that upper-middle-class Americans use to identify themselves--and thus, implicitly, to exclude everyone else--in both social and workplace contexts.  But the column actually begins with a look at how hard America's elite class works to pass its status on to its children, particularly by pouring enormous resources into education.

And that's where the tactful elision comes in.  Historically, aristocracies have always constructed elaborate systems of social signals to distinguish themselves from commoners, for a simple reason:  such signals are far easier to pass on to descendants reliably than the kinds of traits--intelligence, talent, discipline, diligence--that would allow those children to attain elite status based on merit alone.  Consider accent, for instance--long at the core of the British class system's social sorting process.  The most worthless wastrel can be taught a posh accent simply by being raised among others speaking in it, while only a few talented mimics are capable of overcoming a childhood steeped in lower-class argot.  Americans, as it happens, aren't nearly as attuned as the British to the subtleties of speech--most Americans can't pinpoint a countryman's place of birth more precisely than, say, "South" or "not South", let alone his social status, by listening to his accent.  So members of the American elite instead instill class markers in their children based on domains they're more deeply immersed in:  pop culture and politics.

Of course, America's upper-middle class thinks of itself as meritocratic--college-educated, industrious, talented and ambitious.  And that was largely true of the high achievers of the postwar and baby-boom generations, most of whom climbed the ladder of success on their own merits.  But much of today's upper-middle class is third- or fourth-generation, and regression to the mean is an awfully hard trend to combat, even with the best schools and neighborhoods.  And that's why this aristocracy, like the ones before it, is--as Brooks deftly observes--forced to fall back on cultural signals, rather than truly admirable traits, as its class markers.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

What nobody seems to have noticed about this past Friday night's bombshell about a Republican "opposition researcher" trying to obtain the contents of Hillary Clinton's private email server from Russian hackers, while claiming high-level connections in the Trump campaign, is its striking similarity to another recent story about the 2016 election:  that of the so-called "Steele memo".  Consider:
  • Both stories center on a middleman figure of questionable ethics who is nominally independent of a presidential campaign, but in practice clearly associated with it.
  • In both cases, that middleman, seeking to obtain damaging information about the opposing candidate, is happy to reach out to highly dubious sources--even at the cost of being manipulated by Russian intelligence agencies.  (This aspect of the Steele memo is rarely noted, presumably because it is widely assumed that the Russian government was entirely on Trump's side, and therefore uninterested in planting damaging information about him with Westerners.  Even if the first part of that assumption is true--and it's actually a matter of hot debate within the US intelligence community--the value to the Russians of demonstrating an ability to create and control a flow of damaging information about Trump in the event of a Trump victory should be completely obvious.)
  • In both cases, the effort foundered for lack of confirmable information, and yet took on a life of its own later on, with large segments of the press acting exactly as if the operation had in fact been a complete success, and a great deal of verifiable, damaging information obtained.
At this point, there's really no need to belabor the obvious point that the mainstream press has yet again demonstrated itself to be hopelessly partisan, adopting diametrically opposite interpretations of parallel fact patterns in a way that consistently favors the Democrats and harms Republicans.  A more interesting lesson, I think, is the extent to which partisans of both parties treat the rules around "opposition research" as a kind of kabuki theater, in which nominally independent surrogates for the parties handle the unsavory business of digging up dirt on opponents--sometimes by extremely disreputable means--while maintaining only just enough distance to satisfy legal and political obligations. 

In this sense, opposition research is similar to gerrymandering, large-donor fundraising, manipulation of ease or difficulty of voting, and many other seamy aspects of US politics:  partisanship in the US is so strong, and respect for democratic principles so weak, that "fair play" rules--such as the ones that impose limits and transparency on campaign expenditures--are uniformly treated as mere formalities to be circumvented by one's own side, and perhaps occasionally used as legal weapons with which to harass the other side.  Until those attitudes change--an unlikely prospect, given how deep-seated they are in the American body politic--American democracy will no doubt continue to be plagued with its current rampant levels of corruption and dysfunction.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fourteen years ago, I noted that the primary function of high culture has always been to allow society's elite to use their wealth and leisure to distinguish themselves from the "philistines" beneath them on the social ladder.  By using their position to educate themselves in the finer points of high culture, I argued, members of the elite can signal their status to each other, and exclude the less sophisticated from their circle.  I identified Matthew Arnold as one of the early advocates of this use of high culture, but observed that a modernist bohemian variant of it thrived in contemporary America.

Since then, though, a rather odd thing has happened--even odder for the complete lack of notice it's received:  highbrow culture has effectively disappeared from American society.  Magazines like the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker, which were not long ago full of dense book reviews of even denser academic tomes on serious artistic and cultural topics, are now dominated by political screeds and fluffy pop culture roundups.  The self-important urban intellectuals Woody Allen used to lampoon, who once dropped references to great authors and obscure foreign films, now banter about subscription TV series and mass-market movies on Twitter.  And an imploding academia, obsessed with inclusiveness and identity politics, generates its endless stream of impenetrable humanities papers primarily on contemporary politics and pop culture, and not even on modern avant-garde art--let alone the classics.

Although the cause of this collapse is uncertain, I have a hypothesis: that this dumbing-down of intellectual elitism is a natural consequence of the expansion of the elite during the 1990s boom to encompass both the wealthy and the white-collar upper-middle class. An "elite" that encompasses twenty to thirty percent of the population can't possibly distinguish itself by deep cultural erudition, and must inevitably make do with cruder class distinctions, such as tastes in television and preferred pop culture references.  For the "serious" writers and academics who seek to make a living fostering and directing the shared culture of this elite, it is therefore no longer effective to champion obscure, inaccessible artists that their target audience has neither the time nor the inclination to study and appreciate.  Instead, they must focus on the level of cultural knowledge this audience is capable of collectively absorbing:  low-to-middlebrow commentary on low-to-middlebrow fare.

Monday, June 05, 2017

We have a new treat for our readers:  the inaugural ICBW podcast is now available for your listening pleasure (or whatever other emotional response it happens to produce in you).  In part one, found here, LTEC and I cover two topics:  Trump and the current state of the university.  In part two, found here, we discuss the strangely polarized, or tribal, character of modern political thought.  Comments are, as always, welcome.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Henry Farrell's article in Democracy Journal on the British Labour party and its recent Corbyn troubles includes a remarkable omission:  it manages to discuss radical party leader Jeremy's Corbyn's rise in the context of the last several decades' history of internal Labour party politics without even once mentioning the name, "Michael Foot".  In one sense, the omission is understandable--after all, if one wants to blame Corbyn's disastrous ascendance on a series of changes in Labor's procedural rules, as Farrell does, then it's hard to explain how an equally disastrous proto-Corbyn could have risen to party leadership before any of those procedural reforms were enacted (not to mention his being the primary motivation for those reforms in the first place).  But  to someone familiar with the history, Farrell's analysis looks like a textbook case of denial, conjuring up an implausible theory to avoid confronting the deeper issues that have allowed two different unelectable radicals to seize control of the party within 35 years.

These deeper issues stem from an interesting property of the "left" and "right" coalitions I discussed recently in the context of the Trump phenomenon:  their constituent factions are not always in mutually harmonious balance.  At its healthiest, a coalition is a collection of constituencies that are each granted policy primacy in the areas that are their respective priorities.  The so called Reagan coalition, for example, offered law and order and military strength to its white blue-collar constituency, deregulation and tax cuts to its business constituency, and culturally conservative positions to its religious constituency.  The Obama coalition similarly offered identity politics to its minority constituency, cultural liberalism to its young urban constituency, and credentialist, crony-capitalist economic policies to its white-collar professional constituency.

At times of political weakness, however, a coalition can become unbalanced, with defections leaving one core constituency dominant.  This effect can snowball, with activists pushing the coalition farther and farther in the directions favored by its remaining stalwarts, chasing even more members of other constituencies away.  In the early 1960s, for instance, the post-Eisenhower revival of the old New Deal coalition under Kennedy and Johnson reduced the "right" coalition to little more than its business wing, which then promoted arch-libertarian Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination, with disastrous results. 

Similarly, the decline of organized labor in the industrialized world has left the affluent white-collar professional class as by far the dominant political force in the "left" coalition in most countries.  In Britain, when Margaret Thatcher smashed the unions, the Labour party rallied around academic far-leftist Michael Foot; and again today, having lost much of the working class to the populist right, it rallies around far-leftist Jeremy Corbyn.  Whether the "left" coalition in the US, having lost much of its non-minority blue-collar constituency to Donald Trump, will now follow the British Labour party's lead into political radicalism, will be the one of the more interesting political questions of the Trump era.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

It's annual prediction posting time!  On the happy occasion of 2016's end, we first revisit last year's predictions, before launching into next year's...
  • The US economy will stall this year, as trouble abroad (in China, Canada, and other oil-based economies) hurts exports and the Fed's tentative forays into non-zero interest rates burst various mild bubbles in the stock and other asset markets.  The stock market and real estate markets will fall, interest rates will remain very low, and the price of oil will not rebound significantly from its current lows.
As usual, I was early on this one--eight years into the business cycle, another recession is inevitable, but predicting its exact timing is very difficult.  The previous year, I expected it to occur within the subsequent three years, and took a chance on it being in 2016.  Perhaps this will be the year (see below)...
  • Immigrant-related issues will continue to distract the continent from the greater threat of disintegration due to the incoherence of its monetary union.  Hence bailouts of bankrupt southern members will continue as a quid pro quo for cooperation in stemming the flow of Middle Eastern and African migrants.  Meanwhile, rightist, populist, nativist parties will continue to surge across the continent, jettisoning many of the domestic and foreign policies anchored into place by the previously-dominant bureaucracy/union/activist/corporatist coalition.  (Hostility to Israel will of course be one of the few policies to survive the purge.)
My most accurate prediction of the year, I'd say.
  • Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will narrowly win the presidential election over Republican nominee Marco Rubio, with the crucial Republican-vote-diverting assistance of third-party candidate Donald Trump.  However, the Republicans will maintain their Congressional majorities--just barely, in the case of the Senate.
I completely botched my presidential prediction, of course, but I'm in pretty good company in doing so.  And my congressional prediction was spot-on.
  • The stalemate in Syria will continue mostly unchanged, tying down the main pro-Assad participants (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) as well as the anti-Assad ones (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) while the US largely stays on the sidelines.  ISIS will continue to weaken under the pressure of its many enemies, and its big terrorist "successes" of 2015 will be repeated very sparsely if at all.  On the other hand, Israel will find itself increasingly drawn into the fray in support of the Sunni rebel side, as the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah axis intensifies its drive to establish a front along Israel's Golan Heights border with Syria. Finally, the Kurds will once again be in the region's crosshairs, as Iran, Turkey and ISIS all increase their pressure on them, each for its own reasons.  The Obama administration will sit that one out as well, leaving the Kurds in a precarious state.
Generally in the right direction, but a bit off on magnitude.  Russian scorched earth tactics have been more effective against the Syrian rebels, ISIS has managed to generate more terrorist attacks against the West, Israel has been more hands-off in Syria, and the Kurds have been under less pressure, than I predicted.
  • The current "stabbing intifada", consisting mostly of random Palestinians spontaneously attacking random Israelis with knives, will evolve into a complex game in which the Palestinian Authority attempts to carefully calibrate the level of violence so as to keep Hamas and other radical groups occupied without provoking a major Israeli crackdown.  Ultimately this strategy will fail, and at some point Israel, responding to one or more high-casualty attacks, will launch a major "lawn-mowing" operation in the West Bank to round up terrorist organizations hiding out in PA-run areas.  World condemnation will follow, although European vituperation will be milder than usual, as a result of the new terrorist-hostile political environment there, as well as greater Israeli willingness to take active measures to counter European meddling.
The small-scale attacks appear to have eventually subsided, due to some extent to surprisingly effective Israeli countermeasures.  
  • Disney will announce that following the huge success of "Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens", Star Wars Episode 8 will be entitled, "The Force Has Breakfast".
Personally, I like my title better...

And now for this year's shots in the dark:
  • All that stuff I predicted about last year's economy will apply this year.  (Or next year--see above.)  If you object that such a prediction is non-actionable, keep in mind Bernard Baruch's (possibly apocryphal) aphorism:  "I made my money by selling too soon"...
  • The right-wing resurgence in Europe will continue in 2017, with several more countries electing new nationalist, anti-immigration governments.  Brexit negotiations will begin in earnest, but will not complete this year.  Continuing sporadic terror attacks will be joined by increasingly frequent and more severe incidents of nativist violence against immigrants.
  • Donald Trump's first year in office will be very similar to his predecessor's:  lots of "I won" bluster, but very few legislative accomplishments, apart from one or two bipartisan ones driven by Congress with Democratic cooperation.  (The Republicans will not abolish the Senate filibuster, although they'll keep the limitations on it instituted by the previous Democratic Senate.)  Neither Obamacare nor immigration will be addressed legislatively, although many of the Obama administration's executive actions in these areas will be reversed.  Reaction to Trump's usual bombastic pronouncements will be overwhelmingly partisan, and his approval ratings will therefore track his partisan support, which will hover within the 40-50-percent range. 
  • Trump's foreign policy will sound radically different from his predecessor's, but will in practice be similarly quiescent and timid, at least militarily--although thankfully without the open courtship of avowed enemies (with the exception of Putin's Russia) and sabotage against pro-US friends.  For example, despite the new pro-Israel tone, US reaction to the recent anti-Israel UN resolution will be much more muted than the current torrent of threats suggests.  Any funding cuts or formal status changes to the US' UN membership will be confined to ineffective token gestures, and the US embassy will end up not moving to Jerusalem this year. 
  • Both ISIS and the Syrian rebellion will continue to weaken, but will not yet disappear by the end of 2017.  As the Assad regime consolidates its hold, pro-Iranian proxies will be freed up for increased attacks on Israel, and Sunni radicals as well, seeking a less ruthless target, will start turning towards Israel in earnest.  Some minor attacks will occur, to which Israel will respond harshly.  Meanwhile, the corruption investigation against Bibi Netanyahu will take many months to complete, and likely won't be completed by the end of this year.  In any event, ultimately no charges will be laid.
  • Venezuela will collapse further into failed-state status in the Zimbabwe mold, with a corrupt and incompetent government using brute force to suppress opposition amid continuing economic collapse.  Meanwhile, the American opening to Cuba will do nothing for its population's destitution, and economic failure will lead to significant popular unrest in Russia, Iran and Egypt.
  • The next Star Wars film will not be named either "The Force Gets Dressed" or "Rogue Two".
As always, readers are encouraged to add their own predictions as comments on this post.  Until you've tried it, you can't really appreciate the truth of Niels Bohr's aphorism:  "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future"...