READING: MacFarquhar (1992): Deng’s Last Campaign
PODCAST: Hexapodia XII: Þe Cambridge Capital Controversy

BRIEFLY NOTED: For 2021-04-27 Tu


Robert P BairdThe Invention of Whiteness: The Long History of a Dangerous Idea: ‘By the time The Bell Curve appeared, Du Bois’s assertion that racial categories were not biologically grounded was widely accepted. In the years since, the scientific evidence for that understanding has only become more overwhelming. A 2017 study examined the DNA of nearly 6,000 people from around the world and found that while that while some genetic differences among humans can be traced to various ancestral lineages—for example, eastern African, southern European or circumpolar—none of those lineages correspond to traditional ideas about race…. During the second half of the 20th century a number of historians demonstrated that… Du Bois… was correct that it was only in the modern period that people started to think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race.…

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Very Briefly Noted:

Share Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality


Dietz VollrathWho Are You Calling Malthusian?: ‘I recently had a student ask me if I was a “Malthusian”…. It’s always asked in a way that implies it is a belief system, similar to “Christian”, “Muslim”, or “Packer Fan”…. I’m not a Malthusian “believer”, because that isn’t a thing. But I do think that several of Malthus’ assumptions about how economies function, in particular prior to the onset of sustained growth during the 1800’s, are well founded. And those assumptions have implications that help make sense of the world…

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W.E.B. Du BoisThe Souls of White Folk: ‘The Middle Age regarded skin color with mild curiosity; and even up into the eighteenth century we were hammering our national manikins into one, great, Universal Man, with fine frenzy which ignored color and race even more than birth. Today we have changed all that, and the world in a sudden, emotional conversion has discovered that it is white and by that token, wonderful! This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts; even the sweeter souls of the dominant world as they discourse with me on weather, weal, and woe are continually playing above their actual words an obligato of tune and tone, saying “My poor, un-white thing! Weep not nor rage. I know, too well, that the curse of God lies heavy on you. Why? That is not for me to say, but be brave! Do your work in your lowly sphere, praying the good Lord that into heaven above, where all is love, you may, one day, be born-white!” I do not laugh. I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly: “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen! Now what is the effect on a man or a nation when it comes passionately to believe such an extraordinary dictum as this?…

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EconomistThe Kremlin Has Isolated Russia’s Economy: ‘Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin has commanded the economy like a fortress under siege, building up reserves, decoupling from the world economy, and preparing for the potential impact of Western sanctions or fluctuations in oil prices…. Russia’s economy remains highly dependent on hydrocarbons. Despite years of promises, no meaningful diversification has taken place. Hydrocarbons still account for more than 60% of exports…. Russia’s covid–19-related stimulus measures amounted to just 4% of gdp, according to the World Bank. The pandemic, in Mr Putin’s eyes, is not the proverbial rainy day the nwf was intended for…

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M.G. SieglerIn(tel) Command: ‘Might Gelsinger pull it off…. I finally got around to watching the “Intel Unleashed” presentation from March. While I’m far from an expert on Intel, like a lot of folks in tech, I’m fascinated…. The good news seems to be that new CEO Pat Gelsinger clearly gets this. And perhaps just as importantly, he clearly cares about this, as someone who worked at Intel for 30 years and has now returned to right the ship. And most important still, he seems to have a plan. And to be in command of the situation…. Gelsinger’s… is an actual presentation and not a Q&A. Still, the same thing is conveyed: just how in command he is. And perhaps even more so than Jobs, just how enthusiastic he is about the opportunity…

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Cosma ShaliziIn Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You: ‘There is a passage in Red Plenty which is central to describing both the nightmare from which we are trying to awake, and vision we are trying to awake into. Henry [Farrell] has quoted it already, but it bears repeating:

Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded…. The motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on.…

And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, Emil presumed. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all…

There is a fundamental level at which Marx’s nightmare vision is right: capitalism, the market system, whatever you want to call it, is a product of humanity, but each and every one of us confronts it as an autonomous and deeply alien force. Its ends, to the limited and debatable extent that it can even be understood as having them, are simply inhuman. The ideology of the market tell us that we face not something inhuman but superhuman, tells us to embrace our inner zombie cyborg and loose ourselves in the dance. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry or running screaming.

But, and this is I think something Marx did not sufficiently appreciate, human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths.

Sometimes this will mean more use of market mechanisms, sometimes it will mean removing some goods and services from market allocation, either through public provision or through other institutional arrangements. Sometimes it will mean expanding the scope of democratic decision-making (for instance, into the insides of firms), and sometimes it will mean narrowing its scope (for instance, not allowing the demos to censor speech it finds objectionable). Sometimes it will mean leaving some tasks to experts, deferring to the internal norms of their professions, and sometimes it will mean recognizing claims of expertise to be mere assertions of authority, to be resisted or countered.

These are all going to be complex problems, full of messy compromises. Attaining even second best solutions is going to demand “bold, persistent experimentation”, coupled with a frank recognition that many experiments will just fail, and that even long-settled compromises can, with the passage of time, become confining obstacles. We will not be able to turn everything over to the wise academicians, or even to their computers, but we may, if we are lucky and smart, be able, bit by bit, make a world fit for human beings to live in…

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From the Archives:

Brad DeLong (1999): An Appalling Article on Graduate Student Unionization by Yale Historian Paul Kennedy: I don’t know what I find more appalling: The open snobbery with which Paul Kennedy ridicules the idea that lower-class union leaders and members might have something to teach about or some concern over conditions of employment of graduate students…. The casual mendacity in his implication that the typical humanities graduate student at a private university gets his or her tuition paid and $12,000 a year with no strings attached…. The sneer at humanities graduate student section leaders at his own university—paid I believe, about $10 an hour… with little prospects for ever getting a tenured professorship like Paul Kennedy’s—for “imagin[ing themselves] as an aggrieved member of an exploited academic proletariat.”… The claim that the UAW’s paying its lead organizer at Yale (a more than full-time job) some $10 an hour is an extraordinarily generous subsidy that will lead to a “new career track for Ph.D.s who find all this campaigning much more exciting than their work on Milton or Freud”…

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