Sunday, January 16, 2022

Dick Macksey's library made the NYTimes today (1.16.22)

                                                Photo: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

Dick Macksey’s library made the NYTimes today. Macksey died in July of 2019, but his library, or rather a simulacrum of it, lives on. That particular photo appeared on the web some time before Macksey’s death, two, three, I don’t know, maybe four years before. I don’t know when I first saw it, but I recognized it immediately. That library is legendary in the circle of Macksey’s colleagues, students and former students, and who knows who else. We’ve all seen it and marveled.

I took my first course of Dick Macksey in the Spring of 1966. It was on the autobiographical novel and when we read Tristram Shandy, he brought in a first edition for the class to see, nine small (quarto-sized) volumes. I likely visited his house that semester with the class. I remember seeing the three volumes of The Principia Mathematica on a chair in the entryway. But he’d not yet converted the garage into a library – that was a year later. After that I visited the library many times, sometimes with a class, sometimes after one of the films shown on Wednesday and Friday evenings in Levering Hall. Macksey would host discussions of the films, and further viewings – he had a screen and a 16mm projector in the library. The library seemed full at the time, but not nearly so full as it is in that photo.

If one looks, one can easily find photos of libraries on the web, public and institutional libraries, but home libraries as well. Many of them are magnificent, grander and more luxurious that Dick’s. They show well. But don’t look used.

Dick’s library was used, of course by Dick himself, but by others as well. That’s how the library looks, well used. And that despite the fact that there are no people in it. It appears inhabited, alive. It’s those lights and their relationship to the books and shelves. That photo reveals the library as the living embodiment of the inquiring mind.

I wonder how long it will keep spinning through the web?

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Leaves and light

"Don't Look Up" is a hit [Media Notes 65d]

Cara Buckley, “Don’t Just Watch: Team Behind ‘Don’t Look Up’ Urges Climate Action,” NYTimes, 1.11.22:

After the film premiered in December, climate scientists took to social media and penned opinion essays, saying they felt seen at last. Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that it seemed like a documentary. Several admirers likened the film to “A Modest Proposal,” the 18th-century satirical essay by Jonathan Swift.

Naysayers, meanwhile, said the comet allegory was lost on those who took it literally, and questioned why Mr. McKay hadn’t been more straightforward about global warming. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody said if scientists didn’t like what film critics had to say about science, “the scientists should stop meddling with art.”

Either way, at a time when leaders are failing to take the necessary measures to tackle the planet emergency, and the volume and ferocity of so-called “natural” disasters reach ever graver peaks, there is little question that the movie has struck a pretty big nerve. According to Netflix, which self reports its own figures and was the studio behind the film and its distributor, the movie is one of the its most popular films ever, amassing an unprecedented 152 million hours viewed in one week.

“The goal of the movie was to raise awareness about the terrifying urgency of the climate crisis, and in that, it succeeded spectacularly,” said Genevieve Guenther, the founder and director of End Climate Silence, an organization that promotes media coverage of climate change.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

"Powers of Ten" Updated

Powers of Ten, the short 1968 documentary by Ray and Charles Eames has been updated to reflect current knowledge:

Note, however, that while the original version zooms in to the micro-scale world after having zoomed out to the macro-scale, this new version does only the zoom-out.

Here's a post that presents the original film along with a bit of commentary.

H/t 3QD.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Beethoven in Memphis [on the limits of civilization and sexuality in music]

I'm bumping this to the top of the queue in part on general principle and in part in response to Tyler Cowen's strategic juxtaposition of Mozart and Mick Jagger in this recent post on the decline of classical music (see also this reply to Cowen on Lisztomania).

* * * * *

In 1838 Ole Bull, the Norwegian violin virtuoso, gave the first classical concert ever heard in Memphis, Tennessee. I don’t know what he played on that occasion, but that’s beside the point. What could he have played? That was the year that Felix Mendelssohn thought of writing a concerto in E minor—which would come to be known simply as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a staple of the classical repertoire—for his friend, Ferdinand David. Obviously Bull could not have performed this work. But he could have performed Bach, Hayden, Mozart, or Beethoven. Classical music was in full flower and the blues, jazz, rock and roll, they were still in the distant and unforeseeable deeply unpredictable future.

I would like to think Ole Bull performed some Beethoven, who had been dead for eleven years. Even more, I would like to think that Ole Bull was a pianist, not a violinist, and that he performed Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111, the one with rocking and rolling passages in the second movement (starting are roughly 14:20):

That passage certainly marked the remotest outpost of the Western musical imagination, which didn’t become comfortable with that kind of expressive material for another three-quarters of a century. Even then the comfort was strictly circumscribed. And Memphis in 1838 would certainly have impressed Ole Bull, or any other civilized European, as being pretty near the dropping-off point of Western civilization.

The sexuality which Beethoven had evoked and expressed so directly in the second and third variations of the “Arietta” was quickly sublimated, urging composers to ever more subtle and complex chromatic games, stretching movements over longer and longer time periods, from ten minutes to twenty, to half an hour or more for a single movement of a Mahler symphony. Haydn and Mozart wrote complete symphonies that weren’t that long. It did the same thing to opera, most particularly, to Wagner’s opera. Wagner would stretch it to four, five, or six hours, flowing and ebbing, building and collapsing, and ultimately exhausting. But never really fulfilling.

At roughly the same time when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring scandalized Paris society (1913) with its driving rhythms, the blues, ragtime, and jazz would emerge in still-barbarous America. W.C. Handy wrote his “Memphis Blues” in 1912 and “Beale Street Blues in 1917. But back in 1838, Ole Bull could not have imagined music like Stravinsky’s nor could he have heard music like Handy’s, though the music he played contained the roots of one and the music he heard on the street was the roots of the other. In point of sophistication and complexity, the music Bull heard would have been less so than the music he played, just as Handy’s blues was less sophisticated than Stravinsky’s ballet. Yet with all these differences and distances these musics did meet, and that miscegenationating rhythm has been a driving force in twentieth century culture, popular, high American, Western, and world. Through these rhythms the mind of man, and woman, has been seeking a more generous and fulfilling interaction with the body.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Willard Quine on Limits to Knowing

It seems to me, off-hand, this Quine's discussion has some bearing on John Horgan's concerns about the end of science.  It may also have some bearing on the notion of superintelligent machines. After all, presumably those machines can do things that humans cannot. Could they know things that we cannot? 

After a fair amount of discussion, Quine concludes (c. 25:00):

Questions, let us remember, are in language. Language is learned by people from people only in relation ultimately to observable circumstances of utterance. The relation of language to observation is often very devious, but observation is finally all there is for language to be anchored to. If a question could, in principle, never be answered, then one feels that language has gone wrong. Language has parted its mooring and the question has no meaning.

On this philosophy, of course, our question has a sweeping answer. The question was whether there are things man could never know. The question was whether there are questions, meaningful questions, that man could in principle never answer. On this philosophy the answer to this question of questions is no.

That's the end of Quine's remarks. The rest of the video is given over to an interview with an anthropologist.

H/t 3 Quarks Daily.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Don’t read "Don't Look Up" too narrowly [Matt Yglesias] [Media Notes 65c]

The film’s creators say it’s a satire about climate change. But what do they know? Yglesias says:

If you insist on listening to the creators and seeing it as about climate, then while you might appreciate a few moments, I think you’ll mostly be annoyed and then start saying “but it’s not even funny” blah blah blah.

But that’s not the only way to read a text.

In policy terms, there’s not some sharp tradeoff between taking steps to minimize the risks of climate catastrophe and taking steps to minimize other kinds of catastrophes, and I don’t love framings that put it that way. But the use of a story about a comet collision as a metaphor for climate change — which I actually think works really well as a direct lesson about the risk of a comet hitting the planet as depicted in the film — struck me as funny. And I really encourage people to watch it with an open mind and see it as part of the cinema of existential risk and not just quibble about climate change.

I agree. It works as a story about a collision with a comet, but it works best if we read it more broadly, much more broadly.

On climate change:

The fundamental problem of climate change is that it involves asking people to make changes now for the sake of preventing harms that occur largely in the future to people living in other countries. It’s a genuine problem from hell, and it’s not actually solved by understanding the science or believing the factual information. This is exactly why ideas like McKay’s Manhattan Project [on carbon capture] are so important. While there is a lot we can do to improve the situation with more aggressive deployment of the technology we have, we also really do need more technological breakthroughs that will make lots of tradeoffs less painful and make progress easier.

Yglesias goes on to talk about the existential risk actually posed by comets, by supervolcanos, and but future pandemics.

Back to the film:

... in this case the message is much bigger than climate change. There is a range of often goofy-sounding threats to humanity that don’t track well onto our partisan cleavages or culture war battles other than that addressing them invariably involves some form of concerted action of the sort that conservatives tend to disparage. And this isn’t a coincidence. If existential threats were materializing all the time, we’d be dead and not streaming satirical films on Netflix. So the threats tend to sound “weird,” and if you talk a lot about them you’ll be “weird.” They don’t fit well into the grooves of ordinary political conflict because ordinary political conflict is about stuff that happens all the time.

So read Ord’s book “The Precipice” and find out all about it. Did you know that the Biological Weapons Convention has just four employees? I do because it’s in the book. Let’s maybe give them six?

For all that, though, I am genuinely shocked that the actual real-world emergence of SARS-Cov-2 has not caused more people to care about pandemic risk. The havoc that this pandemic has wreaked just in terms of economic harm and annoyance has been devastating.

There’s more.

Red branches, lion's head, and the peeping sun

Fantasia and Transnational Film Culture

I'm bumping this 2012 post to the top of the queue primarily for the argument (starting halfway through) it makes about film culture being fundamentally transnational. 

* * * * *

I have argued that Disney’s Fantasia is a signal work in a film culture that is fundamentally transnational. By transnational I don’t mean universal, or anything like it. I mean only that film culture at that time, the mid-20th Century, operated across national borders and, indeed, had been doing so since its inception.

This argument goes back to a piece I’d originally published in The Valve in 2006 and republished here in 2010: Disney’s Fantasia as Masterpiece. First I want to reprise aspects of that argument and then I’ll flesh out some things I didn’t get to back then.
Fantasia as a Singular Work

In order to argue that Fantasia is a masterpiece I had to argue that it is not, as it is so often considered, an unordered collection of autonomous episodes. That the film is not a narrative is obvious. What is not so obvious is that it is, I argue, an encyclopedia. The episodes have been carefully, if unconsciously, chosen to indicate the whole of the cosmos. In making that argument I called on two literary critics, Edward Mendelson and Franco Moretti:

In 1976 Edward Mendelson published an article on “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon” (MLN 91, 1267-1275). It was an attempt to define a genre whose members include Dante's Divine Comedy, Rablais', Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust, Melville's Moby Dick, Joyce's Ulysses, and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Somewhat later Franco Moretti was thinking about “monuments,” “sacred texts,” “world texts,” texts he wrote about in Modern Epic (Verso 1996). He came upon Mendelson's article, saw a kinship with his project, and so added Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung's (note, a musical as well as a narrative work), Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a few others to the list. It is in this company that I propose to place Fantasia.

And so I did.

You’ll have to consult that old post if you want the full argument where I consider the contribution of each of the film’s eight episodes. In this post I’m concerned with only one aspect of the argument, that these encyclopedic works are special kinds of cultural markers:

One other characteristic looms large in Mendelson's formulation. These works are identified with particular national cultures and arise were these nations become aware of themselves as distinct entities. This creates a problem for his nomination of Gravity's Rainbow as an encyclopedic work because Moby Dick already has the encyclopedic slot in American letters. He deals with the problem by suggesting that Pynchon is “the encyclopedist of the newly-forming international culture whose character his book explicitly labors to identify” (pp. 1271-1272).

Fantasia presents the same problem, for, like Moby Dick before and Gravity's Rainbow after, it is nominally an American work. But there is no specifically American reference in the film. None of the music is American, none of the segments are set in America nor refer to American history or culture. It is not, in any ordinary sense, a nationalist work, an expression of national identity. Rather, it is an expression of a naïve middle-brow universalism, unaware of the cultural specificities on which it depends.

That seems right to me, a naïve middle-brow universalism, one that circulated transnationally. That’s what Disney was after and the company still pursues it, I suppose, long after the founding genius, Walter Elias Disney, has died.
Nationalism Gets in the Way

First of  all, we need to recognize that national boundaries are not good markers of cultural kinds, though nationalist ideologies insist otherwise. I’ve argued this point at some length in a working paper, Culture, Plurality, and Identity in the 21st Century. The physics conducted behind Japanese borders is not Japanese physics in any culturally significant sense. It is just physics that is done on Japanese soil in Japanese-built structures and is readily intelligible to anyone who knows contemporary physics.

Nor is the golf played on American golf courses an essentially American game merely because American citizens play it on American soil. That the game originated in Scotland is one thing; that it is now played the world over is another. What that implies about cultural identity, I don’t quite know. But we’ve got to step back from the automatic practice of hanging national labels on cultural formations.

Culture doesn’t work that way, and never has. Cultural practices have circulated freely among human groups long before the nation state was invented. Upon its invention, though, which happened relatively recently according to Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge 1990), it set out to create a myth of cultural homogeneity within its borders. Of national languages Hobsbawm writes (p. 54):

National languages are therefore almost always semi-artificial constructs and occasionally, like modern Hebrew, virtually invented. They are the opposite of what nationalist mythology supposes them to be, namely the primordial foundations of national culture and the matrices of the national mind. They are usually attempts to devise a standardized idiom out of  a multiplicity of actually spoken idioms, which are thereafter downgraded to dialects, the main problem in their construction being usually, which dialect to choose as the base of the standardized and homogenized language.

Of France, for example (p. 60):

However, given that the dialect which forms the basis of a national language is actually spoken, it does not matter that those who speak it are a minority, so long as it is a minority of sufficient political weight. In this sense French was essential to the concept of France, even though in 1789 50% of Frenchmen did not speak it at all, only 12-13% spoke it ‘correctly’—and indeed outside a central region it was not usually habitually spoken even in the area of the langue d’oui, except in towns, and then not always in their suburbs. In northern and southern France virtually nobody talked French.

Italy was even more problematic, with only 2½ % speaking Italian in 1860 when the country was unified.

One aspect of this nationalizing process that shows up in university curricula is the teaching of national literature and history to undergraduates as an aspect of training them to be good national citizens. Ironically enough, in American universities, it was, until relatively recently, English literature that was taught to undergraduates, not American. There were no courses in American literature at Johns Hopkins when I was a student there in the 1960s, nor were there any Americanists in the faculty of the English Department. That situation was not unusual for the time, though that time has since passed.

American national mythology has it that America is a melting pot, implying that many cultures went into it but we’ve all come out the same: American. But we haven’t. America wasn’t culturally homogeneous when Disney made Fantasia and it isn’t homogeneous now.

National boundaries and national institutions, political, economic and military, certainly have cultural consequences. But they do not constitute cultural essences. Cultural formations cross national borders all the time.
Film Culture as Transnational

In this perspective, the assertion that film culture is transnational would seem almost a trivial truism. By the late nineteenth century, when motion picture technology was invented and put to practical use, European conquest had linked the world with lines of trade and exploitation, which necessarily involved global circulation of cultural materials and practices of all kinds. The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893—where Elias Disney, Walt’s father, had worked as a carpenter—had exhibits from 46 nations around the world and was attended by 27 million people. Eadweard Muybridge exhibited moving pictures of animals at the fair.

The early film industry was, of course, built on silent films. So language was no barrier to circulation of films. According to Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (1994, p. 22) American film-makers copied the comedies of Georges Méliès as soon as they landed—copyright was not established for films until 1912. Until World War I the French company Pathé Frères was the world’s largest film producer (p. 29). The Europeans were the first to make long films, a market the American producer, Adolph Zukor entered into in 1912 (pp. 42-44).

Zukor, like many of the early movie moguls, as a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. This fact prompted Neal Gabler to write An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, in which he argues that the Hollywood film industry was built by such men used it as a vehicle to make themselves into Americans, but also to make an imagined America in their image, as Christopher Lehman-Haupt notes in this review:

But above all things, these moguls ''wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews; they wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.'' And in doing so, ''the Hollywood Jews created a powerful cluster of images and ideas - so powerful that, in a sense, they colonized the American imagination.''

By the time we get to Disney—the studio was founded in the early 1920s—the American film industry may have been the largest but the industry was itself a world industry in which it was  routine for films to circulate outside their countries of origin.

That was certainly true of Disney’s cartoons, which were known around the world. Mickey Mouse, and Mickey Mouse merchandise, was not exclusively American. By the time Fantasia came out, 1940, Mickey was known around the world. By then Disney had become so dependent on overseas exhibition that the advent of World War II hurt him badly, forcing him to stop making feature films and to make propaganda and training films for the Federal Government in order to keep the studio solvent.

Disney himself may have been an example of the rags-to-riches story so central to American mythology, and he may even have thought of his films as pure Americana. But pure they were not. He and his artists borrowed freely from many cultures in making their cartoons.
Disney Culture

Consider the first five feature length films, the ones completed before Disney shut down feature production at the beginning of World War II. Two of them, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, are based on European sources and take place in European settings. Bambi is set entirely in the woods and so could take place anywhere with the appropriate flora and fauna, which is a rather large part of the world. The many settings of the episodes in Fantasia defy easy geographical reference, though The Rite of Spring takes nothing less than the solar system as its setting. That leaves us with Dumbo, which is set in America, starting in Florida with the winter quarters for the circus. But the circus itself is a European cultural form that was brought to America in the 19th Century.

Yes, these films are American in the sense that they were made in America and it is probably the case that most of the men and women involved in the making were born in America. But not all of them. Danish illustrator Kay Nielson joined Disney in 1939 and did concept art for the Ave Maria and Night of Bald Mountain sequences of Fantasia. More to the point, Robin Allen (Walt Disney in Europe) has documented a wide range of European influences in Disney’s cartoon imagery in general. In the particular case of Fantasia Kendall O'Conner, an art director on the Dance of the Hours, asserted African and Japanese influences (quoted in John Culhane, Walt Disney's Fantasia, pp. 168, 170).

Finally, all of Fantasia’s music is European; none of it is America. This was generally true of  soundtrack music for feature films. It may have been composed by American composes, some of them European immigrants, but the idiom was 19th Century European romanticism. Cartoon music was different. While much of it was from the 19th Century European classics—which were, of course, not in copyright—swing and jazz did show up in soundtracks, but not on the soundtracks of any of these old Disney features.

So, where does that leave the cultural identify of Disney’s cartoons, but most particularly, of Fantasia? If we insist on assigning them an identity, then the obvious identity is Disney. They’re an expression of Disney culture, but not in the contemporary sense of corporate culture, where, for example, the culture of Apple is said to be different from that of Monsanto or Goldman Sachs. The cultural identity of those films is Disney in the more interesting sense that it is an amalgam of diverse cultural influences that Disney himself—for he was very much a hands-on micro-manager for at least the first two decades of his studio—authorized and, to some extent, sought out.

In this process Disney and his artists did not confine themselves to American sources. That this Disney amalgam has something of a middle-brow universalism about it, that is interesting. And it is not too difficult to see how that would have a broad transnational appeal. Not universal, though. Just transnational. A lot of people in a lot of nations like Disney films, some more than others. And many, especially intellectuals, feel that they are trite and kitschy as well, not at all authentic. That’s OK as well, though not compatible with my belief that Fantasia is one of the great works. But THAT’s a different argument.

THIS argument is simply that, in the large, film culture is inherently transnational in that, from the beginning, films have circulated across national borders and film-makers in one nation have been influenced by film-makers in other nations. Yes, there ARE national cinemas, and there is more to that than the mere location where the film is made. Any number of  Hollywood Westerns, for example, can plausibly be said to be somehow culturally American in a way that Fantasia is not. And that is my argument in the small, that Fantasia in particular is not culturally American, despite having been made in America by people who were, for the most part, American citizens.
American Culture?

Is there such a thing as American culture? I believe so, though I’m not sure just what it is. I’ve already mentioned the Hollywood Western. I think a case can be made that it is authentically American. But it hasn’t stayed in America—think of the spaghetti Westerns from Italy. There is a national political mythology that encompasses the Revolutionary War, George Washington and the cherry tree, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, not to mention the Constitution and any number of such documents. And there’s Thanksgiving, a specifically American holiday. And so forth.

Such things constitute the cultural formation of American identity and, as such, of course they are American. And no doubt much else besides. All nation states have cultural apparatus specifically devoted to validating national identity and thus obscuring what actually takes place, on the ground, in modern nations with international trade, travel, and communications.

It precisely on account of that nationalist mystification that I think that we must be wary of the reflexive identification of cultural formations with nation states. And these large identities such as Western, Eastern, and African culture are even more doubtful. Such reflexive and pervasive identifications beg too many questions and get in the way of understanding cultural dynamics.

* * * * *

Note: The Wikipedia has a short entry on transnational cinema:
A key argument of Transnational cinema is the necessity for a redefinition, or even refutation, of the concept of a national cinema. National identity has been posited as an 'imaginary community' that in reality is formed of many separate and fragmented communities defined more by social class, economic class, sexuality, gender, generation, religion, ethnicity, political belief and fashion, than nationality.
The references are quite recent.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Kara Swisher liked "Don't Look Up" [So did I] [Media Notes 65b]

From the very end her year-end column in The NYTimes, Dec. 30, 2021:

But I digress: The reason I liked the “The Matrix Resurrections” and “Don’t Look Up” is because these are both stories about the limits of big tech, big media and big politics and the importance of heartfelt, real family connections. These are critically important ideas as we move into the next iteration of tech, which will have a lot more to do with virtualizing everything. How we evolve and connect as humans as the world moves to VR is a critical issue. [...]

So, too, Adam McKay’s much-maligned “Don’t Look Up.” If you ask me, you should ignore the critics. Yes, there are some obvious plot points and over-the-top characterizations, but ultimately it’s a story about the gravity of humanity, however doomed it becomes because of its most pernicious members. That includes, particularly, the tech billionaire Peter Isherwell, a part played to geek perfection by Mark Rylance, who has managed to cohesively mash together the worst parts of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Zuckerberg.

Isherwell’s character hits it on the nose with his know-it-all certainty and data-driven lunacy, calling to mind tech’s ruling class, with its proclivity to be frequently wrong but never in doubt. And within the movie is a caution, that we ought not let Big Tech alone govern the world we share. “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” says the feckless astronomer played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie’s last scene.

I feel the same way about the Isherwell character.

Friday Fotos: (Still) more from Longwood Gardens

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Richard Hanania in search of a way to make sense of US foreign policy.

US foreign policy is unintelligible because 1) it's irrational, and 2) we're using the wrong intellectual tools to understand it. Richard Hanania sets out a better framework in Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy. Here's a blog post in which he introduces the book. Here's the basic idea:

Ever since I started studying IR [international relations], I had a gnawing feeling that something about the whole enterprise was off. As I read more history, and also in other fields like economics, anthropology and psychology, I came to the conclusion that the ways in which we talk about international relations and foreign policy are simply wrong. The whole reason that IR is its own subfield in political science is because of the “unitary actor model,” or the assumption that you can talk about a nation like you talk about an individual, with motivations, goals, and strategies. No one believes this in a literal sense, but it’s considered “close enough” for the sake of trying to understand the world. And although many IR scholars do look at things like psychology and state-specific factors to explain foreign policy, they generally don’t take the critique of the unitary actor model far enough. The more I studied the specifics of American foreign policy the more it looked irrational on a system-wide level and unconnected to any reasonable goals, which further made me skeptical of the assumptions of the field.

That’s pretty abstract, so let’s make it concrete. Think about the most consequential foreign policy decision of the last half century. Why did America invade Iraq in 2003? People say things like it was for oil, or Israel, or neo-conservative ideology. Some still take the original WMDs justification seriously (here’s me arguing with Garett Jones). As I explain in the book, my theory is more like “Bush felt angry, had an instinct that expanding the war on terror was good politics, and had appointed people like Feith and Wolfowitz who already had a target in mind and told him it was going to be easy. So they just invaded and didn’t care about the consequences, because it’s not like any of them had to live in Iraq or anything. Plus they all got nice jobs afterwards anyway.” For more context, see my previous article on neo-cons as willing dupes of Ahmed Chalabi.

For both the major post-9/11 wars – Afghanistan and Iraq – it is clear from the historical record that the Bush administration had no idea what would come after regime change. The neo-con faction wanted to install Chalabi in Iraq, but Bush sort of dithered and then rejected that view, and ended up just letting State Department types get to work writing a constitution with gender quotas and building something called “civil society.” The political system selects for people who think in terms of short-term political goals, not long-term grand strategy. When the war started going badly and there weren’t even WMDs, it was too embarrassing to admit how dumb the whole thing was and the 2004 election was coming up soon so they all started talking about how American freedom depended on democratizing Muslim countries. It’s often thought that putting yourself in the shoes of others helps build empathy, but when I studied the Bush administration in particular, my experience was pretty much the opposite, and I remain taken aback by the extent to which they didn’t seem to feel any moral responsibility to think too much about the consequences of their actions, at least for anything besides electoral politics.

He summarizes the book's conclusion (in Ch. 7) this way:

In the arguments put forth in this book, dominant American ideas about foreign policy are mostly downstream of the interests of concentrated groups. Therefore, I suggest that those who want to change US behavior abroad should seek to shape the incentive structures that politicians and government officials face, rather than simply focusing on ideas.

There's more at the link.


Tyler Cowen thinks segregating school children by age is a bad idea [I agree]

From the year-end review of Conversations with Tyler:

HOLMES: Next question from @gasca. Asked a number of ones. I think the one I’ll pick is, “We talked about university curriculum, but if you could do whatever you wanted, how would you change elementary, middle school, high school curricula?”

COWEN: I don’t think I know enough to say, but intuitively, it strikes me as somewhat absurd that we group together children all of the same age. There’s an obvious staggering problem. But ideally you would want younger children always to be interacting with older children, and older children to take on a partial role of teacher and mentor, older peer.

The idea that there’s the second grade, the third grade, the fourth grade — in my gut, I feel that has to be wrong, and you’re inducing the kids to bring out the worst in each other. I don’t know how to fix that, but that’s where my attention would point — on that assumption that you group by age seems barbaric.