Saturday, July 31, 2010

Interest, sensibility, soft paternalism, etc.

Jonathan Bernstein, re horse-race politics:
Pick something that you pay no attention to.  For my dad, I always suggest NASCAR. [...] If you asked him to name a NASCAR driver he'd probably look at you as if you were nuts...but if you named some of them, he'd probably recognize the names.  The idea is that lots and lots of people have about that level of knowledge about most of what happens in politics.  It's just background noise.  We, the people who write and read political blogs, and watch debates, and pay attention to politics even in the off season --we're the minority.

Of course, with politics unlike sports, we're "supposed" to be paying attention, and a lot of people probably don't like to admit that they really aren't. 

This is related to a general set of issues about "paternalism." There's some evidence that poor people are relatively uninformed about (say) the nutritional content of various kinds of food, the correct approach to diet and exercise, etc. By a quirk of character, I'm also clueless about this stuff, because it bores me to death. Really a lot of things bore me to death. When people start talking about carbon footprint or omega-3 fatty acids, or anything of the sort, my eyes glaze over and I start thinking about something else; this is a tendency I can't help, there is just nothing about the subject that engages my imagination. I also absolutely hate shopping. When I'm forced to go to Walmart or a supermarket to buy X, I try to find the aisle that has X, then grab the first item I can find and move on. Labeling requirements would have no impact on my buying habits because I don't look at labels. When I want to buy a computer I pick a manufacturer's website at random and navigate as rapidly as possible to the "buy" button. And so on. This leaves me with the same take on things like ethical shopping and informed consumerism and the rest; yes I agree that one ought to do it, but it's a colossally tedious waste of my time. I would much rather have a trusted agency of some kind tell me what it's OK to buy, and keep me from getting swindled or poisoned or from leaving a "carbon footprint," than have to try and wade through the information myself. I believe a lot of others are similarly situated, esp. the poor, except that it's because they're more preoccupied than uninterested.

(Similarly, regarding Yelp reviews of restaurants, or Amazon reviews of electronics: is there anything quite as dispiriting as wading through 20-30 barely grammatical and usually off-topic rants? It's almost as bad as NYT blog comments. I would much rather just have someone reliable/accountable just certify that certain things work. Similarly, an hour that I spend comparing ticket prices is an hour of mild suffering that I would pay a finite amount to avoid.)

Now, given that I interact mostly with highly educated people, who care about these things, I can make things easier for myself by trusting their judgment. Besides, the market goes some way towards taking care of these issues as long as a critical mass of customers care enough to do their homework. However, customers who care are largely people of a certain socioeconomic status, and in markets that cater largely to poorer people, one presumably does not have such a critical mass, and the arguments for regulation of some kind become fairly strong.

Of course, one must weigh this against the interests of people who do care; who have done their homework, and want to experiment with things that might harm them -- or, for that matter, with people who simply aren't that invested in not being poisoned. It is bad to forbid people from doing things they might have chosen rationally: even if most people make such choices because they're clueless, odds are that you are blocking a fair number from doing something that's victimless. So one is led to a form of soft paternalism according to which it is hard to find something potentially bad for you unless you're really looking for it. In some respects the Great Firewall of China is exemplary: it imposes slight barriers that anyone can overcome if they want to.

However, I do find it rather irritating when such people get sanctimonious about the need for others to be informed browsers or customers or whatever. This shouldn't be necessary: we live in a highly specialized world in which people have better things to do than read labels and compare prices and be well-informed about random stuff that they're not experts about: there are actual experts out there. In addition to the sheer waste of time, "a little learning is a dangerous thing" -- as well as being intellectually rather unsatisfying -- as I guess the example of WebMD suggests.

As for politics -- I think the political scientists' picture of swing voters voting based on whether they feel well-off or not leads to an OK equilibrium, which is quite possibly the best equilibrium achievable with an uninformed public. Would having a more informed public improve political outcomes by enough to overcome the cost to individuals of becoming more informed? I don't know, but I would guess not.

PS in the third world the real choice is between rule by the uninformed and rule by the uniformed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Praise of Blunt Instruments

From today's David Brooks column:
The [FinReg] law also calls upon government experts to make some heroic judgments. For example, it calls upon regulators to break up banks that might be about to pose a risk to the country’s economy. That is to say, investors may believe a bank is stable. The executives of the bank may believe it is stable. But the regulators are called upon to exercise their superior vision and determine which banks are stable and which are not.

When historians look back on this period, they will see it as another progressive era. It is not a liberal era — when government intervenes to seize wealth and power and distribute it to the have-nots. It’s not a conservative era, when the governing class concedes that the world is too complicated to be managed from the center. It’s a progressive era, based on the faith in government experts and their ability to use social science analysis to manage complex systems. 

I'm reminded of this old Yglesias post -- responding to yet another Brooks column -- that I think is worth quoting at length:
in just the areas where we’d most like effective regulation, we’re sort of unlikely to get it. If traders are likely to overestimate the effectiveness of their risk models, then regulators are prone to those exact same errors. Where does this leave us?

Brooks, I think, thinks it leaves us just as skeptical of regulation as we were before we took the behavioral turn. I think it arguably leaves us somewhere else. It leaves us with an appreciation of crude measures rather than hubristic efforts to get the regulations precisely right. Until the 1980s, banks couldn’t operate across state lines at all. This didn’t make any real sense. Some states (California, New York, Texas) are much bigger than others either in terms of land area or population or both. And of course New York City is much more integrated with parts of New Jersey (and even some parts of Connecticut) than it is with, say, Buffalo. So whatever the “right” rule was here, this clearly wasn’t it. At the same time, this rule, for all its arbitrariness, has the virtues of being clear and largely self-implementing. It doesn’t depend on anyone’s discretion being used wisely or honestly, and it doesn’t depend on anyone’s calculations being right. And it had the effect of limiting the size of banks so that you never had a really enormous bank failure.

Now that’s not to say we should go back to the ban on interstate banking (I honestly have no idea), but I think it shows the general shape of what we should be looking at. The best you can hope from a regulatory regime is that it will be a satisficing solution wherein some fairly crude rule will improve on the outcomes generated by the unfettered market. When that’s not the case, we may as well let the market go unfettered even though that, too, will be somewhat sub-optimal. But at the same time when we’re looking at a regulatory regime that seems to be working okay, and the regulated parties start saying we need tweaks x and y and z and oh there’s no danger there we should be very suspicious. We shouldn’t count on being to fine-tune our results to perfection, we should either lean in with a heavy hand or else stay away.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Muldoon: Glaucus

Paul Muldoon

It went without saying that a king of Corinth
should keep his prize fillies out of the fray
and, rather than have them enmesh
themselves in horse toils, horse tattle,

set them up, each on a plinth,
and fillet their manes with knots and nosegays
and feed them the choicest human flesh
to give them a taste for battle.

It went without saying that after he lost control
of his chariot team at Pelias, and made a hames
of setting them all square,

Glaucus was still on such a roll
it was lost on him that the high point of the games
was his being eaten now by his own mares.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Administrative note

I tried dealing with the Chinese spambot menace by turning on comment moderation but this is clearly a terrible solution because I never remember to check my unmoderated comments. So I've decided to give up and capitulate to our spambot overlords.

Good "primitive" writing

I don't, as a rule, feel comfortable judging modern poetry written in foreign languages; some of it -- Montale, Szymborska, a lot of French stuff -- comes off in English, given the right translator, because the "sensibility" fits into the English tradition; but the bulk of it doesn't work and you wouldn't expect it to. It's odd how different foreign folk poetry is in this regard. For instance I'm pretty confident that this is a good poem, even though it seems to have been translated indifferently:
I want to sing to the memory of my beloved father
who gave me a beautiful, special cow
so I could walk slender-hipped like a handsome prince
before my unjust murder.
(It gives me "the shudder.") This poem/fragment is from the folk tradition of the Batwa, a tribe formerly known as the Pygmies (a deeply necessary bit of rebranding); but this is basically irrelevant to its merit and it could have come from any pastoral tradition. Something similar seems true of this bit from Sappho:

Hesperus, you bring back again
What the dawn light scatters,
Bringing the sheep: bringing the kid,
Bringing the little child back to its mother.
"Hesperus" isn't the operative word. This is all a little puzzling on the face of it, because one's appreciation of these poems seems to have nothing to do with the way they were meant to be appreciated; certainly many of them were lullabies or festival songs, and we're not appreciating them as such. I can think of four sorts of resolutions:
  1. Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. This would presumably go along the lines of "what we're hard-wired to find affecting hasn't changed much over the years; people like poems about cows and farmers and basic universal things; a lot of modern work just consists of running away from our real propensities." This line of argument seems unhelpful: if the hard-wiring has to do with content, the argument is false as there are tons of examples of extremely dull pastoral; if it's about style, it's vacuous as it doesn't explain what it is about the style.
  2. Conditioning. People "appreciate" poems for being like other poems they appreciate. A few primitive poems have come down to us as examples of what is "great"; we have been told to appreciate Sappho and the ballads, so we tend to appreciate things that bear a family resemblance. I believe there is something to be said for this, but it leaves "the shudder" unexplained: what causes, and what constitutes, the emotional response we have learned to have when reading these poems? Taste might begin in snobbery, but it ends in delight; the snobbery doesn't explain the delight.
  3. Imposed richness. People who've read much, of literature or of history, have minds that are teeming with associations for common words. Modern work that is boring is so because it forces the associations in stock ways; primitive work is interesting because it's a relatively blank slate, but with enough pegs on it that one isn't entirely free-associating, and the multitude of associations you pile onto a simple description gives the description a sort of intellectual iridescence, a shimmer of schlock, which makes it pleasing. This seems like the correct way to think about the Greek Anthology, the "Imagists" and e.g. Pound's Chinese poems, and maybe also about Empson's theories of ambiguity.
  4. Flattening and distancing; accidental "wit." The Batwa poem works partly because it has juxtapositions that are jarring and unexpected, like cow -> slender-hipped -> prince -> murder. While these might not have been jarring in context, this is irrelevant because we're not reading the poem in context. A generic estranging feature of primitive work is the flattening of hierarchies and registers, the less "developed" hence less ossified state of language and thought; one might find this exciting because it comes off as transgressive even if it wasn't meant that way. (A corollary would be that it's hard to judge ancient work even remotely objectively, as the bits that we find most arresting are in a sense historical artifacts.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010


That Hitch's sins caught up with him just as his autobiography was being reviewed is a fact that should give him solace; it's a dramatic coincidence, will keep things busy for now, and should bury under an unassailable excuse the coming decline of interest in him. For the rest of us, it is fortunate that the reviewers weren't tempted to pull their punches; there are some marvelously unpleasant takes, like Runciman's (which is accurate) and Jennifer Senior's (which starts out well but runs out of steam and cattiness) and Decca Aitkenhead's (frankly nasty but entertaining), that probably wouldn't have been written if he'd come out with the cancer any earlier than he did.

I've got some obvious points of affinity with the Hitch -- Auden, Orwell, wordplay, politics, contrarianism, and slovenliness come to mind -- and used to be a fan, esp. of the Mother Teresa book, but I'm afraid I've soured on him since then. It doesn't have much to do with politics; the Iraq war was not an important issue for me, and to his credit Hitchens has not been racist about "Islamofascism" unlike e.g. Martin Amis. I think his real problem has been that he let himself go soft, and has never properly faced up to this. I would attribute it to the fact that both his heroes, Orwell and Auden, were bad influences on him, having been soft on themselves in orthogonal ways; they both provided precedent for aspects of his fundamental laziness, and his using them in this way was ultimately, I think, a mark of bad character.

As far as I know the Hitch-Auden connection hasn't been dealt with anywhere, so I suspect I'll come off as riding a hobby-horse here. (The Orwell connection, otoh, one can just assume as Hitch wrote a book about Orwell.) I assure you it's true though. Hitch's Atlantic book reviews are studded with Auden quotes, and he often brings Auden up for no good reason (e.g. while spanking Somerset Maugham for being seedily gay). Hitch is/was also close friends with James Fenton, who was once going to be the next Auden. The NY'er piece about Hitch sounds remarkably like, e.g., Robert Lowell on Auden in Manhattan -- the squalor, the martinis, the tendency to grow prematurely old and repetitive -- and I don't think the imitation was entirely unconscious.

What Hitchens never developed was the intellectual restlessness, the compulsion to introspect and revise, and the fidgety playfulness with ideas, that kept Auden's table-talk and essays interesting. Auden was essentially both creative and donnish, and his worst moments are partially redeemed by the sense that he was trying to do something with the ideas he was playing with. His posturing was tentative and experimental: one cannot imagine him getting all pissy at a dinner party and saying, e.g.,
I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re ‘Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off.
On the other hand, this kind of refusal to engage nuance was precisely the sort of thing Orwell would do. (Exhibit A: "Inside the Whale") But Orwell was never part of the cocktail-party circuit; had he been, he wouldn't be remembered today; whether this was a conscious decision on his part or sheer luck I have no idea. The difference is that Orwell wasn't posturing as such: rather, he was an extremely (perhaps overly) serious ideologue whose obsessions were forced on him by circumstances, rather than the desire to come off in a certain light. He was clever or fortunate enough to have original obsessions, or brave enough to put himself in situations where such obsessions are likely to form; one cannot, however, imagine him as a traditional Romantic like Byron, getting into scrapes simply in order to show off.

A quick (consider the hour!) if glib way of completing this thought is to say that Auden was a fox, Orwell was a hedgehog, and Hitch has combined the worst of both traditions -- he has tended to adopt causes in a shiftless improvisatory way, like a fox, but to cling to them with an obstinacy and lack of introspectiveness that are forgivable only in hedgehogs, whose beliefs have deeper sources. Some analysis along these lines no doubt accounts for why he never wrote anything of real distinction; yet, as cautionary tales go, he is not a particularly terrifying one. As Runciman says:
His has been an enviable life: not just all the drink and the sex and the travel and the comradeship and the minor fame (surely the preferable kind), but also the endless round of excitements and controversies, the feuding and falling-out and grudge-bearing and score-settling, the chat-show put-downs, the dinner party walk-outs, the stand-up rows. Christopher Hitchens has clearly had a great time being Christopher Hitchens.