Thursday, February 23, 2017

The decline of normal people fashion blogs

Ever since Extra Petite went pro, so to speak, and started shilling for $500 handbags and advising me on how best to approach my shopping at designer boutiques in Paris, there's been no one to advise me about what's good this season at boring cheap person stores like Loft, or what to wear with navy tights, or which pant cuts look good on short women. What Would A Nerd Wear quit a long time ago. Sidewalk Ready converted to midriff-baring bohemian weirdness not to be replicated in a professional work environment. Other fashion blogs with smaller followings that I used to read just kind of fizzled. Who is left to tell me what to wear?

Monday, February 20, 2017

All the secret geniuses you've never heard of

If you ever wanted evidence that we inhabit conversational echo chambers, the endless "discoveries" by mainstream media of Straussianism in its various forms must be it. How many times can the NYT and similar liberal-ish publications possibly uncover from total obscurity the same half-dozen old professors, vaguely describe their studies, and claim they're pulling all the strings in politics? How many times can they tell us, upon shedding their probing light into this apparently shadowy underground network (that has institutional homes at such remote institutions as Harvard, Yale, UChicago, Claremont...), that they've located the philosophical key to whatever conservative idea happens to be current, in the person and errant scribblings of this or that previously unknown dude who once took a class/did a summer program/passed in the hallway one of these professors and could thus be said to have been intellectually formed in their mold and sent into the world to covertly propagate their ideas? 

For example:
The Intercept called his writings the “intellectual source code of Trumpism.” Salon put him alongside Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller in the administration’s “white nationalist ‘genius bar,’” while the conservative writer (and staunch Never-Trumper) William Kristol, writing on Twitter, compared him to the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt. 
It certainly added up to a publicity coup for a small West Coast institute known for summer seminars at which young conservatives immerse themselves in the Federalist Papers and other classics of American political thought. Suddenly, The Claremont Review, an erudite journal with a mere 13,000 subscribers, was being hailed as the bible of highbrow Trumpism — “crucially important,” as the journalist Damon Linker wrote, “for anyone seeking to understand the evolution of the Republican and conservative movement.”
Has it ever occurred to the writers of these discovery articles that these secret geniuses "behind" whatever conservative policy or program are just like their unsecret, ungenius counterparts on the left, only they've never heard of them because they never talk to any conservatives?

UPDATE: This hot take on the foundational role that a UChicago education played in the development of a different Trumpian Secret Genius recently pulled from the shadows is a good antidote.

Friday, February 17, 2017

What's good on the internet

As part of my bold and arduous project to contribute to civil discourse outside of horrible social media comment threads but not quite in real life (who has time for that?), and about things other than politics but not exclusively about my toddler, I might start posting occasional lists of links to take the place of substantive thoughts that I don't have often enough. Everyone else does this, so why can't I? (Ok, no one else blogs anymore, but the one person who does also does this, so my statement is technically accurate.)

- Billionaire survivalists: An article obviously intended to stoke the resentments of the 99.9 percent. Not fair! Why can't I afford a $3 million luxury condo with fake windows in an underground nuclear warhead bunker, demandeth the people who can still afford a million-dollar above-ground first home. Another mark of my gross oppression! So try to avoid reading it in that light, and it might instead prompt questions about what these "technical types," as one interviewee describes himself, actually understand about politics. At several points, they seem to view both nuclear war and economic downturn as co-equal signs of apocalypse and signalling the need to escape society and take refuge underground.

Also, instead of seeing this as demonstrating that our current elites are unusually civically disengaged or unusually anxious compared with previous generations of the super-rich, could we not see it as just a logical extension of the prevailing extreme libertarianism of Silicon Valley? Isn't this generally a culture that prizes the individual, especially the individual who overcomes natural impediments common to the rest of humanity (eg, through radical life extension or seasteading), and sees technology as capable of transcending and eventually replacing the nation-state? In that light, survivalism is just another, relatively mundane fetish derived from these beliefs.

Another question is, in the event of apocalypse, where will they get sufficient gasoline to power their private jets and helicopters and even motorcycles for more than a few weeks?

- SSC reviews Eichmann in Jerusalem. Mostly a consideration of the contexts in which people comply with or evade orders. I don't buy the exhaustive present efforts to draw parallels between the Trump administration and Germany in 1932. Trump poses a threat, but I think more likely one that will lead to disorder rather than a consolidating totalitarian takeover masterminded by someone like Bannon or any of these other previously-obscure rightwing types, whom journalists are now treating like evil geniuses whose sundry bloviations on the internet over the past decade are actually pieces of a carefully-constructed grand strategy to undermine our constitution. So I especially liked this passage from the review:
I thank G-d for the annoying obstructionists, for the nitpickers, for the devil’s advocates, for the people who hear something that’s obviously true and strain to come up with an absurd thought experiment where it might not be, for the reflexive contrarians, for the people who always vote third party, for the people who urge you to sign petitions on because “then the President has to respond”, for the people who have two hundred guns in their basement “just in case”, for the people who say “well, actually…” all the time, for the mayors of sanctuary cities and the clerks who refuse to perform gay weddings, for the people who think being banned on Twitter is a violation of their human rights, and for the people who swear eternal hostility to other people on the same side who agree with them on 99% of everything. On the spectrum from “totally ungovernable” to “vulnerable to Nazism”, I think that we’ve erred in the right direction.
- Everything is terrible and getting worse. Nick Eberstadt lays out the demographic trends.

- "Of All the Birds That I Do Know." A bawdy seventeenth-century madrigal, one of the many excellent songs to which Utopia's public radio station has introduced me, and which is now stuck in my head.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Pathologies of toddlerhood

We received the following "Incident Report" from daycare the other day conveying news of Goomba's poor behavior, complete with the dates, times, and signatures of all present adults and requiring my signature as well:
Description of Incident: Friend grabbed Goomba's face. Goomba bit friend's hand.
Incident Prevention: Closer supervision.
Savages. But I especially enjoy the use of the term "friend" here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Aspects of parenting I did not previously imagine

This is a real thing I am now researching because Goomba shows incipient interest in her daycare's version of it. It's really hard to believe how much effort has been put into making unimaginably detailed and realistic "pretend" versions of stuff like cooking utensils. It seems like you could give your kids most of the real versions of these things to play with for a lot less money. Maybe not knives, but most kitchen stuff is pretty innocuous. And at some point of realism, will the distinction between the pretend and real versions dissolve, so that adults will use the pretend plastic cutting board while the kids play pretend with the real plastic cutting board?

Thursday, February 02, 2017

The meritocracy can neither be fixed nor destroyed

When I stopped blogging due to moving/starting job/endless sickness, I had a few half-written posts which I want to get back to even though they're old news now. This one is from last June.

I don't think I will ever get tired of thinking about the problem of the meritocracy, and evidently neither will Helen Andrews, since she had an(other) essay about it in The Hedgehog Review. It's good, and you should read it, at the very least for the great morsels of irony that Helen has dug up, including this wonderfully revealing quote from a product of our pedagogy's current elevation of "critical thinking":
“I mean, I learned how to think bigger. Like, everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”
In the past, I've agreed with many of the arguments Helen makes (for example, here and here). But now, having been provoked to it, I will double-down on my view that our meritocracy is defensible, and not by being converted into an outright aristocracy, as Helen suggests.

1)    Helen finds the origins of meritocracy in 19th-century British civil service reform, where it's introduced to replace patronage. But for Americans, civil service is not where meritocracy most matters. Civil service jobs are competitive and do draw Ivy League meritocrats, but we don't really imagine our bureaucrats as America's smartest or most impressive people. When high-achieving adolescents dream about going to Yale, I don't think they dream of a subsequent illustrious career writing arcane cable television regulations for the FCC. That may well be what they end up doing and even enjoying, but it's not what young meritocrats' dreams are made of. Their dreams are full of tech start-ups, finance, medicine, research, journalism, social justice projects, and the arts.

All of which is to say, our meritocracy isn't literally the rule of the meritorious, as the name suggests. We are still ruled, politically, by the mediocrities who predominate among our elected officials. It's not even clear that we want Phi Beta Kappa types in office, except for those of the Democrats who are themselves Phi Beta Kappa types. Meritocracy matters most for us in the private sector, in society broadly understood.

That means first of all that meritocracy is not a simple historical phenomenon for us with a concrete beginning in a law passed in the 19th century and a possibility of an equally concrete end in a future law overturning the first law. Meritocracy is instead an abstract principle governing and legitimating selection for pretty much every job and position in America. As a result, "reforming" the meritocracy cannot be a matter of changing the rules governing employee selection in federal agencies. It's a matter of changing our entire culture; indeed, our entire political regime.

Consider this argument from Democracy in America:
[Rulers in ages of democracy and skepticism] must especially strive to banish chance, as much as possible, from the world of politics. The sudden and undeserved promotion of a courtier in an aristocratic country causes no more than an ephemeral impression, because the whole complex of institutions and beliefs forces men to progress slowly along paths they cannot leave.

But such events give the world possible example to a democratic people, for they urge it on down in the direction whither all its emotions are anyhow leading. So it is chiefly in times of skepticism and equality that particular precautions are required to prevent the favor of prince or people, which comes and goes at random, from taking the place due to merit or duties performed. One must hope that all promotion will be seen as the reward or effort, so that no high position should be too easily acquired and men of ambition should be obliged to plan well ahead before they reach their goal. [Emphasis mine]
Tocqueville suggests meritocracy is a necessary accommodation to democratic conditions. What Helen calls "the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing" - the belief that hard work pays off - is actually a basic corrective for democracy's worst tendencies. Without it, we get not aristocracy, but only a more radical democracy - more short-sighted, impulsive, petty, demanding of immediate gratification (from the state). When the long-term fruits of hard work and achievement are shown to be "delusions," why not just grab what you can while you can, from whoever has it? So, we get got populism. This was not an improvement.

2)   The reason that no one can come up with an alternative to meritocracy is not because they can't imagine "what it would be like not to believe in it." It's true that it's hard for a 21st C. American to imagine life in a feudal aristocracy. But the bigger problem than the limitations of our imaginations is the limitations of our political philosophy. 

There are a limited number of workable principles for distributing social goods. A regime can distribute social goods like influence and power according to birth, wealth, need, virtue (or, in the Christian era, grace), or lottery, or all or some of these in combination. (There are other principles of distribution like strength and beauty that can be used for some goods, but few regimes determine who rules by principles like these. However, Herodotus does claim there were societies in Africa where rule was determined by height.) The principles of distribution which a regime admits define it. Socialism is defined by distributing most social goods according to need. Democracy in the strict sense does it by lottery. Aristocracy does it by birth and wealth. We are democrats in the loose sense, so we reject most of the above principles. That's why Helen can't find anyone who can imagine an alternative to meritocracy. It's not because we can't imagine other practical ways of distributing social goods, but because all the other ways offend our democratic sense of justice. The only alternatives that get any traction with us are those which push democratic principles even further than we've yet allowed: lottery and need.

Meritocracy is much older than Victorian civil service reform. It's an updated version of Aristotle's 'best flutes for the best flute players' principle, distribution by aptitude. We have tried to get as close to the justice of 'to each what is fitting' as possible, to match each individual with the life and occupation for which he is best suited by nature and most desires to pursue. But aptitude is a hard thing to reliably identify and measure, so we rely on imperfect but somewhat more objective proxies for it - intelligence, past experience. Aristocracy has the same problem: in the strict sense, aristocracy is distribution according to virtue - rule by the best people, the aristoi. But virtue, like aptitude, is hard to identify from the outside. So regimes that aim at virtue soon find themselves relying on more concrete proxies for it: birth and wealth. But poke the aristocrat hard enough, and you will find that what he values for its own sake is neither birth nor wealth, but the virtue that he thinks flows from them or which they outwardly indicate.

And just like the aristocrats had to contend with the shortcomings of their chosen proxies, our present difficulties with meritocracy show us democrats the problems with our proxies. But what they don't show us is that our principle of distribution - to each what is fitting to him, or what he has the most aptitude for - is unjust. Is it? I don't think so, but even if you do, demonstrating that would require a very different argument from the one which Helen or any other meritocracy critic has offered.

The critics of meritocracy whom Helen cites are all just trying to adjust the proxies we use, claiming to have found better ones. They probably haven't, but their unwillingness to propose entirely different principles of distribution only demonstrates their underlying commitment to liberal democracy over socialism, radical democracy, oligarchy, or aristocracy. Do we really want them to abandon this commitment?

3) "Embracing the label" and acknowledging that our elites aren't representative of the country, as Helen suggests we do, is in fact something the Social Media Left has already done. It's what all the privilege-checking amounts to: the demand that you acknowledge that you are of the elite, that you can never speak for the people (who constitute a majority of minorities), so that what you say should be regarded as having no value to the majority, and would be best not said at all. And acknowledging your privilege means acknowledging your responsibility to facilitate the speech of the unprivileged. That is the special work of meritocrats, according to the Left.

This solution forces elites to own up to their status as "separate, parochial in their values, unique in their responsibilities," as Helen describes them. And it consequently requires them to shut up, so as not to annoy the people so much. What it doesn't do is allow the elites to openly rule, which would seem to be the primary incentive for them to "embrace the label" in the first place. In fact, it does the opposite: it openly subordinates them to the people, who have the only legitimate voice in public life.

Given this grim result of "embracing the label," it's not surprising that Ivy League grads continue to "think of themselves basically as working stiffs" instead of aristocrats. Hard work and self-making continue to be the basis of public legitimacy. To announce that you are an aristocrat is to immediately render yourself irrelevant and even poisonous (I'm sorry, "toxic," as social media likes to say) to public life. Until our regime actually becomes an aristocracy (and this is how we know it's not), there will be no benefit to anyone from following Helen's advice, unless you think that public discourse improve if everyone with an elite college degree, including Helen, were to stop participating in it.

Now, many people claim that we're already an aristocracy. Mobility is down, inequality is up. Regime change has already happened, only our terminology lags behind it. But the problem with our elites runs deeper than their inability to call themselves aristocrats. They also do not feel like aristocrats. They instead feel very unstable and very afraid. In a true aristocracy, you are born to your status, but our children of Ivy Leaguers still have to work for theirs. Nobody feels secure even at the top, and they demonstrate their insecurity by going to extreme lengths to keep their kids afloat. If they were aristocrats, they would have to do no more than keep their kids alive to assure their future high status. It may be that their fears of falling are statistically unjustified since most of them will not fall, at least according to current models of the recent past. But there is no assurance of that for any of them individually, and that is what prevents us from seeing our society as an aristocracy. Precisely because "ethnic balance" is "important to meritocrats," they have "engineered it into the system," and "geographic diversity" has "struck them as important," so they'd "ensured that it exists." And this engineering and ensuring mean that there are many qualified would-be meritocrats in the wings, and no parent can be certain that his own children, no less his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will out-perform these aspirants, and everyone has to work maniacally to stay in the hallowed circle, with those closest to the center working more frantically than the rest. If this is an aristocracy, then no aristocracy in history has ever been so frightened and insecure without the immediate prospect of an actual guillotine hanging over their necks.

4) The real problem is not meritocracy, it's centralization. It's not that there are tests or pre-requisites or requirements to write insipid personal statements for employment or for university seats. Despite the shortcomings of these methods, they're still better than distributing these things by any other selection principle. The problem is that the number of "good" universities and employers is rapidly decreasing, that a handful of schools and companies are monopolizing all the young talent in the country.

We would never even need to worry about whether meritocrats "represent the country" if it weren't for centralization. Meritocracy was never a principle of representation in the first place. It was a way of determining who is qualified for what task. There is no connection between, say, the work of engineering or medicine, and the task of representing America. It's a recent lefty idea that every institution, profession, and small social gathering ought to be a microcosm of the intersectional identity distribution of the entire country in order to be legitimate. But it's a crazy goal, mathematically impossible to attain, and foolish to pursue. It's only possible to pursue it when there are so few routes to status and affluence that a handful of institutional gatekeepers can collude to very precisely regulate the in-flows, by imposing whatever standards of "merit" they choose. But that is the result of a centralization that co-opted meritocracy, not meritocracy.

Perhaps you are thinking, as Helen indeed suggests, that meritocracy leads to centralization. And perhaps you are right in the long run, but at least in the US, meritocracy long preceded centralization. If Tocqueville could already observe the principle of meritocracy and its necessity under democratic social conditions in the 1830s, then we must at least admit that it takes a good long while for meritocracy to issue in nationally-centralized pipelining. Maybe it's not even ultimately inevitable. We had quite a long run there when a college (or even high school) degree didn't determine life prospects at all, a degree from any post-secondary institution was worth a lot (and there was a remarkably large number of very good post-secondary institutions, as there in fact still are), and no more than 100 people in the entire country even conceived a desire to attend Yale each year. What if we had never adopted the Progressive understanding of science and expertise but still stood fast behind our belief that "all promotion be seen as the reward or effort"? Would we be where we are today?

How to undo the centralization of the past 120 years is of course no easy question. But I'm not sure it's actually harder than converting our essentially democratic meritocratic elite into a self-recognizing, class-defending aristocracy, as Helen suggests. And, one of the benefits of trying is that we would not necessarily have to sacrifice our regime in the process.