Robert Darnton on the secret history of the blog.10:37 AM, Mar 18, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Historian Robert Darnton on early modern blogs:
Short, scurrilous abuse proliferated in all sorts of communication systems: taunts scribbled on palazzi during the feuds of Renaissance Italy, ritual insult known as “playing the dozens” among African Americans, posters carried in demonstrations against despotic regimes, and graffiti on many occasions such as the uprising in Paris of May–June 1968 (one read “Voici la maison d’un affreux petit bourgeois”). When expertly mixed, provocation and pithiness could be dynamite—the verbal or written equivalent of Molotov cocktails.
This subject deserves more study, because for all of their explosiveness, the blog-like elements in earlier eras of communication tend to be ignored by sociologists, political scientists, and historians who concentrate on full-scale texts and formal discourse.
To appreciate the importance of a pre-modern blog, consult a database such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online and download a newspaper from eighteenth-century London. It will have no headlines, no bylines, no clear distinction between news and ads, and no spatial articulation in the dense columns of type, aside from one crucial ingredient: the paragraph. Paragraphs were self-sufficient units of news. They had no connection with one another, because writers and readers had no concept of a news “story” as a narrative that would run for more than a few dozen words. News came in bite-sized bits, often “advices” of a sober nature—the arrival of a ship, the birth of an heir to a noble title—until the 1770s, when they became juicy. Pre-modern scandal sheets appeared, exploiting the recent discovery about the magnetic pull of news toward names. As editors of the Morning Postand the Morning Herald, two men of the cloth, the Reverend Henry Bate (known as “the Reverend Bruiser”) and the Reverend William Jackson (known as “Dr. Viper”) packed their paragraphs with gossip about the great, and this new kind of news sold like hotcakes. Much of it came from a bountiful source: the coffee house.
Fantastic stuff. And almost as gripping as this story about a surfing alpaca.
Did the blizzard affect unemployment?4:58 PM, Mar 4, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
A new jobs report comes out tomorrow morning. The White House is already trying to spin the numbers. Economic adviser Larry Summers says the employment situation may have worsened in February because of the weather. Hudson Institute economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth says that's baloney:
On March 5, we might find that jobs were lost and the unemployment rate rose in February. But that will be because of the continued uncertain direction of economic policy—including the possibility of tax increases, high deficits, environmental regulation, and expensive healthcare reform—and not because of the weather.
Whatever the February report shows, though, there is also some good economic news.
Niall Ferguson on complexity and decline.9:31 AM, Mar 2, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Niall Ferguson had a fascinating op-ed in the February 28 Los Angeles Times:
If empires are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions, what are the implications for the United States today? First, debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time -- it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens. Second, most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises. Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly indeed as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2010 of more than $1.5 trillion -- about 11% of GDP, the biggest since World War II.
These numbers are bad, but in the realm of political entities, the role of perception is just as crucial. In imperial crises, it is not the material underpinnings of power that really matter but expectations about future power. The fiscal numbers cited above cannot erode U.S. strength on their own, but they can work to weaken a long-assumed faith in the United States' ability to weather any crisis.
Ferguson's larger essay, from which the op-ed is adapted, is available to subscribers of Foreign Affairs here. Whether Ferguson is an American declinist is an open question. For what it's worth, I think Josef Joffe and Joel Kotkin are right and the pessimists are wrong: the evidence shows that America isn't going anywhere.
Ryan vs. Orszag5:33 PM, Feb 17, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
From an Economics 21 staff editorial:
The Ryan and Orszag proposals represent competing visions of how the United States deals with our fiscal dilemma. Under Congressman Ryan’s vision, we try to live within our projected revenues, leave our children with tax burdens comparable to our own, and constrain our spending appetites accordingly. On the Social Security side, this means slowing the growth of benefits -- which would still grow faster than inflation.
Under the alternative vision espoused by Orszag, we would impose on younger generations higher payroll tax rates, tax a higher fraction of national wages, and levy an additional 3% benefit-less surcharge, thereby reducing economic growth and individual saving.
The contest between the Ryan and Orszag visions for Social Security is the fundamental contest between constraining our spending appetites and raising taxes to fuel persistently higher costs. It mirrors the gap between the Obama Administration’s larger fiscal policies, and the views of American voters on the political center and on the right.
This editorial is a useful reminder that the Roadmap for America's Future not only tackles Medicare and Medicaid spending; it drastically overhauls Social Security and tax policy, as well. You can say Ryan's plan is ambitious -- perhaps too ambitious! But you can't say it isn't a serious attempt to save a sinking ship.
Jeffrey Friedman on regulation.5:18 PM, Feb 12, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Critical Review editor Jeffrey Friedman in the CATO Policy Report:
When voters demand "action," and when legislators and regulators provide it, they are all naturally proceeding according to some theory of the cause of the problem they are trying to solve. If their theories are mistaken, the regulations may produce unintended consequences that, later on, in principle, could be recognized as mistakes and rectified. In practice, however, regulations are rarely repealed. Whatever made a mistaken regulation seem sensible to begin with will probably blind people to its unintended effects later on. Thus future regulators will tend to assume that the problem with which they are grappling is a new "excess of capitalism," not an unintended consequence of an old mistake in the regulation of capitalism.
What we call "the market," in other words, is an amalgamation of buyers and sellers attempting to maximize self-interest amidst a dense and centuries-old web of rules, laws, and rent-seekers. When one uses the phrase "market failure," therefore, it is important to realize that those words describe billions of interactions between individuals and public and private institutions, not some theoretically pristine laissez-faire capitalism that exists only in textbooks. People make this mistake all the time.
Niall Ferguson on the Greek debt crisis.5:54 PM, Feb 11, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
What we in the western world are about to learn is that there is no such thing as a Keynesian free lunch. Deficits did not “save” us half so much as monetary policy – zero interest rates plus quantitative easing – did. First, the impact of government spending (the hallowed “multiplier”) has been much less than the proponents of stimulus hoped. Second, there is a good deal of “leakage” from open economies in a globalised world. Last, crucially, explosions of public debt incur bills that fall due much sooner than we expect
For the world’s biggest economy, the US, the day of reckoning still seems reassuringly remote. The worse things get in the eurozone, the more the US dollar rallies as nervous investors park their cash in the “safe haven” of American government debt. This effect may persist for some months, just as the dollar and Treasuries rallied in the depths of the banking panic in late 2008.
Yet even a casual look at the fiscal position of the federal government (not to mention the states) makes a nonsense of the phrase “safe haven”. US government debt is a safe haven the way Pearl Harbor was a safe haven in 1941.
The Economist's Buttonwood columnist has more: "Greek yields have come off their peak and every reduction eases the "debt trap" (interest rate higher than the growth rate) in which the country is stuck. The next Greek financing is not till April. But one suspects the markets will want to test the EU's resolve."Yogurt and rich shipping magnates are no longer Greece's most famous exports. That title now belongs to sovereign debt crises.
Shawn Tully interviews economist Allan Meltzer.5:39 PM, Feb 10, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Economist Allan Meltzer on what Keynes would say about the Obama administration:
Keynes didn't favor at any time that I know spending to increase consumption. He didn't want that, and in fact he believed that was taken care of by the marketplace.
Keynes wanted to increase employment by smoothing the amount of investment through the up and down parts of the business cycle. He knew that recessions cause a decline in investment, and that the fall in investment caused unemployment to rise. So he wanted the government to stabilize investment through a recession.
Meltzer is no polemicist. He's a noted professor and author of a two-volume history of the Federal Reserve (I hear the first volume ends in a cliff-hanger!). Take him seriously. Reporter Shawn Tully then asked Meltzer what Keynes would have thought about the difference between tax cuts and government spending:
On economists and health care reform5:27 PM, Feb 9, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
As the mid-Atlantic stocks up on supplies to prepare for the coming storm, let's stock up on Quotes of the Day (So Far!). The first is from James M. Buchanan:
Unfortunately, economists, generally, failed to understand that aggregate variables that may be measured with tolerable accuracy ex post may not be variables subject to control, directly or even indirectly. The fundamental misconception here lies in the understanding of what ‘the economy’ is. The ‘economic problem’ is not (despite Lionel Robbins) an engineering problem that may be defined simply as the allocation of scarce resources among alternative uses. The economy, in some inclusive definitional sense, is perhaps best described as an order that consists of an interlinked set of exchanges, simple and complex, from which outcomes emerge that may in some respects be meaningfully measured but that cannot be chosen, and thereby controlled, by concentrated decision takers.
There's much more at the link. (And a tip of the hat to Tyler Cowen.)
Number two is from Yuval Levin:
The difference between the Left and the Right is not a difference of degree, but of direction, and each side tends to think that moving even a little in the wrong direction is worse than doing nothing. That’s why a compromise won’t be so easy.
The larger public, I think, is not so tied to either direction, but is opposed to doing anything huge. That’s a big part of what the Democrats have done wrong this year: They have proposed too much. Whichever side is smart enough to propose some modest and sensible incremental steps in its preferred direction will have far better luck with the public. Conservatives would be wise to do so in a serious and concerted way before liberals realize that it’s time to employ some different means toward their same misguided end.
"Modest and sensible incremental steps" like those found in the small bill, for example.
On the progressive tantrum.7:17 PM, Feb 8, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
My point here is not to champion Republicans. It is not to champion democracy. My point is that the ones throwing the temper tantrum right now are the Progressives. They think that the 2008 election gave them the right to operate like China's autocracy, and they are lashing out hysterically at those they perceive as preventing them from doing so. On the one hand, the villains are a small minority in the Senate. Or maybe the villains are the incoherent majority of the people.
The important point is that Progressives are never wrong. Top-down reform is the only way to fix the health care system. Anthropogenic global warming is scientifically proven, and its solution requires strenuous exercise of political control over individual behavior. Deficit spending is necessary and sufficient to create jobs. Technocrats can make banks too regulated to fail. Markets without technocratic control are like adolescents without adult supervision. Individual happiness can be improved by political authorities using scientific knowledge. Concentrated political power is the wave of the future, and it is good.
I am not a populist. I fear the mob. But how can I fear the Progressives any less?
Also read Gerard Alexander on liberal condescension. It occurs to me that American liberals are re-learning the lesson of the old left-wing chant: The people united can never be defeated. And it's driving them up a wall.
Health care reform's chances keep dwindling.10:29 AM, Feb 4, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
AP reporter Erica Werner on Obamacare:
The legislation remains in limbo. Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, moderates from California who voted for the House bill, burst out laughing when asked about the issue's fate.
These are members of Pelosi's state delegation. She simply does not have the 218 votes necessary to pass the bill.
Charles Krauthammer on Obama's foreign policy.4:02 PM, Feb 2, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
On January 19, Charles Krauthammer delivered a Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture at the Heritage Foundation. You can read the whole speech here. Food for thought:
The international community lies at the center of the Obama foreign policy. Unfortunately, it is a fiction. There is no such thing. Different countries have different histories, geographies, necessities, and interests. There's no natural, inherent, or enduring international community. What community of interest is there between, say, the United States, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Burma?
The international community is a Hobbesian state of nature with no universally recognized norms. Anarchy is kept in check not by some bureaucracy on the East River, not by some inchoate expression of world opinion, not by parchment promises adorned with disingenuous signatures, but by the will and the power of the Great Powers and, most important in our time, the one remaining superpower: namely, the United States.
The address builds on themes Krauthammer enunciated in his lecture "Decline is a Choice." Read the whole thing, as they say. You won't regret it.
Garrison Keillor on one of humanity's greatest achievements.4:46 PM, Feb 1, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
From today's "Writer's Almanac":
The longest entry in the 1989 edition is the word "set" in its verb form: There are more than 430 listed ways the verb "set" is used. The entry for the verb "set" is 60,000 words long, the equivalent of a modestly sized novel. The Bible is quoted more than any other work in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Shakespeare is quoted more than any other single author. Of Shakespeare's works, Hamlet is quoted the most — there about 1,600 quotations from Hamlet alone in the OED.
He's talking about the Oxford English Dictionary. The concise edition is here. Also recommended: Simon Winchester's Professor and the Madman, a great story about the making of the dictionary.
The dictionary was an exercise in cooperative knowledge, similar in some ways to Wikipedia. Among the differences between the two: the OED is authoritative and a whole lot heavier.
Bonus S.J. Perelman quote from today's Almanac: "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Speaker Pelosi.5:13 PM, Jan 29, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
President Obama supports a three-year freeze on non-defense discretionary spending. The plan is likely to pass despite liberal opposition. The Speaker of the House of Representatives -- remember: she is second-in-line to assume the presidency -- says she would only back the freeze if it applied to defense spending, as well. You don't need me to say this is a ridiculous idea. Here's Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan: "That's kind of hard to do in the middle of a war." Not to mention incredibly unwise.
What makes Levin's utterance the Quote of the Day (So Far!)? It's not only that he slapped down Pelosi's foolishness. It's the way he did it--usually liberals reserve such condescension for conservatives alone!
Susan Ferrechio's piece in the Washington Examiner is worth reading in full, because it shows the widespread divisions emerging in the Democratic party: between leadership and rank-and-file, between House and Senate, between liberals and moderates and conservatives. Such arguments are unlikely to disappear as long as unemployment persists, the public remains divided on the president's performance, and Democrats are unable to pass legislation that (a) the public actually wants and (b) delivers tangible public goods.
"Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated," President Obama said in his State of the Union Address this week. Did he not realize that until now? At least the lesson is beginning to sink in. Because things are about to get noisier, messier, and a lot more complicated.
Change is unstoppable.5:06 PM, Jan 28, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Walter Russell Mead on the American future (extended metaphor alert!):
There are several ugly truths that the country (and especially the states whose governments are bigger and bluer than the rest) will be facing in the next ten years.
First, voters simply will not be taxed to cover the costs of blue government. Voters with insecure job tenure and, at best, defined-contribution rather than defined-benefit pensions will simply not pay higher taxes so that bureaucrats can enjoy lifetime tenure and secure pensions.
Second, voters will not accept the shoddy services that blue government provides. Government is going to have to respond to growing ‘consumer’ demand for more user-friendly, customer-oriented approaches. The arrogant lifetime bureaucrat at the Department of Motor Vehicles is going to have to turn into the Starbucks barista offering service with a smile.
Third, government must reconcile itself to its declining ability to regulate a post-blue economy with regulatory models and instincts rooted in the past.
Read the whole thing, as they say. You will learn what Mead means by "blue government."
Walter Russell Mead on globalization4:24 PM, Jan 26, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Check out Walter Russell Mead's take on the American future:
The learned professions in the United States — lawyers, doctors, nurses, accountants, educators, journalists, government bureaucrats — are under the gun. The IT revolution is going to put them all through the wringer — the way it has already put blue collar America through the wringer by a combination of automation and outsourcing. The upper middle class did very well in the last generation, even as blue collar incomes stagnated and in many cases fell. The next phase of change will challenge the institutions and the livelihoods of America’s managers, professors, lawyers and others in the same way that it has already thrown journalism into the maelstrom.
These changes are necessary and in the long run benign. Dramatically and thoroughly restructuring the professions will ultimately make the vital services they provide much cheaper and much more widely available — just as the destruction of the old manufacturing guilds in the industrial revolution eventually made manufactured goods much cheaper. But just as the spinners and weavers fought the new machines, so we can expect a lot of our intellectuals and managers to fight the challenges to a system that has worked very well for them.
The whole post is worth reading. And if you are interested in this topic, be sure to read Gregg Easterbrook's Sonic Boom, which treats the coming changes at greater length. I reviewed Sonic Boom here.