Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, October 24, 2011

Geography is Destiny

I came across a great passage from Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, describing an elderly gentleman who, in his youth, was exiled to Tashkent by the Tsarist government for subversive teaching. Eventually he returned to Russia and was the only landlord (in his district, I presume) who was left unmolested in the Revolution. But:

In 1926 Shargorodsky took it into his head to give lectures on the history of Russian literature; he attacked Demyan Byedniy and praised Fet; he took part in the then fashionable discussions about the beauty and truth of life; he declared himself an opponent of every State, declared Marxism a narrow creed, and spoke of the tragic fate of the Russian soul. In the end he talked and argued himself into another journey at government expense to Tashkent. There he stayed, marvelling at the power of geographical arguments in a theoretical discussion, until in late 1933 he received permission to move to Samara to live with his elder sister, Elena Andreevna.

Grossman's prose can't be compared to Tolstoy's, but it has its moments, and Life and Fate packs a lot of truth into 871 pages.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

I Heard Ol' Neal Put Her Down

A few weeks ago everyone was linking to this Neal Stephenson essay on innovation, mostly approvingly (I didn't see any disapproving commentary, anyway).

My own thought when I read it was Nehru's infamous (and possibly apocryphal) remark that "dams are the temples of modern India." By which I mean, Stephenson's examples of innovation are projects carried out on an epic scale, with little emphasis placed on their effect on human welfare. One gets the sense that space travel looms far larger to Stephenson than an innovation like oral rehydration therapy.

Stephenson cites the legal system as an impediment to innovation (even making the bizarre claim that minority shareholders would take legal action against a corporation investing in long-term innovation). That makes it all the more puzzling that Stephenson doesn't discuss legal or social innovation. After all, there are innovative ideas for reform of the patent system, and a legal innovation called the business judgment rule shields corporate directors from liability when their decisions turn out to be unprofitable, as long as those decisions met certain requirements.

Admittedly, there's a sense in which an innovation like flexicurity is less impressive than sending a man to the moon, but in many ways social innovations are more complicated and more difficult than massive engineering projects. They are also more crucial to continuing advances in human welfare. If you go to India today, it probably won't even occur to you to visit a dam, but you won't be able to avoid signs of the market and social innovations that have transformed the country.

It's a Trappist Ale!

Headline on the NY Times website right now: "Cardinals Don't Waste Off Night by Brewers." I like to imagine a bunch of Catholic officials lounging around in a cathedral, shifting from beer to wine so as not to let the brewers' off night spoil the fun.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Los Gatos Gordos

Yglesias has a post about right-wing populism:

A right-leaning populism would start from the (accurate) premise that some of the privileges of the few derive from their use of the power of the state and would seek to dismantle these instances of big government privilege. But who is doing this? You can read a fair number of blog posts and even the occasional speech or article about it. But where’s the governor or mayor who’s going to town on this agenda and succeeding? Clearly there are any of number of people who you might claim have done something or other along these lines. But generally speaking GOP governors seem pretty focused on making the tax base regressive and cutting social services for the poor.

The answer to Matt's question - who is doing this? - is that, by the lights of American conservatives, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is doing this. What Matt fails to appreciate is that to the conservative movement, public-sector employees are the privileged few. The abusers of government power. The fat cats.

I don't really want to address the merits of this viewpoint. But Yglesias is being disingenuous - he might as well say, "Are there any conservatives out there who are admirable from a liberal perspective, he asked, expecting the answer no?"