Friday, November 12, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Seeming Rather Than Being

One of the ways in which people who know little to nothing about a specific topic seek to act like they know something is to insist on the universality of some aspect of the topic under consideration.  So, for example, if someone argues that the Russian Revolution succeeded because the army abandoned the state, let's say, the know nothing can argue that the American Revolution succeeded without the British army going over to the
revolutionary side.  The proper response to this is: that's a non sequitur, we're not talking about the American Revolution, which was quite a different kettle of fish.  Oh yeah, the know nothing might respond, then how's a come we call them revolutions?  Well, you might seek to explain, we call them the same thing but we understand the causes of the revolutions as well as the causes of success or failure are the results of the concrete reality of this or that historical moment and aren't attributable to some abstract law or other universally true something or another. Well, the know nothing might continue, how about scientific law? That's universally true, aina?  Yes, your might continue, but the act of discerning historical causes has little to nothing to do with science and rather more to do with making coherent arguments based on plausible readings of the available evidence while avoiding claims to universal truths.  Consider the problems with Hemple's Covering Laws

We might even go further and point out that all manner of events, financial panics, wars' beginnings and conclusions, etc, are historical events and it is best to understand them based not on some universal truth but rather on the facts of the matter and their interpretation. We might also make the point that insisting that an explanation of a discrete moment of history explain all similar or similarly classified moments is more of an attempt at seeming like you know something.

What has this do with Matt Yglesias?  I have already tried to show that his arguments often result from misreading specific texts or on his general and unfounded hostility toward sensible government intervention in the markets to avoid consumer fraud or protect labor.  Today, because I feel like it, I want to point out his reliance on universal truth when stuck.  Recently, Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber fame criticized Yglesias' interpretation of the recent Irish economic collapse by recourse to evidence and argued that
[t]he simplified political economy story goes as follows. Ireland had low nominal and even lower effective corporate tax rates. It also had low personal taxes, both because of the belief that this would foster entrepreneurship etc, and because the government used to periodically sweeten bargains between business and labor by promising tax cuts (which of course favored the rich more than the poor), inter alia buying off unions who might otherwise have started getting feisty about organizing the unorganized bits of the new Irish economy.
The result was that even with booming economic growth, the government faced a fiscal hole. This hole was filled by taxes on property transactions which, as the property market got ever more bubbly, became an ever more important source of government revenue. This provided the government with an extremely strong incentive not to deflate the bubble, reinforcing the already considerable incentives towards inaction resulting from cronyism between politicians and property tycoons, ideological notions about not interfering with ‘free’ markets etc.
Whether this is true or not, I don't know but it's a clear and coherent argument about a specific moment.  Yglesais responds
As a causal story, I still don’t really buy this. We had property booms in the United Kingdom, in Spain, in the United States, in Iceland, etc. all under different tax trajectories. And I can’t think of any examples of a government anywhere deliberately acting to deflate asset prices. The fact that the Irish government didn’t do so isn’t really a fact in need of explanation.
See what he did there?  Unable to discuss the Irish case in detail, he insists that any explanation of this or that historical moment has to explain all similar or similarly classified moments. More importantly, it is a rhetorical slight of hand designed to win an argument, if only because some of your readers might think you've scored, rather than trying to understand an argument about an event. However, as is the case in seeking to find a common cause for "success" in the American and Russian revolutions this demand for a universal causal narrative is a non sequitur. This desire, to "win" as opposed to understand or -- even better -- learn something lies at the heart of Yglesiasism and all of the juice box mafiosi.  So when you read him or McArdle remember they aren't as interested in knowing things as they are in seeming to know more than the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Realize

That it is adolescent in the extreme to make fun of people's names; in this case, however, it is not so much fun as evidence of some higher level of truth about Republican governance. In other words, a headline from NRO:
"Jerry Lewis Endorses Flake for Appropriations"

That's Our Georgie Boy!

What is a "Decision Point," anyhow?

On George's new book:
And so the Wagner Question poses itself yet again. Every Saturday when the Brazilian sea monster murders his X-Factor song, 14 million people ask themselves how and why he is there. Reading these ghost-written titbits, you ask yourself the same. How in the name of all the saints did George W Bush, wastrel drunkard son of an East Coast patrician family, find his way to Pennsylvania Avenue by playing the genial good ol' boy from the South, and why in heaven's name did he want it anyway? And answers come there none.
The reduction of Bush's two terms to a satirical sequel to one of those US prep school movies in which the smirking, idiot boy breaks the honour code but is rescued by his Brahmin dad had come to seem shamefully hackneyed. But the one cliché worth trotting out here is that clichés are clichés because they are true. Somehow this half-witted frat boy journeyed, via some jovially preposterous sequence of events involving failed oil deals and baseball team franchises, from japes with Alpha Sigma Phi to possession of the nuclear codes.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It Didn't Work Like That, Part Two

I mentioned that I found Eric Posner's discussion of the Roman Republic's Constitution flawed, largely based on its level of abstraction.  I mentioned Syme's critique, which Posner instances in note 7.  Posner, it is true, does allude to patron/clientage as key aspect of Roman society, although, tellingly, he offers no sustained discussion of its social, political, or economic dimensions and, consequently, fails to offer any response to Syme or to the many historians who agree, which he really isn't allowed do.  And as by the way, I don't think that abstract supposition about what ought, might, or should happen under some idealized set of abstractions counts as rebutting a concrete fact-based, i.e., Syme's, argument counts as responding.

I would like to make an additional point.  Posner, on page 24, argues that
[t]he Roman system may have worked well enough for a period of time, but its chief flaw became apparent in the last century. Because no civilian politician could amass much power through office, and perhaps because none had strong incentives to discharge their official duties competently, none could stand up to the military leaders who earned glory at battle and could offer loot to soldiers and civilians who supported them. Military posts was not term-limited; and so successful generals could earn a popular following over a long period of time. These military leaders included Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar, and they were the dominant figures during the last century of the Republic’s existence.
On page 31, he argues that
[t]he senate also kept the magistrates weak because it feared that powerful magistrates would redistribute wealth to the people; but in the process it also failed to give magistrates the power to keep order and prosecute wars in an efficient manner. All of this gave rise to a demand for powerful figures who would serve the interests of the masses and engage in efficient governance. A number of individuals saw the opportunity to obtain power by appealing to the masses and adopting redistributive programs. These included Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus from roughly 132-121 B.C.
Here's the problem, the Gracchii Brothers sought to reform the Rome's agrarian system and, with Giaus, its treatment of the Knights in a way that would forestall the weakness Posner (correctly) identifies. They and their supporters were murdered by the Optimates because the Optimates social, political, and economic success rested on the corrupt practices that led to increased landlessness among the soldiers and the equally corrupt distribution of the public lands. Gracchii died precisely because their reforms threatened the Senatorial classes continued domination of Rome's political system and their ability to increase their control of its economic life. Oddly, or perhaps expectedly, Posner accepts that reforms designed to fix the fundamental flaw, by granting soldiers some form of pay and veterans lands sufficient on which to live, were -- in fact -- illegitimate appeals "to the masses."  Read fairly, in particular the unprecidented violence that accompanied the Gracchian reforms, the criticism ought to be of those in the Senatorial class who were narrow-mindedly wedded to their short-term interests.

Why is does this matter?  Well, it matters because Posner, like lots of lawyers these days, is trying to use history as a means of advancing his policy or interpretive preferences when the facts of the matter lead to different conclusions, in this case reform is better than dictators, military strongmen, and princeps.