Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Boingboing kindly covers our ears

Had a pretty interesting experience over at boingboing's bulletin board a couple of weeks ago. Full disclosure, the experience ends with me getting banned, but so it goes sometimes.

What I found interesting was the norms of the conversation. I am a longtimer on the Internets. I first tooled around on the Internet about the same time as the world wide web came into being. I distinctly remember the www as pretty much a text-based (not graphics-based) realm. I was there when Mosaic first came out. I saw the usenet rise and fall under a blizzard of spam.

Long before that I did a wee bit of coding (BASIC and Pascal, which, bizarrely, I still get to use) and floated around on the periphery of real hacker circles. But anyhow, I've been around the virtual block a time or two.

The Internet I am used to, and the one I thought boingboing was built up from, had free expression as a more-or-less central tenet. It was a dearly held belief that being able to say what you thought was, ultimately, a good thing for the conversation and a good thing for everyone involved, even if what you thought was wrong or misguided or looked down upon.

Now I know all about the controversies that have swirled around the notions of civility and anonymity and abuse on the internet. There have been and usually are some pretty bad abuses of free expression on the Internet. But those have not outweighed the upside of having freewheeling discussions where people are willing to argue for unpopular points of view.

Boingboing's bulletin board has taken a decided swing away from these values. The board is moderated with a pretty heavy hand, with many sorts of expression, such as insults, racism, sexism and "being annoying" being at least supposedly banned. Effectively this gives the moderators a great deal of latitude to pretty much ban anyone they don't like. And they exercise this power pretty freely.

In an ideal world this would lead to a more civil and more enlightening discussion. But at boingboing this is not the case.

For instance, compare any conversation on the boingboing bulletin board with, say, a controversial topic on scienceblogs. On scienceblogs commenters have a great deal more latitude. Does that make for a less enlightening and interesting discussion?

The answer is pretty clear--take a look at a pretty contentious conversation at scienceblogs versus the struggle to articulate an alternative to the consensus at boingboing. Granted, the race issue brings out people who really just want to express aggression and not think, but there is a complete failure on the part of the moderators to see that that tendency toward aggression exists on both the contrarian and the consensus sides.

In those boingboing comments, anyone who questions the merit of the cartoon that is the subject of the post, or who questions the terminology used is either outright called a racist or faces statements that are more or less "I'm not calling you a racist, but anyone who would say what you just said must be a racist."

Such statements are blithely ignored by the moderator. As are stock PC putdowns like "manslaining." But if you (redundantly) call the person who says these things a self-righteous jackass you pretty much immediately get banned.

Oddly, many of these folks seem to have completely forgotten where they first heard about things like "white privilege" and "manslaining." When I brought up the academic origins of these terms there were howls of denial . . . perhaps folks don't realize that many of these terms were coined & first propagated in academic papers, but I really find it difficult to believe that even people who have completely assimilated such notions don't remember that they first heard them and used them at school.

But what is most surprising is how boingboing, which I'd always thought of as as strong defender of the benefits of free expression, has embraced the tightly controlled model of classroom speech and has grown intolerant of anything like give-and-take on sensitive issues like this one. I don't think it benefits anyone. Not those who now don't have to be offended by someone who dares to disagree with what passes for consensus in their circles. Not those unprivileged who are supposedly being protected. Not those who might want to actually think about the issues surrounding race and how they might best be articualted. Not boingboing.

Sunday, March 08, 2015


I am reading an old book at the moment: Paul Krugman's Pop Internationalism. I often find that "in the moment" books like this one (Pop Internationalism's moment is probably 1994 or so) are really valuable reads later on if they're written by people who really know their stuff. Like reading Habermas on the socio-economic transition of the 1970s. It doesn't have the benefit of temporal perspective, but it does have a better connection to the lived experience, and folks like Krugman and Habermas provide a lot of interesting perspective just in how they contextualize an issue.

Krugman was in an interesting place in the early 1990s--he was respected, he had written some very good economics on trade, he was a good writer, and he was a liberal. But he found himself feeling like an outsider as the Clinton administration geared up in 92/93.
"My epiphany came at that famous economic summit in Little Rock in 1992," Krugman said. "A lot of stuff said there was clearly silly. I had been aware that pop economics writers had a much bigger audience than good economists. But I did not take that seriously because I thought that anyone who really mattered would know the difference. That turned out not to be the case."
Several of the major tenets of the economists pushing Clinton's domestic policy, were, according to Krugman, completely false. Demonstrably false. In fact, well known to be false among other economists.

What is surprising is how much traction the bullshit view (that trade was the major cause of America's economic dulldrums) could get in the face of the fact that it couldn't really justify itself to anyone with even a little skepticism. In fact, Krugman, who was representing mainstream economics against the champions of wishful thinking (Lester Thurow, among many others), gets labelled a "contrarian" in the supposedly sophisticated policy press.

Groupthink in action? I've seen it myself--executives who take a "facts don't matter, this is what we're doing" approach (though they don't have the honesty or courage to say that, of course), but it is interesting, and pretty scary, to see it taking place at the highest levels.

I am reminded of the ascendancy of Henry Kissinger, who rose as an academic as the hot young foreign policy realist, but when he started to make his way in Washington he started advocating and championing completely un-realistic foreign policies and pretending they were realistic by constantly making reference to "credibility" as a justification. It was kind of an intellectual black hole.

People who fear technocrats can be reassured--experts are only in Washington as window dressing. No one listens to actual expertise.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Phillies: What Happened?

Along with a thoughtful bent and a funny name, another legacy of mine is Phillies fandom.

Which, historically has been something like inheriting a proclivity for corns, but lately has been pretty sweet, actually. The Phillies had a decent run there: Win the division as the Mets(!) collapse in 2007, win it all in 2008, the pennant in 2009, then a series of win-now trades that didn't get them the win, the sudden decline of a few key players and . . . now we start over.

A lot of Phillies fans are more than a little disappointed with this run. Phillies fans have always had a soft spot for the Red Sox. Sox fans experienced a lot of the "close but no cigar" sort of frustration, whereas the Phillies fan spent the vast majority of the twentieth century watching a team that was more or less a mockery of a professional baseball organization. But they had the frustration in common. Along with the proud urban ethnic tradition. And the urban ethnic racism and teams that pandered to it. And the reddish caps (for a little while). And, most of all, the absolute, unyielding hatred of New York.

So Phillies fans today look at the Red Sox and see a team that is still on a run of competitiveness that started back in the 1990s (since 1998, they've had two losing seasons), with occasional years off to retool. Why can't the Phillies do this? Why are the Phillies now in the midst of a multi-year rebuild?

Part of it is probably just luck. the Red Sox made a couple of bets on their big slow slugger (David Ortiz) and won. In fact they won beyond even the sanguine hopes of Red Sox fans--Ortiz has aged better than anyone expected. The Phils made a similar bet on theirs (Ryan Howard) and about as spectacularly lost.

Part of it is also how the teams decided to proceed after their initial world series win. The Red Sox remained committed to a philosophy which dealt out long-term contracts very reluctantly and tried very hard to keep contracts in the realm where the player could conceivably return value by standard measurements of such things. Thus Ortiz has spent his prime making 13-15 million a year. Howard now makes $25 million.

Even for a rich team such a contract going toward a now unproductive player is a hit.

And the Red Sox philosophy had other effects other than not overpaying for David Ortiz. he is the only Red Sock to be on all three of their recent World Series teams. Only six others were on the first two. Only three others were on both the second two. And even Ortiz might well have gone had he insisted on being overpayed. He'd have found someone outside of Boston who'd have done it, and Boston probably would not have matched.

The Red Sox seldom seem to convince themselves that they need a particular player. They are willing to let anyone go, and they end up letting a lot of people walk or trading a lot of people. There's very little continuity on the team, but there's very little other than on-field return in their calculations.

The Phillies took a very different approach . . .

I am, as a fan, rooting for an organization whose philosophies are diametrically opposed to my own, not only as to the question of whether you succeed, but as to the question of how you succeed. I like to watch young players grow and develop into stars, as I watched Amos Otis and George Brett and Frank White and Dennis Leonard. I take pleasure in seeing what they can do one year that they couldn’t the year before; this is what, as a fan, I enjoy. --Bill James, 1985 Baseball Abstract

Philadelphia owner Ruly Carpenter, realizing that Pete Rose at thirty-eight is no longer a player who can decide a pennant race, originally refused to pay what Pete Rose was asking. But the TV station that carries the Phillies, concerned not with ability but with marketability, came up with the dough . . . Bill James, Esquire magazine, 1979 

I direct your attention to these two passages from Bill James to establish two points: 1) That fans can have interests that run counter to the best strategy for a team to win. Even Bill James, one of the godfathers of baseball analysis, watches the game, in part, to watch the play and development of personalities he's become familiar with and fond of. Even highly analytical fans like stability and the continuity of a story; 2) The business side of baseball is not just about statistical analysis of on-field performance. It's about what sells. Winning sells, yes, but other things sell as well.

When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, ownership made a decision to make it a priority to keep together the core--Rollins, Utley, Howard & Hamels--they had drafted and developed. Part of this was because they were a compelling group for the Philadelphia market. Unusually, there were two African-American stars amongst them. And there was a hard-nosed white guy (Utley). Ownership essentially decided that *this* Phillies team was not only a winner on the field, but a highly marketable group of personalities as well.

And Philadelphia is a town that loves its stories more than most. The 1993 Phillies are probably still the team the fans hold closest to their hearts. Not because they won it all (they didn't) but because their working-class fratboy demeanor and their seemingly never-ending series of come-from-behind runs--jibed precisely with the city's identity as overlooked, underappreciated and (frogive my French) declasse.

But dedicating yourself so strongly to keeping particular players often means overpaying for them--giving them longer, bigger contracts than their on-field performance really commands. So Ryan Howard's contract wasn't just a bit of insanity on the part of the General Manager. That contract was part of an ownership-level decision to make stability in core personnel a very high priority for the team.

This policy decision, combined with bad luck (Howard, Halliday), win-now trades that didn't entirely pan out (Lee, Halliday, Hunter Pence) and a couple of plain stupid trades (Hunter Pence II, Lee II) and you've got yourself a long rebuild.

On top of this, the Phillies, for some inexplicable reason, seemed to strongly believe that they could see something in or do something to athletic high-schoolers to make them pan out as major leaguers at an appreciably higher rate than usual. They were wrong about this as well, so they ended up taking a lot of long bets with draft choices they should have been expending on safer bets (successful college players).

Ruben Amaro certainly has to take some of the blame for all of this. His old-school mentality probably lent directly to the failed draft strategy of the past 5 years or so, and that old-school mentality really does have to be relegated to the dustbin. Explicitly and emphatically. A couple of Amaro's salary dump trades were just atrocious in terms of return. But MOST of the Phillies problem is down to bad luck and a policy of lineup stability that just didn't work.

But I have to say, in spite of its failure, I'm glad the Phillies did keep that core together for so long. Like Bill James, even if analysis teaches us that letting familiar faces go early and bringing in strangers probably would have made the team better and more resilient, it is a lesson I find hard to enjoy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lena Dunham's Problem

I had no idea who Lena Dunham was until a few days ago. But I've read quite a bit about her. Apparently Dunham had already become something of a political football before the most recent controversy over the rape scene in her memoir. She's young, female, overtly leftist, outspoken about sex and apparently has often been nude or semi-nude in her film & TV work. And her body doesn't conform to mainstream notions of beauty.

So she's already a dartboard for a lot of folks on the right, and a saintly presence for many of the left.

Reading a lot of what has been written about this latest controversy, I am . . . appalled that some of the people writing these pieces actually seem to have jobs writing. I'd like to try to consider how we might learn a thing or two from this whole controversy.

But first, the story so far:

Dunham recently published a memoir called Not That Kind of Girl. In it she describes a sexual encounter with "Barry," "a mustachioed campus Republican." Actually, she describes it twice. Once as "the upsetting but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex" and once as rape. She is open and self-conscious about the contrast between the two accounts and clearly would have us believe that the second characterization--rape--is the true one, the first a sort of comforting lie that she told herself and relayed to us. After the Rolling Stone article about gang rape at the University of Virginia (the details of which have been called into serious question), there has been a great deal of interest in campus rape, and Dunham's account drew a lot of interest, including interest from those folks who have Dunham's picture in front of their dartboards.

There was quite a lot of detail about "Barry" in the book. For one thing there was nothing to indicate that Barry was anything but the perpetrator's real name (at least one other pseudonym in the book is clearly indicated as such). There's also his prominence on the conservative scene at Oberlin, where Dunham and "Barry" were undergraduates at the time of the incident. There's also details about his flamboyant mustache and clothing preferences and his date of graduation.

Oberlin is a small school. And Oberlin is about as notoriously liberal as, say, Pepperdine is notoriously conservative. While there was a campus conservative group active at Oberlin at the time Dunham was there, they complain in their published minutes that only 5 or so people actually attend meetings. One would guess there were probably less that 50 conservatives in the entire membership.

At a small school with a small conservative population within it, finding Barry should have been easy if the details were, as you'd expect in a memoir, true.

And there was indeed a prominent conservative student named Barry at Oberlin at the right time to be Dunham's Barry. But he claims never to have even met Dunham. And now, weeks after real-life Barry started complaining about the unwanted and damaging attention Dunham's memoir was getting him, Dunham and her publisher now acknowledge that real-life Barry isn't rapist Barry. In fact "Barry" is a "pseudonym" for the rapist. Dunham and publisher regret the "coincidence."

But even if "Barry" was a pseudonym, finding this guy should really be like shooting fish in a barrel. With so few conservatives on campus, how hard could it be to find a flamboyant, mustachioed conservative leader?

Impossible, apparently.

So it is becoming apparent that Barry's name probably is not the only fictionalized detail Dunham's story. And it is quickly becoming hard to tell where the fictionalization may end. Was this guy conservative? Did he have a flamboyant mustache or not? Did he graduate when Dunham said? Was Dunham really unaware of the existence of real-life Barry? or is this whole episode an expression of mischief or malice toward a prominent conservative at her old college? Was Dunham, in fact, raped?

In her recent apology/apologia, Dunham reasserts the basic claim that she was raped, defends telling about it and asks that we believe. The trouble is though, a) no reasonable voice is questioning the right of women to tell their rape stories, that's a red herring; and b) no one has done more to make it difficult to take Lena Dunham's words at face value than Dunham herself.

She may "have a right to her story," a right "take control" after the ultimate loss of control, but does that mean she has the right to surreptitiously make up important elements of that story, thereby drawing in and damaging innocent third parties? Does she have any reasonable expectation to be believed at this point?

This entire affair, to me, stems back to the rather cavalier attitude we seem to take these days toward some of the core values of journalism and writing. Like, say, truthfulness. Or what credibility is and how it maintained. Being an "unreliable narrator" of serious criminal accusations just doesn't cut it. Blithely admitting such unreliability is completely undermines your insistence that *some* of what you say should be believed implicitly. One doesn't get to be playful and creative (or manipulative and malicious) with the truth on one hand, and be taken at face value on the other.

I sympathize with Dunham, but I think she has played this very badly indeed. She needs to come out with a definitive and exhaustive statement as to what is true and what is not in her description of "Barry" and his actions, not a lecture on what rape survivors need.

What rape survivors need is for Lena Dunham to be straightforwardly honest. The truth doesn't belong to someone to control and remake. The truth is a transaction, and Dunham has violated the trust behind that transaction. She needs to restore it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Darwinian Literary Studies

Happened on the brief interview with Steven Pinker in the New York Times Book Review a few weekends ago and got set on a little research project on one of the authors he mentions as a particular favorite: Jonathan Gottschall. Gottschall is a literary scholar who is interested in bringing evolutionary theory to bear in his work.

So far so good. But Gottschall has a tendency to push things a bit. First, he seems unable to see what is good in literary studies without the benefit of evolutionary theory. He's big on making apocalyptic proclamations about the current state of literary theory and touting the salvation to be achieved only through subjugating literature to science.

To some degree I get this: I bet Gottschall had a tough time in grad school. He ended up having David Sloan Wilson, a biologist (and son of a novelist) as his dissertation director, and I bet he was damn lucky to have had the opportunity to take this sort of interdisciplinary route. English departments can be unkind to those who insist on certain standards of logical discourse and on the importance of other fields when they have no obvious revolutionary or liberationist allegiances. I had problems in the same direction when I was a English grad student in the 1990s.

But it is important to separate justified resentment at the internal politics of English departments from our analysis of the best work that gets done there.

Similarly, we cannot let our resentment drive our evaluation of alternatives to the status quo in literary studies.

Gottschall sees natural selection as the magic wand with which he can turn literary studies into something important again, and he tends to characterize anyone who objects as anti-science. But there are very good reasons to doubt that some kind of "evolutionary literary studies" is the way forward. And it's not because natural selection is racist or because we have to run from anything that seem "reductionist." It's because it just doesn't seem to produce much in the way of interesting, novel insights.

Why not? Well, in large part because from the standpoint of narrative structure, natural selection just isn't so different from the common sensical observations people were making about the nature of competition that had been made by important Darwinian inspirers like David Ricardo, Mandeville, Adam Smith, Machiavelli and loads of others.

The Darwinian theme had been pretty extensively worked for millennia before Darwin systematized it.  That's not to minimize Darwin's accomplishment: it was enormous. It just that the theme itself was not novel. What was novel was that Darwin systematically applied the idea of competition as an explanatory mechanism to account for biological diversity.

Too many biologists seem to believe that Darwin's great achievement was discovering competition as a central theme to life. This isn't so. Many people recognized this. And some people even saw and celebrated the constructive role competition could play in a system. Darwin's contribution was that he systematized these general, thematic observations and applied them systematically to a particular object whose development across vast expanses of history and geography he could trace.

Darwin's gift was NOT miraculous insight. His gift was that he was BOTH a steadfast stamp collector and a theoretician of a high order.

Darwin's gift was that he could take the insights of others and raise them to the level of systematic explanation.

But loads of more literary figures had had the basic insights Drawin built into a system.

The idea of subjugating the literary to the biological is wrongheaded for just this reason: it is our job to provide the non-systematic insights that will fuel productive inquiry of a more systematic nature. Just as Mandeville fed Darwin, so should present day literary studies and literary thinking feed future Darwins--not by slavishly applying Darwin's principles but in pushing current thinking along in one direction or another in a way that, to non-systematic but rigorous thinkers, seems like fruitful paths of inquiry . . .

For instance, on the Iliad . . .

While, in general Gottschall's writing on the Iliad can seem pretty maddeningly slavish, there can be no doubt that the general idea of returning the Iliad to its setting--the beginnings of civilization--is an inspiring idea. And I sincerely commend him for it.

Where he goes wrong, to my mind, is precisely where he plays from the Evolutionary Psychology playbook--in his use of twentieth-century work with hunter-gatherers as a sort of cultural benchmark to guide our understanding of the Iliad. This move carries a lot of baggage--first it assumes that the cultural characteristics of twentieth-century tribes pretty directly reflect innate drives that are more hidden by modern culture. Second it assumes that those tribal cultures are essentially part of the hidden "base" of modern culture over which the superstructure of most things we know and love and deal with every day. Third it assumes that this tribal culture also is the key to understanding the early civilized culture we see depicted in the Iliad. I'm not sure any of these assumptions is true in any simple sort of way. Of course, scholars like Gottschall are always careful to acknowledge what I'm writing now. But the acknowledgement is merely symbolic, for they then proceed as if the simple base-superstructure relationship is in fact the case.

The Yanomamo are not remnants of our own past--they are Yanomamo. They have their own history and customs. They have their own environment to deal with. They are first and foremost themselves.

And even our own Pleistocene ancestors are first and foremost themselves, not keys to understanding ourselves.

My own thought is that while our biological heritage is there, while it is important, it is simply not the skeleton key to understanding everything. In fact, I don't believe there is any skeleton key. At the time of the Iliad, it is not our heritage from the peacock that is most crucially important to our understanding of events--it is the conditions prevailing at the time of the Iliad. Achilles and Agamemnon were not Yanomamo, they were leaders in a culture that had far-flung trade networks and military alliances, and that carried out war over the course of years and over great expanses of territory. As with Darwin's work, this is the mark of systematization.

All of the civilized "superstructure" necessary to accomplish the war in Ilium is not merely incidental to what motivated the men who fought it. For in getting and keeping those biological goods--food, shelter, warmth, security, sex--that they no doubt sought, they had to use the levers made available by that superstructure. Not every man in Ithaca was a candidate to lead the hundreds to war seeking to secure more of those goods. Agamemnon was. And not due to his superiority as a biological specimen, but due to his position within that superstructure.

And so the key question is not "how are Agamemnon and Achilles just like the animals?" and in turn "How are we just like Achilles and Agamemnon?" The key question is how are they distinct?

By denigrating that difference, science-driven research is not motivated by some essential truth. It is motivated by a lust for power.

When I urge the importance of distinction, detail and difference in explaining human phenomena, I am ultimately setting myself up for a fall--I will (sooner rather than later when talking about things like the late-Bronze-Age) eventually reach a point where I have to say "I don't know" or "We don't know yet" or "We may never know that." This doesn't (God forbid) stop us from speculating and making guesses and filling in blanks as seems appropriate, but it does (or should) stop us from making strong claims.

Thus the cliche scientific horror at the non-systematic nature of the humanities and some social sciences. (For living instances of this cliche horror, see EO Wilson, or practically any Evolutionary Psychologist in the 1990s.)

Now, the non-systematic thing does indeed sometimes get out of hand (see, for instance, L'Affaire Sokal). But the solution to it is not science. The fact that the humanities is a non-systematic pursuit is based on two big difficulties: 1) as mentioned above the insufficiency of the existing evidence to give any real shape and direction to the discussion of it; and 2) the insufficiency of any "first principles" for interpreting all the evidence.

Problem 1 is one which, at least in some fields, might be conquered. Problem 2 isn't. Suppose we ask "Why isn't biology characterized, driven and shaped by a first principle from a more basic order of knowledge, as some biology fans now suggest that the humanities be structured? Why isn't Newton celebrated as the key to understanding the finer points of evolutionary theory or cell biology? Because the key to understanding cells is not understanding them as bodies in motion. Though Newton's laws apply to cells and cells wouldn't exist without those forces Newton explained being in play, Newton isn't the key to understanding cells. Observing cells and abstracting from those observations is the key to understanding cells. So again with people and their works. While we are of course beasts. While we are often driven by the same basic biological needs as animals, the complexities of society, culture, language, trade etc. are best understood by looking at those things themselves and abstracting from them, not by reducing them to epiphenomena of lower order processes.

Science-oriented critics are always, always, always bringing up human self-regard as their excuse for refusing to acknowledge the fact that humanity is a special phenomenon. The war on human self-regard has to know limits. Are we more important than everything else in the universe? No. Are we better than the animals? No. Are we no different than the animals? No, we are different. And it's the difference that is interesting. We won't explain much of that difference by fixating on our biology or by fixating on those who refuse to fully acknowledge it. Physics, chemistry, geology, geography and biology all enter into the explanation of the remains of Troy's walls. None of them, nor all of them together, explain them fully. Nor does Homer. But he's the only reason we're interested in an explanation.

So what would be a better application of context to this story? First, forget the Pleistocene for the moment. Forget the Yanomamo. Let's start with the most obvious facts of the story: the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon.  A conflict between a young, potent but unestablished male and an older, richer, more influential one.

“You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never
once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people
for battle.” (from Book I of Richard Lattimore's translation of the Iliad.)

So says Achilles to Agamemnon. And this is not just the cry of the fighter against the general. This is the cry of the young warrior against the old King.

As Gottschall points out, we shouldn't think of the kings of the Iliad as a bunch of rather rougher-hewn Louis XIVs. Their city-states were relatively small. They were more like warlords than kings. But we shouldn't fail to recognize either that they were civilized: they did live in substantial, fortified cities with allegiances to other fortified cities. They engaged in and enriched themselves through trade. They weren't merely tribal elders. And they used the mechanisms of civilization to extend their authority far beyond what their personal prowess would have commanded. Civilization created economies of organized violence, wealth and prestige which tended to give older men more power. And to deny social goods to younger men, like Achilles.

The relevant background to the prestige struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon is not who gets to reproduce with Briseis. Whether or not Achilles will be judged by the biologically minded on his "reproductive success," men have no direct biological impulse to have children. They have a drive to have sex. It so happens that procreation is often a consequence of sex, so the indirect drive to sex is sufficient for the purposes of natural selection. But the fact is, Achilles could easily have found someone else to have sex with, so why risk a potentially fatal conflict with a powerful warlord over a particular sex partner?

Because there are all kinds of experiential drivers (that is, impulses that we actually experience directly) that we can freely acknowledge are based on selective pressure. One of these is agon--competitiveness. Once we've taken a catalog of these more proximate drives--toward drunkenness, glory seeking, lust, etc.--we soon find ourselves in a position where knowing that all these drives, ultimately, were put in place to make it more likely that these men would reproduce really doesn't enrich the story at all. In fact it tends to flatten it out--all the interest is in the layers of indirection on top of the ultimate cause.

It's kind of like being asked to tell the story of the American Civil War and responding "Well, everyone involved died in the end." This is true. And it reflects a pretty fundamental truth about us all--we're all going to die. But it doesn't tell us anything about the Civil War. What matters about the Civil War is the how--who dies when, under what circumstances. Whose cause won the war? Whose lost? What was the legacy that was passed on to those who lived beyond the passing of the last Civil War contestant?

Similarly, reproductive success is a major determinant of much else that we concern ourselves with. But like our ultimate mortality, it is an ultimate, general truth with very little explanatory power or interest. To deny that such truths are interesting is not to deny their truth. It is to deny their applicability to the questions the text elicits.

And this struggle between old leaders and young warriors, coming as it does at a crucial early phase of human development as real institutions arise and struggle against the decidedly anti-institutional values of the warrior culture, is interesting.

Imaging how all this might reflect natural selection just isn't. Any more than wondering how the story of the Iliad reflects the fact that the characters are composed of atoms is interesting.

And this is not a case of moral exceptionalism. I am not saying people are too noble to be thought of as mere genetic reproducing machines. I'm saying my life is too short to read simplistic unenlightening explanations of complex phenomena. I am no more interested in this biological explanation for literature than a biologist would be interested in an explanation for mating ceremonies based on quantum theory. And I have no idea why anyone would feel otherwise.

Gottschall's work is not insensitive to the text of the Iliad, but it also isn't particularly original. Aside from the window dressing of new jargon to present it in, Gottschall's Iliad is very much the Iliad we've been discussing for hundreds of years. Basing his interpretation in biology doesn't make it more interesting, adds no no facets to the text itself, doesn't make his interpretation unassailable, and points the way to no glorious revolutions in literary criticism.

Much behind the theory of natural selection has been part of our common sense of our existence for quite a long time. The themes of agon, display, violence and even reproductive success have been with us for a long time; long before Darwin. And as the Iliad itself shows us, social structure brings whole new complications to these themes--the war in Troy may be dominated by the manly display of Achilles, but it wouldn't exist as a context for that display without the institutional connections of Agamemnon. It may (or may not) all boil down to sex in the end, but the interest isn't in what it boils down to. Who cares what gummy mess is left in a wineglass once you boil away all the fruit esters, water & alcohol? It may make a contribution to the glass, but that gummy mess is not a synecdoche for the original wine.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


No sooner do I run into (and begin reading) one book on the 2008 financial crisis than I run into another, contrasting one: How Markets Fail by a New Yorker writer named John Cassidy.

As a reporter of facts Cassidy is streets and streets ahead of Matt Taibbi . . . Wall Street seems to be his beat (he also wrote a book on the prior Wall Street fiasco, the tech bubble) and he actually understands a bit of what lies behind the alphabet soup of financial offerings (RMBS, CDOs, etc.).

He also understands a lot of the economic theory and mathematical work behind the new Wall Street. To Taibbi it's easier just to write it all off as fraud, but to anyone who knows anything about the recent history of risk analysis, the 2008 debacle is a fascinating mixture of error, fraud, greed, negligence, mystifcation, arrogance and incompetence.

But untangling all these strands doesn't make for quick and easy propaganda, and elicits more mixed emotions than Taibbi's righteous anger.

Cassidy does a very good job of both explaining each strand, and giving us a good sense of the motley fabric they made when woven together.

I've read a number of books about Wall Street and its changing culture: from the establishment, WASPy, "white shoe" firms to the emergence of the Jewish up-and-comers, to the macho "big swinging dicks" who emerged in the 1980s, to the rise of the quants in the 1990s. One thing that struck me is reading Cassidy's book is the fundamental vulnerability Wall Street firms suffer from as remnants of several of these cultures fail to come together. Wall Street these days is built upon the foundation of mathematical analysis, but is run by people with big dicks--which is why Wall Street has suddenly taken such an avid interest in politics--those swinging dicks don't have much when it comes to finding new bits of margin to work, but they can create new ones by initiating government actions that work to their advantage.

The irony of our situation today is that government, far from being irrelevant to economics, has become one the last means of manipulating the outside world to gain particular advantage. (Though I condemn this sort of manipulation, I don't think the solution is to get rid of the government. With a mediocre system of oversight and a lot more transparency & openness, this would be a minor problem.)

A curious sidelight to Taibbi's take on the Wall Street disaster . . .

For Taibbi, the big thing about the financial crisis is that it provides an opportunity to stoke the rage of the lower orders. His expression of sympathy for the Tea Party is based first on the fact that they are dissatisfied enough to utter the word "revolution," but also on the fact that they are a force for instability, which he hopes some sort of revolution from the left could take advantage of. "The worse things get, the better" for revolutionaries.

And, at first, it seemed he might have it all his way--no one could explain how the financial crisis could have happened, no one could explain the financial instruments involved. But this was mainly because the American press corps is almost incredibly stupid. When you laugh at the malapropisms on Tea Party placards, or the fact that Americans can't do math, or the fact that they can't find a foreign country on a map. you should realize that journalists come from these people, and in terms of native intelligence they by no means leave them in the dust. As someone who has worked directly with folks from a journalism school which was, by a long stretch, the worst at the university (the warehouse for not-bright athletes and not-bright wanna-be athletes), and as someone who covered a fairly specialized beat for a while (science) I can tell you: I'd much much rather teach a scientist how to get a story and write than teach a journalist how to think critically about a science story. The first is possible. The second, generally, is not. Whenever they are told an issue is too complicated to allow for a snap judgment, they are certain you are covering something up. Complexity simply does not exist for the well-trained doltish journalist. Complexity is the new opiate of the masses as far as they are concerned.

Taibbi isn't dumb, but the fact that most journalists are was very convenient for someone who would have liked to boil down the financial crisis to mere criminality. Bad things happened, and those people were there, those people are bad, let's get 'em.

But trying to string together Taibbi's story--what motivated these evil people to crash their own money making machine? Certainly not robbing the poor. Given the choice what greedy robber robs the poor? You rob the rich when you can, because as Willie Sutton said about banks, "that's where the money is."

But Taibbi's half-story wasn't the only one out there. Adam Davidson of Planet Money had a story which hung together a bit better as to how the financial debacle happened:

Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s the amount of capital in the world went up a great deal--more than doubled. A lot of this money was sovereign capital, pension funds and other really big individual pools of cash. A lot of the directors of what to do with those big pools of cash were under instructions both to get some interest for it and to keep it almost absolutely safe. The usual recourse for these folks was the US Treasury Bill. But after 9/11 the US central bank had been keeping interest rates quite low and T-Bill rates were pathetically low. This combination of circumstances: lots more capital and the low rates offered by the traditional obvious resort made for a huge demand for alternative AAA-rated investments. This huge demand meant that Wall Street stood to make loads of money placing this excess capital. But they needed places to put it. There were plenty of options for that portion of the money that could go toward riskier investments, but not so for the money that had to go to AAA-rated investments.

Thus the intense pressure bankers put on the ratings companies to rate the top tranche of CMOs AAA. While this was perhaps justified when there were loads of low-risk mortgages in the pool, it certainly wasn't when they were all subprime--all high-risk. There was a great deal of money to be made in offering a more AAA-grade investments, the bankers and the ratings companies would benefit from the fees of these transactions.

And once the bankers had achieved the acquiescence of the ratings companies, they basically had there hands on a AAA-making machine. They just needed mortgages to serve as the basis of the bonds, and once reasonable legitimate mortgages weren't enough, the pressure came down to get anyone they could into a mortgage. They just needed a counterparty.

Brokering crap mortgages would not have been a big business unless there was somewhere for the originator to dump them and get out from under the risk. Wall Street was providing that dumping ground and were screaming for more crap mortgages to put into it, because they were selling them on and making plenty of money doing so.

The crucial motivating factor in this whole equation is the opportunity to profitably absorb that capital glut. The lack of anything like ethics all up and down the process--from the pure borrow, buy and flip artists who were just riding the real-estate price bubble, to the brokers seeking warm bodies to put at the other end of Shylockian mortgages, to the originating banks, to the Wall Street bond builders to the ratings companies to the supposed masters of that glut of capital--there's very little to see here that makes one feel good about being human.

Eventually, the firms that had moved those AAA tranches easily found it hard to sell some of the riskier ones, where demand wasn't as strong, particularly toward the end of the real-estate bubble. So they held on to them--warehoused them in hopes they could eventually move them to less risk-averse investors.

Unfortunately for them, that day never came: real estate prices began to decline, default rates turned those lower tranches into worthless holdings, and heavily leveraged firms were suddenly in a world of financial hurt. Hence Lehman and all the dominoes that fell afterwards. So even *some* of the banks ended up believing their own bullshit to far too great an extent. Not, however, Goldman Sachs.

Not that there wasn't criminality here. There was. But this is a richer explanation, both in terms of a variety of factors coming together--capital glut, greed, criminality, highly leveraged companies, naive or complicit borrowers, etc.--and in the range of behaviors it explains fairly well.

Taibbi says he makes a villain of Goldman Sachs because villains bring readers, but he also does it because his story won't hang together without some villainous figure who more or less crashes the ship of state out of pure malice. The alternative provided by Adam Davidson doesn't require the cartoon character: all you need is the normal run of human failure and vice.

But Davidson would not go unanswered. A couple of Taibbi's associates, Yasha Levine and Mark Ames, with whom Taibbi had wrote and edited The eXile in Moscow, took Davidson to task for some ethical conflicts, some of which were not really his. That Planet Money had a single underwriter in the financial industry (Ally) is a matter for NPR, not Davidson personally. The underwriting is through NPR, not through Davidson or the production company. It's an issue, but it's not an issue with Davidson.

Davidson's on-air "mugging" of Elizabeth Warren sounds very much like a rising star getting a bit too in love with his own press clippings. And it does sound as if he's getting a bit too close to his Wall Street sources, absorbing not just their information, but their sensibilities as well. But that was about a year of press clippings after he introduced the theory I sketch out above.

Credit to them, Levine and Ames don't make any bones about why they dislike Davidson:
Although Davidson's segment was praised for making the murky world of finance easier to understand, his framing of the subprime housing debacle served another purpose: It let Wall Street off the hook for its role in rampant criminal mortgage fraud and predatory lending.
"This was a crisis that was caused by willing participation of every single person. Nobody was coerced," said Davidson's co-producer and partner in Planet Money, Alex Blumberg. "And there was fraud. But that was not what caused the crisis. What caused the crisis was something bigger and more systemic that required the involvement of everybody at every step."
This evasion-by-exaggerating-the-complexity strategy is one that Davidson and Planet Money have deployed often to whitewash and deflect the role of criminality in the housing crisis. . . . Davidson provided a narrative frame that comforted the American Establishment at a time when it badly needed comforting, and was duly rewarded for his services [with a Peabody, among other things].
I'm not at all sure I'd have used Blumberg's phraseology to describe the crisis, but he did so in an interview with the Chicago Tribune not on the show. Having listened to much of the actual series at this time, I don't think that attitude is very important to their narrative. Far more important were the tales of out-and-out fraud and hearing from some of the victims, for instance, an African-American family who were robbed of the home they had nearly paid off by a predatory second-mortgage vendor. I think what Blumberg is getting at with the Tribune is that bubbles, by their nature require broad participation--everyone in the housing market has to assent to the huge spike in housing prices. A LOT of people participate in and condone the fraud in one way or another. But there is no lack for folks in the series who went well beyond assent and condoning--they ripped people off, they victimized people and spent the money on five-figure nights out with "B-list celebrities." And of course there were those a bit higher up who enables, and even commanded those men. We hear from them as well.

But the trouble that Taibbi, Levine and Ames have with Davidson's story is not whether it is true, it is whether it is useful. And for some reason ANY complication to the story vampire squid of Wall Street is to be extirpated.

Monday, August 18, 2014


I'm way behind (beyond, even) the curve on this next book, but I've never worried too much about contemporaneousness (see, for instance, my review of The Culture of Narcissism from 2004).

I'm reading Matt Taibbi's Griftopia. You'll be relieved to know I won't be going into the history here too much, except to say I am surprised at how much praise Taibbi's reporting got back in when the crisis was on. He often tells us how mind-bendingly hard it is to understand many of the financial transactions he mentions, but his mind seems pretty well-ironed: he hasn't really tried to understand them. Instead he seems to assume that any financial transaction whose workings are not immediately transparent is "a Ponzi scheme." Much like "savages" in old movies assume any complex technology to be witchcraft.

It doesn't have to be this way. While a lot of math goes into some of these hedges and insurance schemes, they can be absorbed and explained by regular humans. Planet Money (a nice bit of work here) did far far better than Taibbi does. Taibbi doesn't really even try.

As several folks have noted, Taibbi is pissed off and writes that way, which is occasionally refreshing, but he often uses the visceral to cover up the basic lack of content--the vacuousness of a simplistic text dealing with a subject he readily acknowledges is deeply complex.

And the book isn't really empty. It's full of intent. Taibbi is writing propaganda--his goal is to elicit what he considers to be the appropriate reaction to this situation, not to explain it to you and let you do the reacting.

Which brings me to an irony I savored while reading Taibbi's book. The opening chapter is about the Tea Party, which Taibbi is, of course, largely contemptuous of, though he tries to seem like he's on the side of the more-or-less little guy, as most Tea Party rank and file are.  But nearly everything Taibbi says about the Tea Party, can be turned around and said about Taibbi just as truthfully.
Common sense sounds great, but if you’re too freaking lazy to penetrate the mysteries of carbon dioxide—if you haven’t mastered the whole concept of breathing by the time you’re old enough to serve in the U.S. Congress—you’re not going to get the credit default swap, the synthetic collateralized debt obligation, the interest rate swap, etc. And understanding these instruments and how they were used (or misused) is the difference between perceiving how Wall Street made its money in the last decades as normal capitalist business and seeing the truth of what it often was instead, which was simple fraud and crime. 
For the Tea Party, common sense; for Taibbi, truth. Because his truth doesn't involve actually understand (or at least not conveying an understanding of) synthetic collateralized debt onligations. It just involves evaluating them properly by Taibbi's lights: as theft. But really that's not much better than the Tea Party's blind heroization of the capitalist.
Our world isn’t about ideology anymore. It’s about complexity. We live in a complex bureaucratic state with complex laws and complex business practices, and the few organizations with the corporate will power to master these complexities will inevitably own the political power. On the other hand, movements like the Tea Party more than anything else reflect a widespread longing for simpler times and simple solutions—just throw the U.S. Constitution at the whole mess and everything will be jake. For immigration, build a big fence. Abolish the Federal Reserve, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education. At times the overt longing for simple answers that you get from Tea Party leaders is so earnest and touching, it almost makes you forget how insane most of them are.
Well, the world may be about complexity, but Taibbi certainly isn't about explaining it all to us. Just throw some real leftist populism at a problem and everything will be copaesthetic. For Wall Street, just arrest some people and make everything else simple again. In place of experts who actually might understand all that complexity, let's impose populist answers.
What voters don't realize, or don't want to realize, is that the dream was abandoned long ago by this country's leaders, who know the more prosaic reality and are looking beyond the fantasy, into the future, at an America plummeted into third world status.
In place of immigration and cultural decay, we have Taibbi's To Third World  in a Handbasket crisis.
The engine for looting the old ghetto neighborhoods was the drug trade, which served two purposes with brutal efficiency. Narco business was the mechanism for concentrating all the money on the block into that Escalade-hungry dealer's hands, while narco-chemistry was the mechanism for keeping the people on his block too weak and hopeless to do anything about it.
In place of the vast, decades-long Kenyan Obama conspiracy, we have the elitist conspiracy for each and every sociological problem.

And in place of "the constitution" as a shibboleth we get the "ponzi scheme" as our empty, but hopefully inspiring signifier.
[Michelle] Bachman has a lot of critics, ut they miss the genius of her political act. Even as she spends every day flubbing political SAT questions, she's always dead-on when it comes to her basic message, which is that government is always the problem and there are no issues the country has that can't be worked out with basic common sense . . .
There's more than a little admiration in this description, and, in fact, the Tea Party is more than a little bit the model for this chapter as much as its subject.
 . . .thirteen million Tea Partiers [believe] the Obama health care plan . . . is the first step in a long-range plan to eliminate the American free enterprise system and install a Trotskyite dictatorship.
And funny you should mention Trotskyites, because they were much on my mind in portions of this book--the contempt for small truths in the face of and to bring home the big one (class warfare); the need to create a sense of crisis and deep wrong to mobilize the revolution . . . Taibbi seems to be using the same propagandistic methods of the right to advance a (to him) more revolutionary, but also blinkered and manipulated movement to the political fore.

I'm not red-baiting here: I think socialism and communism are pretty much normal parts of the political spectrum. There's no dishonor in believing in them. What I do like to point out, though, is the complex and deeply disingenuous game revolutionary parties play in heightening crises rather than seeking solutions to them. And the truth (what Taibbi claims to stand for) is usually an early casualty in the drive to revolution. And I think that Taibbi knows the complex truths as well as Planet Money or Paul Krugman does. He just finds it inconvenient to his activism.

Vodka Party anyone? Stronger stuff than tea, yes, but I'll not be joining.