US politics

Book Review: Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/01/2019 - 10:52pm in

In Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American RightArlie Russell Hochschild explores the ‘deep story’ behind the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump in the USA, drawing on close contact with her research subjects over a five-year period of living in Louisiana. While the book may struggle to ultimately explain the origins of this phenomenon, Hochschild’s intense immersion in the field and her use of interconnected research methods make it a valuable contribution to sociological understanding of this topic. 

Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Arlie Russell Hochschild. The New Press. 2018 [2016].

Hands in the Oily Kitchen Sink – on Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land

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The question of why it is that right-wing politics, especially in their populist and socially detrimental versions, are on the rise in our time seems a rather hard nut to crack for contemporary social scientists. Often enough, answers to this riddle are couched in moralising terms, showing resentment and scorn towards those social groups that actually vote for right-wing political parties. Arlie Hochschild’s recent book, Strangers in their Own Land, which tries to come to grips with this phenomenon in its American variant – that is, the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump – refreshingly avoids the moralistic cul-de-sac.

For her study, Hochschild visited and actually lived in a Deep South state (Louisiana) for five years. While doing so, she combined many interconnected in-depth research methods, from focus groups to interviews to participant observation, to build an emerging narrative of the issue at hand. In this she holds true to her earlier method of what might be called intense immersion, as known from works such as The Second Shift or The Time Bind. She thus gets into enduring close contact with her research subjects, who are mostly petit-bourgeois white rural Louisianans, many of whom struggle with problems related to the regional oil drilling industry.

The point is to come to grips with the ‘great paradox’, as Hochschild calls it. It can be shown conclusively that environmental pollution, but also general social distress and suffering, can be traced back causally to powerful, large companies that are under-regulated and therefore can wreak havoc with the rest of society for their own profits. Why, then, do some that are hurt and affected by these politics defend this form of social organisation, or even see it as a sort of panacea? This is not ‘rational’. It takes Hochschild a lot of working at the ‘empathy wall’ – defined as ‘an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different views or those whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances’  (5) – to carve out something like an answer to this question. This is so because Hochschild recognises the large gap in life-worlds between herself – the liberal Sociology professor from California – and her research protagonists – the rather conservative-minded people of small southern communities.

Image Credit: Tea Party demonstration, Texas, 2009 (Susan E. Adams CC BY SA 2.0)

The answer goes like this: these people were brought up with an idea of fair competition and social ascent through hard work and discipline. This hope – to eventually be at the suntrap – vanished through factors both economic and cultural. There was the wage and earnings squeeze of the last decades, rising economic inequality and the belt-tightening this has brought particularly for those groups working in manufacturing and manual jobs. But there has also been the rise of cultural pressure politics of formerly marginalised groups – women, ethnic minorities, the LGTBQ community – that demand recognition in law and political practice.

In the eyes of Hochschild’s protagonists, both of these led to an unfair outcome of the initial competition – not only did they not get what they thought they deserved, but they also experienced other groups ‘cutting in line’. This frustration at the perceived lack of respect for their ideas of fairness, including the scorning of these in the ‘liberal’ press and TV channels, made them feel ‘strangers in their own land’. It prompted them to prefer a nationalistic perspective over, say, a class-struggle one in understanding their situation. The groups found to be responsible seemed to be the ‘liberals’, the Northerners, the Washington government with its regulation frenzy that unfairly skews and perverts fair competition. It created the need to restore what was perceived to be lost – one’s own honourable way of life defined by hard work, fair pay and free decisions. Initial participation in political meetings where the call for extreme economic freedom was coupled with national pride in the ‘American way of life’ created a catalyst effect that tended to feed on and extend itself because of the ‘collective effervescence’: the ‘rebirth’ of collective dignity and pride it fostered and made possible. And so a new, toxic way of doing politics was born.

This is, roughly, how the story goes in Hochschild’s book, and one can clearly see the benefits of her method in the way it makes it possible to explore, see and even to empathise with the ‘anger and mourning’ expressed in these political attitudes and choices. She calls these deep-seated feelings ‘the deep story’ – the emotions of loss and pain that somehow lie behind the almost reflex-like blaming of government regulation for the lack of economic growth and for environmental or social problems. This deep story shows up in variants in the everyday – there is the ‘team player’, who sacrifices herself for a greater good (America) while at the same time denying, in painfully rugged individualist terms, another greater good (rudimentary welfare payments to the most needy). There is the ‘worshipper’, who quenches her doubts in Tea party politics in the opiate of religious dogma and in subordination to her husband. There is the ‘cowboy’ who embraces the dire economic and environmental situation as a welcomed test for ‘masculine’ ‘character’ and ‘stamina’. There is, finally and excitingly, ‘the rebel’ who, disgusted by personal tragedy and hardship, actually starts to develop a more nuanced and emancipated view that starts to signal possible ‘cross-over’ points to more progressive, less socially harmful views. All these are strategies of endurance within adverse living conditions. Furthermore, the part on collective effervescence convincingly makes an anti-deterministic point about the relative autonomy of the sphere of ideas.

But, in the end, the ‘deep story’ still remains a bit of a mystery. Hochschild’s perspective emphasises the dialectic of mutually influencing visions and perspectives on each other’s thoughts and deeds. It shows, so to speak, the main branches of the ‘deep story’, but not the roots. But where does the specific and idiosyncratic vision of fairness and the ‘American Dream’ come from through which these rural white petit bourgeois measure their own and others’ success in the first place? What are its main influencers? Is it class, gender or ethnicity, or a mix of those? How can it all be explained? To be sure, Hochschild presents a historical analogy of the old ‘cotton plantation south’ with the new ‘oil plant south’ – both being, and feeling, subdued by the North, morally put to shame, humiliated, leading to secessionist tendencies of closure. That may be so, but that solves the problem of the roots of the deep story only by shifting it, because the white petit-bourgeois southerners of 1860 are not the same ones of 1960 or 2015. This begs once again the question of what produced their specific vision of the American dream, this peculiar ideal of excellence, in the first place.

But granted, these are difficult questions – it is already an achievement to actually go to the field and to try to put yourself into the shoes of these people, to get your hands dirty in the (oily) kitchen sink. This is so hard for many social scientists, as Hochschild herself notes, because they rarely ever do this with these troubled groups. Hence intellectuals, she admits, must have their ‘deep stories’, too. In that sense, the book is a valuable contribution to the sociological (self-)understanding of a pressing topic of our time.

Tim Winzler is finishing his ESRC-Sociology-pathway-sponsored PhD at Glasgow University. He also studied Sociology at Carleton University, Canada, and at Leipzig University, Germany. His PhD attempts to develop a Bourdieusian-inspired sociology of disciplinary preferences on the example of economics students. Broadly speaking, his research interests lie in the intersection of the fields of the sociology of knowledge, stratification and culture.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

The future of work

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/01/2019 - 8:39am in

ATLANTA – I hadn’t driven far beyond the city before I came across what seemed to me to be the future, in the form of a Waffle House beside the Interstate highway.   These restaurants are ubiquitous across the South; in method, if not in menu, they are equal and opposite to McDonald’s.

At McDonald’s, nearly all the workers are in the back, tending the machines. At Waffle House, everybody is out front: ten or twelve staffers standing around behind a counter, everybody from the manager to a pair of griddle cooks whose backs were turned to me. The little restaurant contained a dozen counter seats and perhaps a dozen booths.

I was thinking about the lecture I had heard 36 hours before at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations, Work of the Past, Work of the Future, by David Autor, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Autor is best-known for his description, with David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, of the geography of the rapid decline of US manufacturing work, especially after China entered the World Trade Organization in 2000 (“The China Shock”).

Ben Bernanke, incoming American Economic Association president, had invited him to speak. The Ely lecture is one occasion at the meetings, apart from the AEA presidential address, when nearly everything else comes to a halt.

Autor began by reminding listeners of the shrinking middle of the wage structure since 1980. Employment in high skill categories has been steadily rising since then (management, professional, technician), and in low-skill jobs (health and personal services, cleaning and protection, operator/laborer); but more steadily declining in middle-skill employment (production, office administration, and sales). Middle-skill work had has been disappearing mainly in the cities, as workers have been replaced by software of one sort or another.

Next he described his surprise at the geography of the trend. Historically, rural areas were younger than the cities. He knew that the average population of rural areas had grown older. He had not known, until 72 hours before, that cities had become relatively younger than the countryside.

“I was so amazed by the figure that Juliette [Fournier, his co-author] and I did a complete clean room operation and reconstructed all the data from the get-go,  just to be sure that there was not an error.”

There wasn’t.  In the 1950s, rural counties were an average five years younger than cities.  By the 1990s, city and country were about the same.  But by 2010, cities were six years younger than rural areas.  Rural counties had aged twelve years in the second half of the twentieth century, thanks to the emptying-out of the young; cities had aged an average of only two.

Why?  Because the kids who used to move to cities for school, only to leave for the suburbs or for home, were now staying there – perhaps because cities are safer than they used to be, perhaps because wages are higher there, perhaps because opportunity is greater.  That’s great, said Autor, but it is not clear there is a similar set of opportunities anywhere for less-educated workers of any age.

Autor asked whether new jobs coming into existence might fill in the middle, or contribute further to the bifurcation. It is not as easy to categorize new jobs as it sounds. Using a new measure based on periodic revisions to occupational classifications collected by the Census Bureau, Autor sorted emergent work into three broad categories: “frontier jobs”; “wealth work”; and “last-mile” jobs.

The terms were his; the method was developed a decade ago by economist Jeffrey Lin, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.  The Census tracks 500 or so broad occupational groups, but underlying are some 36,000 job titles within them.

Frontier work, or Jetson jobs, after the early sixties sitcom of a family living in the distant future, are what you would expect:  high-wage jobs requiring much education, usually predominantly performed by men. The frontier keeps moving: in the 1980s, the category included word-processing supervisors and drone pilots; today, molecular physicists, wind-turbine technicians, and echo cardiographers.

Wealth work involves catering to the comfort and well-being of the affluent, A large or larger set of jobs than frontier, requiring low to moderate education, a majority of them performed by women.  New jobs in the 1980s included gift wrappers and hypnotherapists.  By the 1990s, family marriage counselors, finger nail formers, and baristas had appeared.  In the Oughts, oyster openers and sommeliers appeared in sufficient numbers to rate a mention.

Last mile jobs take their name, not from the distance to someone’s front door, but rather from the length of time before artificial intelligence software takes over the task completely. These are the husks of jobs which for the most part already have been  automated, said Autor;  Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a Global Underclass, in the title of Microsoft anthropologist Mary Gray’s forthcoming book.  From tamale-machine feeders in the 1980s to vending- machine attendants in the 1990s to Amazon packagers and underground cable locators today, these jobs are grueling, low paid, and most probably won’t be around for long. Often they can be done almost anywhere in the world.

Wages? The new work doesn’t pay much differently than old work in the present day:  $18.78 an hour for the average of all workers; $26.89 for workers in Frontier jobs; $18.49 for Wealth work, and $15.28 for the Last Mile trades. In short, said Autor, it is a great time to be young and educated, but it isn’t clear where a land of opportunity is to be found for adults with no college.

Some of this will be familiar to readers of The New Geography of Jobs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), by Enrico Moretti, of the University of California at Berkeley. That book had same galvanizing effect on impressions of the changing landscape of opportunity, as did Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (Anchor, 1991), by Joel Garreau, twenty-five years before.  Moretti vaulted to the editorship of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Where Autor went an important step beyond, it seems to me, is in his assessment of rural opportunity. Work in non metropolitan areas is changing much more slowly than elsewhere, he said: job structure, skill structure, wage structure, are all more stable. “People often say… I’ve said it myself, Why aren’t people moving out of Tennessee to some big city where they could get higher wages?  Well, it’s much less obvious to me than before that the opportunity really exists…”

He concluded with a conjecture: “I suspect the fall in geographic mobility means something different from what I used to think – barriers of some sort, costs in the way.  Increasingly I see it as a slowing of the moving out of places because they were thought to be unattractive, [because] increasingly, they are [attractive].

And that’s what I saw in the Georgia Waffle House, and the rural and semi rural counties around it. Wealth is a relative phenomenon, and as long as you can afford cable television and $5 for a waffle, some sausage, and a cup of coffee, life in the countryside may be preferable in many respects to work in the office towers of downtown Atlanta.  If you can afford to, you might as well stay home.

Returning to Somerville, Massachusetts, a rapidly gentrifying city of 100,000 situated next to Cambridge and just across the Charles River from Boston, I heard one phrase in particular of Autor’s lecture ringing in my ears – to the effect that heightened pursuit of opportunity in cities had implications for politics and social structure there.

In a Democratic primary in Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District last September, Ayanna Pressley defeated Michael Capuano.  Capuano was a ten-term progressive Congressman well positioned in the Democratic Party’s’s leadership. Pressley was a Boston city councilor who had successfully led a campaign for more city liquor licenses. Here is what one veteran political analyst had to say about the race.

Before Election Day, experts had pegged the probable turnout at between 50,000 and 80,000 – the kind of turnout that in this district is historically older and white, an advantage for Capuano.  In fact, he won 42,000 votes, a total that in any other year would have meant a win.  This time it meant an 18,000-vote drubbing

Why? 106,000 people showed up to vote in this primary, in effect at least 25,000 new voters. And given where turnout surged, it’s clear the bulk of these voters came from Millennial and Gen X outposts, where voters were primed to vote for a candidate like Pressley – young, female and African American and, in their minds, the true progressive in the race.

Somerville, Capuano’s hometown, is one such outpost.  Formerly a blue-collar city known derisively as Slummerville, today it is home to soaring real estate prices, trendy restaurants and a largely white hipster and tech worker population.  Eighteen thousand people voted in a city that generally sees 10,000 or 12,000 for a primary or municipal election.  Capuano, who played an instrumental role in transforming the city as mayor in the 90’s, eked out a slim 137 vote in the thriving city he helped create.

Trump’s misogyny and racism did the rest. The changing composition of superstar cities is a big story on every beat.

The post The future of work appeared first on Economic Principals.

Book Review: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 09/01/2019 - 10:17pm in

In Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the WorldAnand Giridharadas explores and unpacks various myths regarding the role of elites in engendering social change, showing how the efforts of America’s elite to ‘do good’ typically help to maintain their advantaged positions. This is an eloquently delivered yet scathing critique of the emphasis placed upon elites over social institutions in challenging inequality, finds Louise Russell-Prywata.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Anand Giridharadas. Alfred A Knopf. 2018.

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Winners Take All is billed as a showcase of various myths about the role of elites in social change. By unmasking these, journalist and political analyst Anand Giridharadas hopes to help people see alternative routes to true, fundamental change.

I read this book interested to hear how the efforts of America’s elite to ‘do good’ also help to maintain their own advantaged positions. By my reading the book certainly delivers, but also covers so much more: it is an eloquently delivered yet scathing critique of the culture and ideas that have grown up around neoliberal politics, globally-oriented US business and Silicon Valley’s tech disruptors in particular.

The book begins by outlining three common ways of understanding the role of philanthropy: first, the view that there are so many troubles in the world, we should be glad that the wealthy are helping; second, the idea that elite philanthropy is well-meaning but inadequate as ‘it treats symptoms, not root causes; it does not change the fundamentals of what ails us’ (7). Third, Giridharadas outlines a more sinister view of philanthropy, in which the help of elites ‘not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are’ (7).

Throughout the book Giridharadas knits together a series of interviews with an impressive roll call of the US philanthropy elite – including Bill Clinton and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker – to argue that, sinister or not, philanthropy is not a socially positive disruptive force that can fundamentally challenge the status quo. Rather, he paints a subtler picture of well-intentioned individuals, many of whom may want to change the fundamentals, but who are so indoctrinated in the dominant worldviews propelled by businesses that their efforts to change the status quo are somewhat doomed.

Image Credit: (Pixabay CCO)

Central to Giridharadas’ thesis is the concept of ‘MarketWorld’, which he describes as ‘an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo […] MarketWorld is a network and community, it is also a culture and state of mind’ (30). Having established this concept, he goes on to the next element of his thesis: the notion that capitalist activity can be both personally profitable and socially beneficial – he dubs this ‘win-win-ism’.

The subsequent chapters elaborate on these concepts to highlight how ‘win-win-ism’ is embedded into elite philanthropists’ thinking and approaches, first analysing the philanthropy of Shervin Pishevar, an early investor in Airbnb and Uber, before panning out to show the same win-win approach operating within his companies. Giridharadas diagnoses a central problem which touches on the crises of democracy and inequality that characterise Western societies in recent years: in promoting win-win approaches to business and philanthropy, these elites entirely neglect to acknowledge their own power.

With this critique established, Giridharadas then takes on another feature of our times: the rise of the ‘thought leader’ and the concurrent fall in the standing of public intellectuals and academic experts. Connecting this to his argument that elites do not want to confront their own power, he creates an analysis of thought leaders as the epitome of win-win-ism, promoting the new without challenging the old. This contrasts, he argues, with the intellectual criticism found in academia that elites may find less palatable.

Giridharadas presents some interesting case studies, and whilst the juxtaposition is undoubtedly a generalisation, he cleverly uses it to talk about complex cultural processes that construct and retell philosophies, and define what people think social change is. He argues that the rise of the thought leader is tantamount to ‘the plutocratic funding of ideas’ – where highly paid thought leaders deliver innovative, yet not particularly system-challenging ideas on an elite speaking circuit, often at the expense of corporate elites.

Throughout the book, Giridharadas fundamentally and explicitly challenges the idea that business tools are best for solving the non-business problems of systemic social change. Yes, it’s anti-neoliberal, but it goes much further than this; he takes issue with the very culture that neoliberal business models have helped establish and proliferate. His analysis won’t make palatable reading for some: he compares this belief in the power of market logic to a faith, one that people are held by but are not always fully aware of how much they believe.

His thesis is pertinent in our times of rising inequality. He articulates the challenge that elite philanthropy increasingly faces, quoting Bruno Giussani, the global curator of TED:

Poverty is essentially a question that you can address via charity […] But inequality […] is about how you make the money that you’re giving back in the first place (122-23).

Giridharadas brings home the point further, stating that ‘to fight inequality means to change the system. For a privileged person, it means to look into one’s own privilege’ (123).

The volume is clear, razor-sharp and satisfying to read; however, Giridharadas does implicitly talk about US ‘elites’ as something of a single category. Similarly, he refers to ‘MarketWorlders’ thoughout; I find the concept easy to relate to in the worldview he describes, but question how varied the sectors are that he attaches the label to – high finance, tech and manufacturing have rather different business cultures. Although he makes a good case for a shared underlying assumption of ‘business tools are good tools to do good’, I expect readers from these sectors might feel a touch indignant at being lumped together.

Giridharadas perhaps could have done more to counter the implicit notion that elites are acting in conscious coordination to promote their own interest. Over more pages, he might have explored how elites preserving their own status arises as a result of their position within the system, and is fundamentally a property of the system rather than driven by individual behaviours or shortcomings.

His conclusions appear in line with this concept. In the final chapter, he reflects on the changing political winds of recent years and ends with a call to strengthen public institutions. This, he argues, is the way out from deeper entrenching plutocracy: stronger public institutions, not well-meaning elites, are the mechanism through which actions for the benefit of all citizens should be enacted.

My personal takeaway from this book is its thinly veiled warning for pragmatists who aspire to do good from within the systems that they seek to change: group think erodes ideals, and as the pragmatist seeks to advance their careers and reach positions in which they can ‘do more good’, they need to remain constantly watchful that their vision of what ‘doing good’ is does not become co-opted by the very systemic issues that they set out trying to change.

Louise Russell-Prywata is an Atlantic Fellow for Social & Economic Equity at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, and Program Manager at OpenOwnership, a global tech and policy initiative to increase transparency over company ownership. Her interests include the influence of elites in society, and how data and technology can promote social and economic justice. Find her on Twitter @_LouiseRP. Read more by Louise Russell-Prywata.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Book Review: Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 07/01/2019 - 10:53pm in

In Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. MilitarismChristopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall explore the ‘boomerang effect’ whereby what the United States sends out in the form of a militaristic foreign policy eventually comes to affect domestic institutions and policies. This is a masterful analysis, finds Courteney J. O’Connor, that will be of particular use to students and practitioners of foreign policy, international relations, intelligence studies and strategic studies.

Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism. Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall. Stanford University Press. 2018.

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Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism is a masterpiece of analysis on the part of Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall. The overall objective of the book is to discover how, and in what ways, a militaristic foreign policy eventually changes domestic institutions and policies in the United States of America. The framework they use for this process is the ‘boomerang effect’: essentially, what the United States sends out in the form of (coercive) foreign intervention does actually come to affect the domestic situation in the US, regardless of the time frame involved.

The text is split into two parts, with seven chapters overall. Part One, ‘Losing the Great Republic’, comprising Chapters One to Three, builds the context in which the book is set and the boomerang framework the authors use to illustrate the dangers of a militaristic foreign policy and tendencies toward coercive interventions. Part Two, ‘Cases of Domestic Liberty Lost’, comprised of Chapters Four through Seven, concerns the application and illustration of the boomerang framework to case studies: namely, surveillance; the militarisation of police; drones; and torture.

The United States has a peculiarly militarist and aggressively interventionist history, one which the authors use the words and ideas of Mark Twain to illustrate: according to Twain, ‘foreign intervention had real effects on the social fabric of America as the intervening country’ (1). The ‘boomerang effect’ described by Coyne and Hall is an illustrative method of understanding the cyclical process of how interventionist policies abroad will affect domestic government and (may) affect domestic civil liberties. The concept is that experimental social control mechanisms that are innovated for overseas application can be perfected while overseas, and will eventually be brought (consciously or unconsciously) back to the US. A crucial argument offered by the authors is that the militaristic foreign policy that drives coercive foreign intervention actually creates an environment in which the government operates under reduced constraints and oversight or accountability. This (usually) results in an expansion in the size and/or the scope of government and a citizenry that become more willing to accept these in the name of ‘security’ (5).

Image Credit: US Capitol Police (USCP),  National Socialist Movement March on Washington Against Illegal Immigrants, April 2008 (Elvert Barnes CC BY SA 2.0)

Contrary to the obvious conclusion that it is only the intervention itself that causes transformations in domestic policies and institutions, Coyne and Hall also identify the preparations for intervention as being just as responsible for the erosion of domestic liberties over time. In fact, the broadening scope and size of government powers domestically, influenced and reinforced by overseas intervention and the related innovation of ideas and technologies in combination with an institutionalised militarisation of politics and the economy, directly and negatively impact the liberties and freedoms that the government is supposed to protect. In order to limit that identified boomerang effect, the authors argue, it is necessary to curtail the American empire, and in order to do that, the ideology of the American citizenry needs to be antimilitarist (18).

This will not be an easy transformation to accomplish, given that the United States has a long and storied history of foreign intervention. Intervention also reinforces the domestic conditions that are conducive to the operation of the boomerang effect: namely, citizens’ fear (of the ‘other’) and the consolidation of state power (in pursuit of ‘security’) (21). Because drawing focus to international affairs, particularly those involving military security, is a means of unifying the domestic public in support of the government, ‘unquestioning support due to distraction from an external threat allows the government to consolidate its power relatively unchecked’ (27).

Coyne and Hall identify three methods through which social control mechanisms innovated during/for coercive foreign intervention can boomerang back on the United States: the human capital channel; the organisational dynamic channel; and the physical capital channel (30-42). Individuals who serve as members of the military during intervention learn skills and techniques that they then bring home with them; these individuals often go into careers like law enforcement or private security, wherein they are able to deploy those skills; and technologies innovated for overseas intervention eventually becomes utilised domestically. It is also worth noting that the boomerang effect is not temporally constrained: the effects are not often immediately apparent, but take a period of months to years to decades to be (readily) observable.

Part Two of the text concerns different cases in which social control mechanisms boomeranged back to the United States. The first of these cases deals particularly with the control mechanisms associated with surveillance. In general, members of the early iterations of intelligence communities in the United States also employed skills picked up during military postings to contribute to the growing ‘national security state’. The militarisation of the police was a particularly gruelling chapter, as many of the lessons that Coyne and Hall draw from the American intervention in the Philippines during the early twentieth century are clear in the modern policing strategies of the United States today. Particularly, the authors outline precise examples of how the veterans of the Philippines intervention transformed the structure of national police departments and influenced policy that did in fact set the stage for the current militarised (and continuously militarising) modern police (101).

The uptake and diffusion of innovative technologies have also tended to make violence more efficient, and because the ‘War on Drugs’ and the ‘War on Terror’ have both increased the pool of potential suspects to include America citizens, overall the government has ‘both the opportunity and the incentive to expand the scope of its activities’ (108). Drones are a particular form of technology that are most famous due to their use in war zones, but they are increasingly being used by the domestic agencies of the United States as tools of surveillance at home. Because of the array of drones available and the general fact that they are difficult (if not impossible) to detect, the rights of citizens can be (and are being) violated without their knowledge.

Possibly the most confronting chapter was that which concerned torture, and the methods of this that were innovated and perfected by Americans during coercive foreign intervention before finding their way back to the United States and into police departments. One of the cases analysed examines the journey of one particular soldier who, upon return to the US, was employed by the Chicago Police Department and openly implemented torture such as ‘the Vietnam Special’ (166).

The authors conclude that in order to reclaim what they call the Great Republic (of the United States of America), there needs to be a conscious de-institutionalisation of militarism in both the ideology and the foreign policy of the American people and government. The continuous preparation for intervention and actual intervention are reinforcing militaristic structures that are eroding domestic liberties through the boomerang effect through which social control mechanisms can be examined. In closing, Coyne and Hall state that ‘a commitment to liberty requires rejecting the potential benefits of intervention precisely because it can erode liberty’ (179), and given the evidence to support the contention that a militaristic foreign policy does erode domestic liberties, this can only be considered a truism. This was an excellent expository text that I do believe was one of the most educational I have read in some time, and I thoroughly recommend it to students and practitioners of foreign policy, international relations, intelligence studies and strategic studies.

Courteney J. O’Connor is a PhD candidate with the National Security College of The Australian National University. Her research considers the securitisation of cyberspace and the development of cyber counterintelligence policy and practice. Read more by Courteney J. O’Connor.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Book Review: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/01/2019 - 10:23pm in

In The Fifth RiskMichael Lewis gives an inside account of the troubled transition from the Obama to Trump White House and the new administration’s seemingly willful ignorance of the federal bureaucracy. Rubrick Biegon and Tom Watts praise the book for its accessibility and discussion of the longer-term risks that the Trump presidency may pose to American prosperity, security and wellbeing. 

This review was originally published on the LSE USAPP blog. 

The Fifth Risk. Michael Lewis. Allen Lane. 2018.

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At its core, The Fifth Risk is a celebration of the often nameless civil servants that staff the American federal government that simultaneously shines light on the longer-term risks to American society generated by Donald Trump’s chaotic transition. The book is written by Michael Lewis, the author of the data-driven bestsellers Moneyball and The Big Short and a former MA student in economics at the LSE. As you would expect from an ‘International Bestselling Author’, as advertised on the book’s cover sleeve, this is a well-written and accessible text.

More than that however, The Fifth Risk is an examination of three core themes which are relevant to understanding contemporary American politics and society. These are: the bungled and chaotic transition between the Obama and Trump administrations; the tension between the American public’s declining trust in the federal government and the need for federal agencies to manage the complex portfolio of ‘risks’ which private interests don’t have the capacity to manage; and the longer-term and as yet unknowable ‘risks’ which Trump’s presidency presents to American prosperity, security and wellbeing.

The book’s prologue examines Trump’s shambolic presidential ahead of his January 2017 inauguration. So unprepared was Trump for the realities of governing that adviser Steve Bannon reportedly stated Trump not only ‘doesn’t know anything’, but that he ‘doesn’t give a shit’ about his lack of knowledge (30). As Lewis discusses, spanning a narrative arc that begins during the Republican primaries, Trump unceremoniously fired his entire transition team the day after his unexpected election victory. Whilst this terrain has been covered elsewhere, Lewis is nevertheless able to provide new insights. This includes, for example, the president-elect’s willingness to accept a call from the Egyptian president because ‘Trump was like […] I love the Bangles! You know that song “Walk Like an Egyptian?”’ (27).

The remainder of The Fifth Risk chronicles the Trump administration’s ‘willful ignorance’ (75) of the workings and importance of the federal bureaucracy. Weaving through a series of detailed vignettes of civil servants whom Lewis praises for their creativity and dedication, the book’s three main chapters examine the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce respectively. According to Lewis, we can look to the pervasive ‘Trumpian impulse—the desire not to know’ (75) for an explanation of why the administration has failed to properly engage with and staff these departments. In this respect, the book complements recent insider accounts which have highlighted the chaos and confusion in the White House, from Michael Woolf’s Fire and Fury to Bob Woodword’s Fear. Beyond that, it also serves as a sympathetic (and timely) defence of a federal bureaucracy imperilled by a suspicious administration.

Image Credit: (DrRandomFactor CC BY SA 3.0)

Akin to Donald Rumsfeld’s cryptic ‘unknowns’, the titular ‘Fifth Risk’ speaks to the unforeseen dangers which Lewis sees as emerging from Trump’s prioritisation of short-term gains (often to the advantage of narrow sectional interests) over a careful management of longer-term political and ecological challenges. This includes ‘the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk’ (73) and the ‘innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the ground for it’ (74). Given Lewis’s audience, which lies beyond the Washington DC ‘beltway’ and squarely within mainstream Middle America, the book is a welcome tribute to federal programmes and the public goods they produce, many of which are drastically underappreciated for their role in fortifying the United States against hidden and emergent risks.

Like much of the contemporary journalistic commentary on the Trump phenomenon, however, The Fifth Risk underplays the relatively coherent political agenda structuring how Trump governs—an agenda that predates the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump’s first two years in office have produced a series of outcomes that are perfectly consistent with the longstanding aims of the national Republican Party and its donor base: the Supreme Court appointments of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, both backed by the conservative Federalist Society; tax legislation favouring the wealthy; and a deregulatory push to undue the financial reforms of the Obama era.

At times, Lewis’s account sheds light on the deeper dynamics hollowing out the federal bureaucracy. The choice of Barry Myers, head of private weather firm AccuWeather, to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, a scientific agency within the Department of Commerce) is both striking and predictable. Acknowledging that Mills’s appointment represents an attempt to effectively ‘dismantle’ NOAA through privatisation, Lewis writes that ‘the private weather industry, unlike the (government-based) National Weather Service, has a financial interest in catastrophe’ (172). The ‘dystopic endgame’ Lewis senses with weather forecasting can be extended to a host of other issues and risks, from nuclear waste to food security.

In Lewis’s narrative, as noted by one reviewer, ‘the Trump administration seems eager not only to curtail the scope of government but to permanently diminish its capabilities and expertise’. The same could have been said about previous GOP administrations from Ronald Reagan onwards, even if the bizarre cast of characters Trump has brought to the centre of government throws the current bout of ‘willful ignorance’ into sharper contrast. Just as the obsession with Trump’s idiosyncrasies can serve to depoliticise his project, the focus on the administration’s ignorance can obscure the interests and ideology motivating Trump’s personnel and policy decisions. Whilst offering a well-researched and accessible account of the recent transition, Lewis at times misses the woods through the trees. Arguably, the processes which can help us better explain how the administration has chosen to staff these key agencies, the effective ‘enclosure’ of once publicly held data and the gutting of departmental budgets, began in the 1980s with the ascendancy of neoliberalism. Trump, in other words, represents an escalation of pre-existing trends, if a departure in terms of style and rhetoric.

Overall, The Fifth Risk is well worth a read. It sheds new light on Trump’s chaotic transition and the mismanagement of several core federal agencies. That said, however, whilst there is much that is novel about the Trump presidency, his administration’s fundamental approach to government is not new, and, unfortunately, cannot be attributed solely to naiveté or the absurdities of Trump’s character.

Rubrick Biegon is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent. His research interests include U.S. foreign policy, international security, and international political economy. He is the author of U.S. Power in Latin America: Renewing Hegemony (2017).

Tom Watts is Teaching Fellow in War and Security at Royal Holloway University. He has just submitted his PhD in International Relations at the University of Kent which critically re-examined the means and animators of the Obama administration’s military response to al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates. Tom’s research interests lay at the intersection of U.S. train-and-equip programs, remote practices of warfare and lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Note: This review gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE RB blog, the USAPP– American Politics and Policy blog, nor the London School of Economics.

Why We Have Newspapers, Call-in Shows, Reading Clubs, and Sometimes Hang around in Barbershops

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 31/12/2018 - 9:19am in


US politics

It’s a commonplace that economics in the industrial democracies in the years after World War II took on many outward aspects of an engineering discipline. A “new welfare economics,” pioneered in Britain by A.C. Pigou, Nicholas Kaldor, John Hicks and others, led in the next generation in the US by Paul Samuelson, supported the privilege of economists to give advice as experts on a wide variety of topics.  Free trade might help some people and hurt others, for instance, but overall gains would be more than sufficient for the winners to compensate the losers.  Thus government engineering could increase welfare across the board.

Two subfields of economics emerged in the 1950s which at first seemed to be at cross purposes, except that both had trouble with the newly dominant welfare economics.    Social choice, from Kenneth Arrow, concerned itself with voting systems.  Public choice, from James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock described itself as “the economics of politics”: legislative log-rolling, lobbying, pandering to the electorate and all that. Buchanan’s “politics without romance” seemed to exhibit a strong bias in his further explication of its underlying principle: “government is something to seek protection from, not to exploit.” But in fact his concern was simply that the motivations of policy-makers be examined as carefully as those of everyone else.

In her prize-winning article on the evolution of the system economists use to classify the literature of their profession, historian Beatrice Cherrier told how by the 1980s the two subfields had grown closer to one another and somehow seemed to be on the brink of becoming a major new field.  Indeed, five percent of the profession was then described as working on problems of public choice. So editors of the Journal of Economic Literature came up with a new name to encapsulate both fields, as well as some related studies: “collective decision-making.”  It turns out that the collision of collective decision-making with welfare economics conceals a pretty interesting story.

It had been Kaldor who first formulated the principle of compensation.  Following the argument that John Stuart Mill had made a century before against Britain’s Corn Law program of price supports, Kaldor asked why not simply compensate those who suffered from a given policy adoption if everyone would gain something over all?  There would be no need for the economist to prove that no one would suffer as a result of the adoption of the plan.  A few years later, in “The Foundations of Welfare Economics,” John Hicks introduced production possibility frontier diagrams as “a perfectly objective test” of the efficiency of improvement plans – or their lack thereof.  This would become the basis of the “scientific analysis” of welfare.

A few years after that, the young American economist Arrow asked if the same thing could be said of majority voting, where many voters of different views were involved. To make his model work, he made a key assumption: that individual preferences were given and couldn’t be changed by the decision process. Arrow concluded, to general surprise, that no system of voting would produce an ordering that was consistent with individuals’ underlying preferences. Bad enough that this seemed to undercut the new welfare analysis. What if the preferences were to change as a result of the process?  Then new welfare economics would make no sense at all.

Three years later, in “Individual Choice in Voting and the Market,” Buchanan, then a professor at the University of Virginia, made precisely the counter-argument; that individual preferences can and do change in the process of decision-making; that this was the whole point of adducing evidence and learning from debate.  Over time, Buchanan’s argument has carried the day. Forty years later, Amartya Sen, of Harvard University, wrote “[I]t is only through Buchanan’s expansion of Arrow’s departures  that we can do justice to the Enlightenment enterprise of advancing rational decision-making in societies, which lies at the foundation of democratic modernity.”

I know all this (and have paraphrased much) from having read Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy (Cambridge, 2017), by David Levy, of George Mason University, and Sandra Peart, of the University of Richmond. Levy and Peart were interested in calling attention to the views of Buchanan’s teacher, Frank Knight, of the University of Chicago, who sank into relative obscurity after retiring from Chicago in 1955 – except for the half-year he spent lecturing at the University of Virginia, enough to become a founding member of the Virginia school of political economics. The two are at work now on a larger book about just what that Virginia school represented – as distinct from the Chicago school.  You can expect to hear much more about it in a year or three.

Knight liked to quote James Bryce, Britain’s ambassador to the Unites States from 1907 until 1913, and author of The American Commonwealth:   “Democracy is government by discussion.” Knight himself put it this way:

In contrast to natural objects – even with the higher animals – man is unique in that he is dissatisfied with himself; he is the discontented animal, the romantic, argumentative, aspiring animal. Consequently, his behavior can only in part be described by scientific principles or laws.

The new welfare economics is by now pretty well discredited, and not only by the widespread failure to compensate the losers. But the instinct of deference to experts is still pretty well embedded in our political culture. Perhaps it needs to be checked a little in favor of the virtues of democratic debate. George Stigler, who also had been Knight’s student, objected in 1943 to the supposed expertise of the new welfare economics with respect to policies by invoking goals:  “The primary requisite for a working social system is a consensus on ends. The individual members of the society must agree upon the major ends that society is to seek.”

One of the perils of being a solo practitioner is the news business is that once you start thinking about something, there’s no one there to make you stop. This topic is indeed the topic I cut short last week. The moral this week is pretty much the same.  The rest of us, not the experts, are the jury.

Whether you are worried about the future of a divided country, impatient of the debate about the policies of President Donald Trump, or eager to decide the appropriate policy against global warming, it helps to think of the question as akin to the process of jury deliberation, twelve persons making decisions together around a table in a room.  Granted, 330 million souls, inhabiting 4.5 million square miles,  is some As-if. But the basic principles are the same.   Accept that opinions will be drawn from all walks of life, without regard to income or education. Expect to have to talk it out. Listen to the experts and the commentators. Consider the evidence that they (and nature) present. Cross-examine them as best you can. Talk some more. Strive for consensus, and be patient. Expect a verdict to be reached only when consensus is in sight.

The post Why We Have Newspapers, Call-in Shows, Reading Clubs, and Sometimes Hang around in Barbershops appeared first on Economic Principals.

Of Women and Children and Guilty Pleas: 2018 By the Numbers

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 28/12/2018 - 7:00pm in

The Nib Stats Department Year-End Roundup

2018: A Survivor Gives Thanks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 28/12/2018 - 7:00pm in

Hack Gaps and Noble Lies

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 09/12/2018 - 7:37pm in

These days we are healthily cynical about the omnipresence of motivated reasoning in cognition and communication. Everyone is working to fool everyone, starting with themselves. (It used to be you had to read Nietzsche to learn this stuff. Ah, those were the days.)

Self-delusion squeezes the space for deliberate deceit. It is tempting, then, to believe that lies – that is, conscious untruths, told with deliberate intent to induce false belief in an audience – are … well, let’s start by saying: rarer than you might think. Let’s talk politics. When politically-motivated untruths are told, tellers are as victimized as audiences. To a first approximation, everyone is high on their own supply.

Politics is complicated. It’s easy to make mistakes and miss things and not understand things and not know relevant things. It’s easy to spend your scarce attention on convenient truths and downplay inconvenient ones. The will to believe will have its way.

So if someone says: politics, all lies! You should correct them: mostly delusions.

I confess to a skepticism about bullshit, in Frankfurt’s technical sense. Truth-indifferentism, that is. It’s interesting and real, but I tend to think the intense, self-righteous desire to have truth on your side swamps that effect. Indifference to truth doesn’t explain much. It’s a noble gas, you might say.

Obviously a lot of people are liars. Q is a liar, I assume. But Qanon is a broad base of delusion.

A lot of political actors – including politicians, needless to say – lie a lot to do their jobs. They know what is true and deliberately lie about it.

A lot of political actors are also pretty clearly severely delusional. They are ideologues or partisans who have cognized themselves into a pretty severe state of denial. (Just because you’re a liar about how they are out to get you, doesn’t mean you aren’t paranoid about how they are out to get you.)

Trolls are like liars, at least part-time, and there are plenty of trolls.

There are disinformation campaigns, massively well-funded.

But I’m still always a little surprised when I see professional or amateur pundits – thought-leaders and would-be thought-leaders – peddling what I think they themselves must think are ‘noble lies’, in Plato’s sense.

I was struck by an example from Rich Lowry this morning, and then – coincidentally – I read Kevin Drum saying he was pissed off at the obvious lie. It is pretty obvious. Like Drum, I find it hard to believe Lowry didn’t have a chuckle to himself about what a whopper it was, while he wrote it. But, then again, it’s no good as a noble lie unless it fools folks into believing what you want them to believe about justice. If it fools folks then, on average, it will fool the fool who tells it – who’s just folks. So perhaps Lowry’s brain succeeded in locking down, for the time it took to compose his nonsense, his awareness of its nonsensicality. Yet it allowed him access to some facts, and a crippleware logic engine. Oh, what a piece of work is man!

Here’s another example that struck me, from Mark Levin, a couple days ago. Again, not important, but striking because I have a hard time believing Levin – who is quite sharp, in a way, and legally trained – didn’t think to himself: ‘eh, I’ll tell my audience a silly lie about the Constitution. If any of them check Wikipedia, or think about what I’m saying for five seconds, the gig is up, but what are the odds?’

Then again, I think Levin is a nut, so why should I be surprised his paranoid craziness has spread to the point of infecting his grasp of (gasp!) the point of the emoluments clause itself? Why should his deceiving demon – a.k.a. Mark Levin – have trouble getting him to think whatever it wants him to think about emoluments? That’s straining at gnats.

I guess it comes down to this. I take for granted Sarah Huckabee Sanders knows the important part of her job is to tell lies. (Any fool can tell the truth.) I imagine it’s exhausting – an uncomfortable, undignifying mental juggling act. But you are getting paid, and you believe the country is better off, on the whole, if more people believe the lies. You think the small truths that are on the side of your enemies are the spear tips of their Big Lie; whereas your small lies are the spear tips of your Big Truth, yesterday and tomorrow. You are making a basically utilitarian calculation.

Politics is a trolley scenario and, somehow, the trolley always needs to run over some truth. So you keep pulling that switch, deliberately. You see yourself doing this.

But, despite being a utilitarian who thinks you should generally pull the switch, and a Plato scholar, I find the life of the Noble Lie cognitively alien and weird. I have no doubt that I engage in motivated reasoning all the time. I have many a time deliberately encouraged people to help themselves to enough rope to hang themselves, in debate. There’s an element of lying in that sort of Socratic maneuvering. (Heighten the contradictions. Things have to get worse before they get better.) But, to my recollection, I have never, in my life, with conscious, deliberate awareness and full intent, tried to reinforce someone’s healthy political belief (or undermine their unhealthy belief) by telling them what I myself regard – at the moment I tell it – as a ridiculous and utter untruth. One my interlocutor is, odds on, likely to swallow. Honestly, I couldn’t do it if I tried. It’s not principled squeamishness. I just couldn’t make my brain look for the bank shots and actually try to take them. I couldn’t be a politician. Or a press flack. My digestion would be shot in a week.

Just as pushing the fat man is viscerally unpleasant to contemplate, pushing the fat lie – even in a good cause! – triggers inner resistance.

Am I weird?

People tell lies to defend themselves and, in general, when their interests demand it. I don’t think I’m more truthful, under pressure, than the next person. I’m no moral hero. But few people’s interests truly demand going online and telling deliberate lies to trick people into believing some supposed, larger truth. A bit of trolling, sure. Some sophistical shading and coloring and emphasizing and de-emphasizing. Who can resist? It’s recreational. But out-and-out lies?

I think lying about politics sounds like a no-fun job, so for sure it’s a terrible hobby. (But I admit trolling is a popular hobby. But that’s roleplay.)

I guess I really don’t think I know how many liars are out there.

Does everyone who works for FOX News think that it’s a Noble Lie Factory? But the pay is ok and otherwise the Democrats will take over.

How self-aware is Trump of his penchant for lying?

What do you think? Tell me true.

Abusive Legalism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 02/12/2018 - 5:22pm in


US politics

‘Norm erosion’ has been a debated thing for a while. Good norms have been undermined by Trump. But does it make sense to push back against that by defending norms, rather than, say, the good?

It’s useful to narrow it down. This President, in this era of hyper-partisanship, is a peculiarly unconstrained beast, legally. (Not just in the old, familiar imperial presidency sense.) There isn’t much Trump could do to get Republicans to impeach him. So impeachment is off the table as a check on Presidential abuse of power. In a narrow, legal sense, the immunity of a sitting President from prosecution, plus arguable exemption from conflict of interest laws, plus theoretically unconstrained pardon power, means on paper, a lot of ‘get out of jail free’ cards. No one would have aimed for this result. It’s obviously bad to have no check on Presidential corruption. (Maybe the emoluments clause is going to save us. We’ll see.)

So you get what Matthew Yglesias calls ‘abusive legalism‘, which is a bit narrower than ‘norm erosion’.

Andrew McCarthy is a good example. In his latest piece he objects to Mueller’s investigation – as he always does – on the grounds that there is no clear, overarching, blackletter ‘collusion’ crime in the prosecutor’s cross-hairs.

Note that word: crime. There are many wrongs that are not crimes, activities that are immoral, mendacious, unseemly. If we are talking about cosmic justice, all these wrongs should be made right. But prosecutors do not operate in a cosmic-justice system. They are in the criminal-justice system. The only wrongs they are authorized to address — the only wrongs it is appropriate for them to address — are crimes.

Note the attractive, exculpatory impersonalism of ‘cosmic injustice’. If awful stuff comes to light in l’affaire Russe, but it can be made out that there wasn’t a technical law against it; or if there is some law, but still some last ‘get out of jail free’ pardon card to be played – then Trump isn’t guilty – nor can Republicans be said to be at fault for turning a blind-eye. It’s the universe. Ergo, anyone who is upset about corruption is just some kooky, wild-eyed cosmic justice warrior.

The position is self-undermining within the scope of the piece itself. McCarthy is indignant that Mueller is violating prosecutorial norms – not breaking laws. But McCarthy doesn’t, therefore, chalk Mueller’s wrongdoing up to the cosmos’ injustice tab and shrug it off. But there’s an attractive pseudo-purity to such legalism. Adhering to the letter of the law is a good thing. ‘There’s no norms, dude’ is not the winning way to spin bad behavior. ‘We ONLY uphold the rule of law’ is how to spin norm erosion positively.

I think probably the most effective tack, rhetorically, is to force the likes of McCarthy to own the apparent perversity of the allegedly principled result. Namely, the right thing to do is to not expose serious Presidential corruption, since, weirdly enough, it isn’t illegal.