Friday, May 22, 2015

The Other Machiavelli--Quentin Skinner's Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction

When anyone reads Machiavelli, it’s inevitably The Prince that’s read, and reading Machiavelli usually stops there. Short, pungent, and provocative, The Prince is an easy choice that facilitates endless consideration. But in some sense, while it’s The Prince that puts Machiavelli on the map—beginning immediately upon its publication and continuing to today—this does some disservice to Machiavelli and his underlying project. The Prince is a manual for those wanting to establish a regime in the world of the Italian city-state during the Renaissance. It also serves as a job application, prompted by the hope that the Medici family that had ousted Machiavelli from his position as a Florentine diplomat would bring him back from exile to serve them. (It didn’t work—but what a great audition!) But despite its later acclaim, The Prince addressed only the short game for Machiavelli. Machiavelli most wanted to see the re-establishment of a republic in Florence that could follow in the glory of Roman Republic, the ultimate template for a political regime according to Machiavelli. 

One the values of Quentin Skinner’s Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (part of the Very Short Introduction books published by Oxford University Press) is that Skinner explores all of Machiavelli’s work. Skinner is a preeminent historian of political thought, especially that of the early modern period. His aim is to relate Machiavelli’s thought, not to comment upon it. Thus, we receive a direct, concise, and thorough introduction to Machiavelli’s life and work. Because Machiavelli’s The Prince elicited such strong opinions—most often in the form of opprobrium—from the time of its first readers and continuing to today—it’s an extremely valuable service to learn exactly what Machiavelli thought in total (short of reading it all ourselves). I don’t think that I’ve encountered a more comprehensive and useful guide to the whole of Machiavelli’s thought. 

The comprehensiveness that Skinner provides the reader in his chronological account of Machiavelli’s writings and life provides an opportunity to see Machiavelli’s writings address the whole of his concerns, and his primary concern was not with would-be princes, but with republics. Machiavelli was first and foremost a republican. Not a democrat, mind you, but a disciple of liberty and mixed government. Neither monarchy or aristocracy nor democracy alone works as a form of government (ordini) that promotes liberty; only a careful mixture of all three allows liberty to flower. Machiavelli’s concept of liberty requires that a city-state (his preferred political entity, exemplified by classical Rome and (sometimes) Renaissance Florence) must remain independent of outside powers and remain internally balanced between the rich, who will seek for forward their private agendas, and the people, who will seek to counter-balance rich. Machiavelli believes that a republic can only survive through the existence of virtu within the individuals that form the polity as whole. But virtu in individuals and the states that they create is subject corruption and decay, and this worm in the rose becomes a central preoccupation for Machiavelli the republican. 

One of the pleasures of reading Skinner’s work on Machiavelli was the careful consideration of the issues that Machiavelli addressed. After reviewing this book, you will understand why Machiavelli remains topical. Even if you don’t agree with all of Machiavelli’s prescriptions and analyses (that are often harsh), you will appreciate that Machiavelli raises and frames a great number issues that we must still address today. For instance, the practice of the super-rich to dominate political decision-making through buying the favor of political candidates via (often anonymous) “campaign contributions” injures our Republic. Machiavelli identified this tendency, although he suggests that the mass of people would see through this ploy and rebel. That has not happened in the U.S., where only a small, vocal, and (mostly ineffectual) minority raises a cry against this corruption. Machiavelli also struggles with the problem of decay that corruption entails, and he attributes decay to the loss of virtu among the people and their leaders. Machiavelli’s perspective on this problem is similar to that of Ibn Khaldun, the medieval North African thinker considered by contemporary authors such as Earnest Gellner and Peter Turchin. And on the corruption of our republic, Machiavelli seems as if he’d be right at home discussing these concerns with our contemporaries such as Lawrence Lessig or Francis Fukuyama, who’ve penned valuable works on the corruption of our political system. Lessig, for instance, has been a leader in trying to stem the influence of very big money—think Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson—on our political process.

Almost any introductory course about political philosophy or political theory will address Machiavelli, but probably only as the author of The Prince, but this is a disservice. In an ideal world, student would, at a minimum, read the Discourses as well. (I admit I haven’t—yet.) But having read this book by Quentin Skinner, I can now claim a much greater appreciation of this thinker-actor who brought political thought deeper into the world of political reality.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Time and Narrative, vol. 1 by Paul Ricoeur

I recall the first time that I read a complete book by Hannah Arendt. I was on a break from college. Reading Between Past and Future, I was awed. And more often, overawed. I felt that I gained insights from her only in glimpses, reading by lightning flashes—moments of insight followed by darkness and confusion. With time—that is, with multiple readings of her works, I gained some comprehension of what she intended to convey. When a reader confronts a dense, challenging text, if you can see lightning bolts of insight, those sentences or even phrases that we feel compelled to highlight or about which we utter a silent “yes!”, then you can feel confident that what you’re reading isn’t gibberish or pretentious baloney. The challenge comes from stretching your mind, not from poor writing or garbled thinking. So with this work of Ricoeur. I’ve read Ricoeur in limited doses before, but this is my second book- length dive into his work. (I read The Symbolism of Evil some years ago. All I can recall of it was that I was impressed, but I’m now hard-pressed to recount its argument.) This book proved just as challenging and intellectually bracing. With this review, I hope that I can provide a glimpse of what Ricoeur does in this project.

In this first of three volumes on the subject of time and narrative, Ricoeur opens with a consideration of St. Augustine’s meditations on time and its three-fold nature. Memory is a key concept for Augustine, and Ricoeur considers Augustine’s scheme of the past recollected now, the now, and the now-imagined future (or memory, direct perception, and expectation). (Augustine perhaps the quintessential Trinitarian.) After laying this marker with Augustine and establishing the notion of time, he shifts to Aristotle’s Poetics to consider the Philosopher’s use of muthos (plot, story, account—narrative?). In the finale of his account of the “circle of narrative and temporality”, Ricoeur explores how time and narrative mesh through the several senses of mimesis (the representation or imitation of reality in literature and art) that he identifies. Ricoeur, by the way, makes his own three-fold division of mimesis

From this starting point, Ricoeur begins his consideration of history as a form of narrative, which provides my primary interest for reading this book. How does history deal with these issues of time and narrative? Is narrative an essential ingredient of history or an impediment to a more analytical understanding? Here I’m going to drop any pretense of summarizing Ricoeur’s argument. It’s long and complex, but I will share the course of dealing with these issues, the works of Ferdnand Braudel, Paul Veyne, Raymond Aron, Max Weber, R. G. Collingwood (far too briefly), William Dray, Carl Hempel, Arthur C. Danto, and Hayden White (among others) all receive consideration. The depth and breadth of Ricoeur’s learning is impressive. While I name-drop, Ricoeur engages.  

In the end, Ricoeur, by deeply engaging with Braudel and Hempel on various issues, preserves and celebrates the role of narrative in history without negating the value of Braudel’s long-duree or Hempel’s covering laws. 

I will not attempt further at this point because I can’t yet do full justice to the diverse and complex arguments and explorations of this book, and I’ve already started volume 2. This is just a teaser for the reader and for me. To grasp and appreciate Ricoeur will take more than a single reading, so I intend to write more about this impressive foray into history, narrative, and time.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein

From Perlstein's webpage
Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and Rise of Reagan picks up where Nixonland left off, with Richard Nixon at the pinnacle of his power and then falling from the triumphant political height he had finally attained  into the disgrace of his resignation. Nixon’s fall allowed the enigmatic former governor of California, pitchman, and movie star to emerge as a beacon for (really) conservative Republicans. As Perlstein provided a mini-biography of Nixon in Nixonland, so he provides a mini-biography of Reagan as the central character in The Invisible Bridge. These mini-biographies provide context for the roller-coaster narrative of political, social, and economic upheaval that Perlstein chronicles.

I began this period as a college sophomore and as the book ends, I'm about to enter law school. In between, I married. To say that for all of my interest in politics, I wasn't paying as close attention to events as I might have is an understatement. In fact, I learned or was reminded of a lot that I didn't know or recall about this era, and for the most part, it wasn't a good time. The 60's were a time of significant change and some chaos, but events unfolded with a certain sense of hopefulness that was a counter-current to the significant violence of that decade (1962-1972). The 70s, too, were a time of change, but the underlying theme during this period was one of pessimism and despair. Watergate, the War, inflation, crime, race relations, and a host of other problems poisoned the political atmosphere—except perhaps for one person: Ronald Reagan. He seemed (or was) oblivious to the downsides, except to use them (in his loose-with-the-facts way) as campaign fodder.

Perlstein is as much a chronicler as he is a historian. He rarely comments on the narrative, letting the facts speak for themselves (a deceptive turn of phrase). Indeed, one shortcoming of his work stems from his lack of comment and explanation. Perlstein baths--perhaps more accurately, drowns--the reader in facts. (802 pages of text.) But other than following a central character (Reagan), Perlstein imposes no unifying theme or provides no explanation. I recall reading somewhere that Perlstein reported himself a disciple of R.G. Collingwood, the greater British philosopher of history. Collingwood argued that true history must (as it were) get inside the heads of the characters and experience their world and their choices as they did, but I don't think he argued that a historian could not use his own perspective, which has the benefit of knowing "the end of the story", to augment those original perspectives. But Perlstein takes little advantage of his perch from the future to provide further context. That said, Perlstein immerses the reader in the period by his exhaustive use of multiple original sources and thereby provides the reader with a “You Are There” feel.

Over the course of the three books that Perlstein has published to date, beginning with Before the Storm (which I haven't read yet), he's documented the great shift to the right in the American political spectrum. This body of work provides a narrative background upon which other historians and social scientists can work to develop a more comprehensive account of this dramatic change. Could it have been different? If Nixon had served out his term, would the shift to the right have actually faded? (Nixon was by current lights a raging centrist.) One receives a strong sense of the randomness of change from Perlstein's narrative, and it leaves one with a sense of "if only . . .” But here we are with a Republican Party more reactionary, nativist, and anti-intellectual than at any time in its history (starting with Lincoln). It maintains a libertarian and laissez-faire economics bent that provides a patina of intellectual respectability (and that accords with the money), but that aspect of the party  trails in the wake of the angry voters, those cultivated by the simple, optimistic nostrums of the man with the invisible bridge, Ronald Reagan.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Japan Through the Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane

Published 2007

In anticipation of an upcoming trip to Japan with C and the Glamorous Nomad, I read Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane's Japan Through the Looking Glass. Macfarlane is a relatively a relative latecomer to Japan, having arrived there for the first time only in 1990, although he’s been back several times, in addition to reflecting upon what he saw and learned there. Macfarlane completed his anthropological fieldwork in Nepal and he’s written a great deal about early modern England. He's a keen student of the transition to modernity and the early theorists who dealt with that change from Montesquieu to Maitland, including Adam Smith, Tocqueville, Malthus, Marx, and others who have attempted to explain the advent of modernity. It was with this background that Macfarlane approached Japan, and he found that Japan confounded many of the characteristic dichotomies that classical theorists had developed about modern versus traditional societies.

The main theme of Japan Through the Looking Glass is that nothing seems quite as it first appears in Japanese culture; indeed, even upon closer examination, paradoxes and uncertainties abound. As Macfarlane notes, many outward similarities exist with Great Britain. Both are island nations, both have a feudal history, both have a long history of a strong work ethic, and both were the first to industrialize in their regions. But as Macfarlane points out, despite the similarities, westerners have a continuing challenge in understanding how Japan works.

For instance, Japan has a mix of individualism and status relationships. It is a modern (often hyper-modern) capitalist society, yet the profit motive is not glorified. Individuals in the sense of Western individualism don’t exist. Instead, people are defined by relationships. People think in terms of relationships and emotions rather than in terms of  logic whenever dealing with other people. Thus, while the Japanese can be quite reticent in speech and seemingly cold, in their observation of the subtlest behaviors and assessments of responses they’re finely nuanced and responsive. As to religion, in a land filled with temples and shrines, the Japanese are, according to Macfarlane, some of the least religious people in the world. If we measure religiosity by belief in a soul, the afterlife, or belief in God, we find few Japanese adhere to these beliefs. The Japanese perceive little difference between nature and culture, and none between the natural and the supernatural. This does not mean that the native Shinto religion, Confucianism, and Buddhism have not had an effect, but rather than suffer a transformation by any one religion, Japanese culture has transformed the religions to fit Japan. Thus, Zen Buddhism lies a far distance from the more traditional Buddhism of South Asia. This lack of distinction between nature and culture also helps us appreciate Japanese attitudes towards nature and the beauty of ephemeral things like cherry blossoms and the phases of the moon. Macfarlane even ventures into the difficult question of why, when Japanese became a conquering military power in the 1930s, there were so many instances of the Japanese atrocities. How did such an otherwise docile people, who have an extremely low crime rate and few incidents of criminal violence, turn into war criminals? Macfarlane, adopting the opinions of some others who have considered this paradox, suggests that the perception of extreme differences between native Japanese and others accounts for this stark dichotomy. But it remains in some sense another one of the enigmas of Japan. 

Macfarlane has an open, inquisitive mind that is well trained in attempting to understand how societies work. He readily admits that Japan has confounded his preconceived notions about the transformation to modernity and the role of the Axial religions in modern cultures. In this way, he serves as an outstanding guide him for a venture into understanding Japan and the Japanese. If you're looking for us a sink, a well constructed and broad ranging work on the enigma of Japan, I highly recommend this book to you.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stimulating Thoughts: Sachs v. Krugman

In this corner, Jeff Sachs, Columbia
For someone with a stunning lack of qualifications, I’ve ventured into thinking about a topic of great interest to any modern society: how to manage (or not) an economy that may (or may not) need Keynesian stimulus. As a lightweight, I’ll limit myself to commenting on a fight between two heavyweights. With an audacity not justified by all of 11 credit of hours of economics as an undergraduate, I posted a reply to a tweet by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia about economic stimulus. 

In this corner, Paul Krugman, Princeton

Sachs has criticized Professor Paul Krugman’s support of stimulus in general and by the Obama Administration in particular. Conversely, Krugman has criticized the Cameron-Osborne austerity policy in Great Britain. Since 2008, according to Krugman, the most of the world has hit a zero-bound limit of interest rates in the latest economic melt-down (2008) that renders monetary policy—the work of the Fed and other central banks—ineffective. Lower interest rates can’t promote growth because the interest rate has effectively hit zero and there remain an insufficient number of takers to boost demand. Krugman argues that when monetary stimulus can no longer work, then it’s time to roll-out the Keynesian fiscal stimulus. To wit, government should spend more, not less (the austerity position).
(And please, I’m interpreting here, so don’t blame Krugman or Sachs for my mistakes.)

Sachs takes a different position. In the dangerously truncated world of Twitter, he wrote:

@SteveGreenleaf Fiscal policy is problematic as counter-cyclical tool in financial panic. Automatic stabilizers good; beyond that, dubious.

In longer (and therefore more trustworthy statements of his thinking), he’s against fiscal stimulus and Krugman’s position on it.  For instance, from this piece in the Huffington Post dated 9 March 2013 that provides a thorough presentation of Sachs’s position, he writes, “the stimulus packages that began in 2009 --which have consisted mainly of temporary tax cuts and transfer payments -- have significantly raised the public debt while doing very little to solve the nation's long-term employment and growth problems.”

I think that the pivotal point in this is Sachs’s reference to “long-term”. Perhaps he chose this instead of “long-run” because it could too easily come up against Keynes’s statement about “the long-run”:

"In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

Herein lays the weakness of the Sachs’s position: Yes, the storm will clear and so we don’t need to take any extraordinary measures (beyond “automatic stabilizers”) to right the economic ship. This position has its merits. By way of analogy, when I have lower GI distress (ahem), do I treat it or do I suffer through it? Having been living abroad and traveling since 2012, I’ve had some (but relatively few) incidents, and when I have, I’ve usually let Nature run its course. No Cipro-bombs and only a little of applying the Imodium brakes. This course of benign neglect is one that I think medical authorities agree with. It allows the body to build and use its own defenses and avoids the side effects of any medication. (Any medication is a poison in the wrong dose or taken at the wrong time.) But if I’d gotten sick enough, I have Cipro in my travel kit. The question is one of judgement about when to treat and when to allow the “automatic stabilizers” to do their work without additional aid (not “stimulus” in this case, thank you). I believe that Dr. Keynes would agree to this treatment protocol. However, I believe that Dr. Sachs might be too parsimonious applying any treatment. For instance, in late 2008 and early 2009, we faced much more—at least potentially—than a “financial panic”. Sometimes—albeit rarely—“do something, do anything” has some merit. Thus, I believe that apply “Dr. Keynes’s Patented Fiscal Stimulus Elixir” an appropriate medicine to treat an economy with depressed “animal spirits” (following a manic phase).  

But the medicine of Keynesian fiscal stimulus does include a measure of potential poison. First, it’s subject to abuse. If a drug, it should be a Schedule 1 controlled substance—highly addictive. Politicians love to use it as an excuse the heat up the economy and thereby curry favor with the electorate It acts like a narcotic: a great rush followed by a crash and the desire for more and more. Politicians in an electoral democracy are always attempting to seduce voters (getting voters drunk on an economic high and then . . . well, you get the idea). Thus, we must be very wary about the use of fiscal stimulus. (For a fun look at this way of looking at Keynesian fiscal stimulus, view this video from Russ Roberts of Econ Talk and his buddies.) 

So should we turn this over the economists, the experts? That, too, has its limits. Economists, taken as whole, suffer from excessive hubris and limited thinking. Some have thought—and this more true of the Keynesian-oriented crowd than the Hayekian-Austrian crowd—that the economy could be managed. But the economy is a complex, dynamical system that is subject to influence, but only in limited, uncertain, and contingent ways. The economy is a like an organism that’s constantly changing in response to its local environment as well as evolving over the long-run. (Isn’t “organism” the best metaphor of an economy?) For instance, the world economy of the 1930s is different from the economy of 2015. We have learned some things (and ignored a great deal as well). Thus, as a general rule, I’d keep “Dr. Keynes’ Fiscal Stimulus Elixir” locked in a cabinet marked “Open Only in Case of Emergency”. 

In the end, I think that Krugman and the Obama Administration were right in promoting the use of fiscal stimulus. I don’t think that it hurt us (in the long-run), and we could have done much worse. And while I’m inclined to believe that Great Britain and Europe would have been better without austerity (although their social safety nets are probably better than those of the U.S.), things are improving (at last in Britain) despite any unnecessary pain. Sooner or later, the storm passes. 

Krugman and Sachs as economists have many greater points of significant agreement than significant differences. Both are important voices of progressivism. And while I think it was time in the wake of 2008 to break out the fiscal stimulus medicine, it’s now time to back off of it as a primary concern and focus instead on a long-term plan along that lines that Sachs has outlined. We in the U.S. need significant work on infrastructure and effective social programs. We need to “live within our means” and keep deficits in check. On the issues of climate change and world poverty Sachs has provided a leading voice in addressing these challenges. These issues, , along with limiting the legalized bribery of campaign finance and reducing the crippling economic inequality that can poison our society and politics, should become the focus of our public policy debate. Both of these heavyweights, whom I admire and from whom I’ve learned a great deal, play an important role in framing and forwarding these concerns. So let the debates continue.