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Friday, November 21, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Practice and science

Ken B., this may make clearer what I have been saying about the relationship of the historical investigation and practical concerns.

Imagine that I am motivated to study computer science in order to get a high-paying job, or in order to impress the smart girl in my computer science class. While one of these factors may motivate my study, it should be clear that neither my plan to get a high-paying job or my dream of dating the girl are any part of computer science itself. And if I actually want to get the job or date the girl by this means, at some point I had better stop paying attention to the job market or the girl and start paying attention to computer science.

So it is with history: of course, an historian may be motivated to study some episode in the past because of some present concern. But if that historian actually wants to understand what occurred in the past, at some point, he must set his concern with the present matter aside, and focus upon the past.

Formalizing Fukuyama

Fukuyama posits a tripartite model of good government: it balances a strong state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. It seems we might make a trigonometric model of government types to formalize this. We take the element of the three that is strongest, say, the rule of law, and make that hypotenuse. Then the relative strength of that factor and the two remaining ones can be expressed with the trigonometric functions. So we could say, for instance, that the sine of mainland China is much greater than that of Nigeria (depending, of course, on which other leg we put a strong state and which democratic accountability).

And, of course, if we venture into generalized trigonometry, we can even drop the requirement that we pick out a hypotenuse, and deal with all possible relationships between the three factors.

In any case, that is what I woke up thinking about this morning

Sometimes, you just haven't been noticed

I just found 19 unposted comments in my queue. For some reason, some comments get placed in my spam bucket instead of my inbox, and I only see them when I go into Blogger. And how often I do that variously enormously based on my schedule: today, for instance, was the first time in at least a week I got a chance to do this.

But it does make for amusing moments: today I discovered that "Robert," responding to my post discussing Bob Roddis's comments at Murphy's blog (so I am assuming "Robert" is Roddis) had an entire argument with me, in which he became increasingly angry, and finally wound up calling me a "pathetic piece of sh*t," without my knowing he had ever posted anything.

The disturbed are perfectly capable of working themselves into a rage all on their own, without any involvement by a second party.

For your reading pleasure

A great post from Adam Ozimek.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mobile web versions

There must be rooms full of executives who sit around and declare, "I know what mobile users of our website want: A really half-assed version of the site with most of the features missing!"

The art of the book review

1) You will have many thoughts about topics brought up in the book, pet peeves about what the author claims, and opinions on the topics he discusses. These are an important part of your review, and give it its unique flavor. But your main job is to convey to your readers a sense of the book. Your unique insights on its subject matter should be like spices in a stew, and the bulk of your concoction should describe the book.

My favorite book reviewer who flouted this principle was Michael Oakeshott, who, when reviewing a book on topic X, would often spend the first 10% of his review noting that the author addresses X, the next 80% offering his view of X, and the last 10% discussing how the author's view fell short of his own.

But Oakeshott was a genius, and what he had to say on a topic was often more interesting than what the author under review had to say. We mortals should spend more time describing the book itself.

2) The table of contents is your friend! Keep referring to it. It will help structure your review, and alert you to important sections of the book you might be neglecting.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Counter-Factual History

Reader Ken B. is puzzled: "I don't see how you can deny that without denying the use of historical counterfactuals in toto."

First of all, to be very clear, no one is "denying the use" of anything in what follows, or in what went before. When I noted Fukuyama's remarks about "hijacking" the course of events, I was not trying to say he can't write like that: I was saying he is not writing as an historian when writing like that.

And in what follows, I draw heavily on Michael Oakeshott. He was once asked, by my PhD advisor, David Boucher, if his ideas meant it was illegitimate for historians to write certain things. Oakeshott responded that he had no interest in telling historians what to put in their books. What he was (and I am) interested in is conceptually identifying a certain attitude to the past we can term "historical."

And this is a very important point: Oakeshott made clear that there are pasts besides the historical past, which he identified as the past investigated in terms of what really did happen. A significant and different past he called "the practical past": this is a past from which we draw lessons concerning our present conundrums. Here are some things Oakeshott says about the practical past, all from his last work, On History:

"There are some well-known items which are so often used in the world outside that they may be said to be on permanent loan to the present of practical engagement. Here are Cain and Abel, Moses, Horatius, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Athanasius at Nicaea, Canute on the seashore, King Arthur, Wilhelm Tell, Luther at Worms, Nelson putting his telescope to his blind eye at Copenhagen, Robin Hood, Captain Oates, Davy Crockett, and here is Colonel Custer making his last stand." (p. 44)

"Sometimes a search of this storehouse will you hold something more closely and usefully linked to our practical engagements. It may disclose a purported authority for doing what we want to do, a precedent for taking a certain course of action, a warning or encouragement...

"In short, the contents of the storehouse are altogether different from the recorded past of performances, artifacts and utterances, in which in historical inquiry begins. It is not a collection of exploits but of emblems; not evoked in the procedure of critical inquiry into the authentic character of a not-yet-understood survival, but merely recalled as unproblematic images; and valued, not for an historically understood past which may be inferred from them, but for their present usefulness." (p. 45)

"this collection of symbols is valued in respect of the support it may give to what it is recognized to be a desirable present a practical engagements, and what it is found to be valuable we may say that 'history is on our side.'" (p. 47)

"What I have called a practical past is, then, a present of objects recognize to have survived. It is an indispensable ingredient of an articulate civilized life. But it is categorically distinct from both the survivals which compose the present of an historical enquiry and from an historically understood past which may be inferred from them." (p. 48)

Once one understands the distinction Oakeshott is making, it is clear that counter-factual "history" is actually an element of the practical past: "If only Chamberlain had taken on Hitler earlier, World War II could have been avoided." This is trotted out repeatedly as a lesson for facing down some current dictator. But it is certainly not the conclusion of any historical investigation, since there is no historical evidence for events that didn't happen! That firmness on Chamberlain's part would have stopped Hitler is a practical, not a historical, judgment.

And, again, this does not mean that no historian should put such a judgment in her books!



Can liberalism tolerate non-liberals?

"What if modern people opted in large numbers to be bigots and racists?

"Bouglé turn to that question in 'The crisis of liberalism' (1902). The persistence of intolerance had come as a surprise... Dogmatic or sectarian relapses looked at worst as temporary, unsustainable deviations from liberal modernity's happy path. Recent trends had woken liberals with a jolt. They were at a loss. Should they open-mindedly 'tolerate intolerance' or use the powers of state to curtail racial and confessional prejudice?" -- Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, p. 168

The problem is, of course, unsolvable so long as liberals cling to the notion of liberalism being a "neutral framework." Liberalism is, in fact, its own value system, down on all fours, competing with every other one.

Repeat after me: the government has no control over who pays taxes

Kevin Drum makes a common error:

"Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low?"

The government can control from whom it collects taxes. It cannot control who pays them. That is determined on the market. As Caplan puts it, "Tax incidence depends on supply and demand elasticity, not legislative intent."

To take a simple example: Imagine you are a billionaire with a large domestic staff. You want to trust them, so you pay them a wage above the prevailing one. You're planning on giving them all large Christmas bonuses, when you read that a new tax law aimed at high CEO pay is going to cost you $50,000 this year. That happens to be the exact amount you were going to give out in Christmas bonuses, and so you decide simply to skip the bonuses this year.

The government purportedly aimed to tax high-wage CEOs, but in this particular instance, the entirety of the tax burden actually fell on low-wage domestic workers.

Or perhaps it did not even stop there: Perhaps your servants would have given their Christmas bonuses, if they had received them, to homeless shelters around the city. If that had been the case, the burden of the tax actually winds up falling on the homeless!

One consequence of understanding this is that one realizes our current, Byzantine tax code is absurd, and benefits no one but H&R Block and its ilk. Whatever level of resources the government is going to extract from the economy, it should be done with a minimum of fuss and bother. That is why I favor taxing land: you can't really hide it, so tax evasion and all the resources devoted to detecting tax evasion, disappear. And taxing this way would not pick on landowners, since the actual burden of the tax will get passed on by the market to wherever it winds up getting passed on to.

Pages befuddlement

Pages does not seem to be able to get me a word count on my documents. How in the world is any professional writer supposed to use a word processor that does not give word counts? Basically, every book review I have ever written, I start out by writing one and a half to two times my maximum word limit. The last week of work I spend constantly trimming out and refining what I've got. I'm going back and checking my word count every half hour or so, to see how close I am getting to my goal.



Friday, November 14, 2014

Weird bug convergence

I have been using Apple's program Pages lately in an effort to make my Chromebook work as an editing platform. (Google Docs simply does not cut it: it wipes out all memory of MS Word styles when you convert a file to Google's format, and messes with the existing formatting tremendously.)

Not bad, so far: I am very happy with the fact I can now edit on my iPhone. But as a software engineer, I have found one great puzzle: I was always annoyed that whenever I tried to re-format a paragraph in my "blockquote" style, MS Word would "leak" the style change over into the previous or subsequent paragraphs. Bizarrely, Pages does the exact same thing!

Perhaps, in their effort to capture MS-Word-style logic, Apple engineers also imported the bug in MS Word?