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A book that I have returned to often over the years is Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God. Josipovici is an English (though born in France) novelist and critic who, at some point in the 1980s, learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Bible, and The Book of God is an account of what he discovered when he worked his way through that strange text.

The Book of God is a readerly book, a book about the experience of encountering Scripture by someone who did not grow up thinking of the Bible as "the book of God," and Josipovici is especially interested in exploring those moments when the Bible seems to want to thwart readers, or at least the kind of reader that most people today tend to be. Consider, for instance, the mind-numbing detail of the account of building the Tabernacle (and associated objects) that the book of Exodus provides — twice. First the Lord tells Moses about all the parts of the Tabernacle and what they should be made of, along with similar instructions for the garments of the priests and other related matters. Then — after Moses brings this information down from the mountain only to discover that Aaron has built a golden calf for the people to worship, and after that little disaster has been dealt with — we have described for us the process by which the workmen of Israel did, quite precisely and obediently, just what the Lord instructed them to do.

It's almost impossible, Josipovici says, to read all this; it cuts against the grain of everything we think reading is. And there's something else odd about it: several commentators have noticed that, as long and detailed as the instructions recounted in Exodus are, you couldn't actually build a Tabernacle from them — too much is omitted, so later attempts at reconstruction have necessarily involved a great deal of guesswork. So the whole episode, or set of episodes, is rather odd.

Josipovici therefore wonders if there isn't some other way to make sense of it, and he decides to approach the interpretative problem in a different way. He notes that in the Tabernacle episode we have detailed accounts of the building or fabricating of complex objects. Where else in the Hebrew Bible do we see the building or fabrication of complex objects?

The answer is: in at least six other places.

  • The building of the Golden Calf itself (Exodus 32), a kind of interpolated scene in the midst of the account of building the Tabernacle;
  • The construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11);
  • The construction of the Ark by Noah (Genesis 6);
  • The building of the great Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 6);
  • Solomon's building of his own palace (1 Kings 7);
  • The creation of the cosmos and the world by the Lord (Genesis 1-2).

As I read this section of Josipovici’s illuminating book, it occurs to me that one way to subdivide these descriptions is:

  • what the Lord himself builds,
  • what the Lord specifically instructs humans to build,
  • what the Lord does not instruct but permits humans to build, and
  • what humans build in defiance of and rivalry with the Lord.

To see these acts of making in this light is to see that each act of making is an act of glorification: something or someone is glorified, celebrated and raised up, through the making.

Those of you who have read my stuff for a while know that I am interested in thinking theologically about technology, or, to put the task in another way, incorporating reflections on technology into theological accounts of human thought and action. I might describe the recent Pynchon read-through as a subset of my larger inquiry into the technological history of modernity, which is itself a subset of a theology of technology, which is in turn a subset of a general theological anthropology. I keep thinking about these matters, and reading everything I can find that seems related to them, in the hopes that at some point I will figure out the level at which I can make an appropriate contribution. A book just on Pynchon might be a little too narrow; a theological anthropology is almost certainly too broad a project for me and beyond my scholarly competence (I am not, after all, a theologian).

But as I’m feeling my way blindly around this elephant, it occurs to me that pausing to reflect on the implications of these descriptions of building in the Hebrew Bible might be a useful way to isolate some coordinates for a theology of technology. So more on that in subsequent posts.
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3 days ago
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platforms and institutions

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

I'm usually allergic to generalizations in these matters, but let me risk a big generalization: I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.

Let’s take education as an example: for much of American history people were educated in a wide range of (often highly eccentric) ways. This was generally perceived as a problem, and efforts at standardization kicked in, reaching their peak in the Sixties. Since then we have seen increasing fragmentation, with ordinary public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, various kinds of private schools, homeschooling, unschooling ... but all of these work on the same platforms, that is, they rely on the same communications technologies, using either the open web or walled gardens like Facebook in order to promote interaction and accomplish goals (e.g., the completion of projects and other assignments, remedial tutoring, etc.). We will more and more be asking technological platforms to do the kind of unifying work that educational institutions can clearly no longer do, which, I believe, is asking platforms to do things that by their nature they're unsuited to do.

They’re unsuited to do it becasuse platforms are unresponsive to their users, and unresponsive by design (design that emerges from their desire to be universal in scope). It is virtually impossible to contact anyone at Google or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and that is so that those platforms can train us to do what they want us to do, rather than be accountable to our desires and needs. A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance.

I for one don't welcome our new algorithmic overlords.
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3 days ago
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the fool on the hill

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Is this a stunt? Of course it's a stunt, as it was when James Sturm did it a few years ago, though that was less Walden-esque, since Sturm has a family. Also, Thoreau's life at Walden Pond was kind of a stunt too, since, despite the impression of absolute solitude he tried to give, he would regularly walk into town to visit friends and family.

Still, the fact that it's a stunt doesn't mean that it's not a socially useful act. I think of those lines from Dylan's “Property of Jesus”: “Go ahead and talk about him because he makes you doubt / Because he has denied himself the things that you can't live without....” Of course I could live without the internet if I had to! Mmm-hmmm. But it's not possible right now, not with the job I have ... and it's not like there are even any jobs out there that don't require the use of the internet.... Mmm-hmmm. Please do go on.

It's interesting to find out what we tell ourselves when confronted with the possibility that we could live Otherwise. And being forced into those consoling narratives is probably useful to us, in much the same way that it was spiritually and morally useful to kings to have jesters who reminded them of their mortality and fallibility.

In fact, maybe every town should hire someone to live in their midst without any connection to the internet. (In Tim Richardson's wonderful book The Arcadian Friends he describes eighteenth-century aristocrats who, with sometimes comic results, hired hermits to live in the picturesque little hermitages they had built on their massive properties.) We would pass by them every day and perhaps be moved to genuine reflection on our choices, especially the choices that we constantly tell ourselves aren't really choices at all.

And now, as we begin our day, as each of us prays to an image of his image of himself, let's sing — softly now, softly —

Day after day
Alone on a hill
The man with no internet
Is keeping perfectly still
But nobody ever texts him
They can see that he's just a fool
And he never goes on Twitter
But the fool on the hill
Sees the web going down
And the eyes in his head
See see us all spinning round...
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17 days ago
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Economism and Health Care

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By James Kwak

A core feature of competitive markets, according to the basic model, is that they allocate goods to the people or companies that are willing to pay the most for them. In theory, and in many situations, this is a good thing: If I am willing to pay $1,000 for a custom portrait of my (daughter’s) dog, and you are only willing to pay $1 for it, then aggregate satisfaction is likely to be higher if I get the portrait. But not always: If I am willing to pay $10 for a turkey sandwich, but you are only willing to pay $1 because you only have $1, and have no borrowing capacity, then society may very well be better off if you get the sandwich. Yet in an ordinary, healthy market, I get the sandwich.

This problem is acutely apparent when it comes to health care. People place a high value on not dying, but when it comes to the allocation of medical treatment, they can’t bid more than their income allows. The obvious result is that markets deliver unnecessary procedures to rich people while denying essential care to poor people—because that’s what markets do. Obamacare attempted (with mixed success) to mitigate this problem. The Trump administration is rhetorically committed to deregulating health insurance; the question is whether they are willing to accept the political consequences of pricing millions of people out of not dying.

This is the topic of my new guest post, “Health Care and John D. Rockefeller’s Dog,” on Econbrowser (a fabulous economics blog, by the way, written by Menzie Chinn and James Hamilton). For more, head on over there.

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22 days ago
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Bannon’s not exactly a Nazi. But…

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A recent Cracked post here summarizes the arguments on why punching Nazis like Richard Spencer is counter-productive. Basically, it’s like rubbing your itchy eyes when your have allergies: no matter how good it feels, it’s just making matters worse.

One big reason is that punching Spencer lets him play the victim card. Now, you may point out this seems ridiculous when the guy who’s whining about getting punched in the face also celebrated a fellow white supremacist literally murdering multiple Muslims in Quebec with this tweet:


Which is still up on Twitter as of this writing.

… but this misses the point. You see, hypocrisy is not a bug of white supremacy and white nationalism, nor even a feature, but an absolutely critical component.

One central tenet of the Big Lie school of propaganda, beloved by both fascists and the far left, is to always accuse your enemies of that which you yourself are guilty of. For instance, fascists love to accuse others of censoring their viewpoints and trampling their First Amendment rights, despite the fact that fascists themselves instantly eliminate freedom of speech once in power. And as a corollary, they will cry to the heavens about any slight, real or imagined, suffered by themselves — but laugh and taunt when worse things happen to their enemies.

This hypocrisy exists because they feel like they deserve it. That white people deserve to get held to a better standard or, more accurately, that others deserve to be held to a worse standard. That a Nazi getting punched is worse than a Muslim getting shot because, for Spencer and other white supremacists, an innocent Muslim getting shot is on its own a moral good.

On this last part, white supremacists differ from their white nationalist cousins, and I hate that we are even having to devote energy to this ridiculous distinction, but it’s 2017 and here we are. And the two factions diverge from the same alt.right that held together until just after they helped get Trump elected.

White supremacists are today’s successors to the Klan and the Third Reich, and everyone already knows all about them. There is no limit to their hate; more importantly, there is no strategy to their evil. But what these guys never understood is that their rabid, naked hatred is precisely what keeps them on the fringes of society. Hardly anyone — not even hard-bitten Long Island Republicans or Milo-style trolls — wants to go that far.

And then we have the white nationalists, who are of course the real story of what’s going on these days. They apparently found their WS cousins useful during the campaign as shock troopers, but after Trump pulled off his win, they not-so-subtly parted ways, as evidenced by the split between Spencer and his WN counterpart, Mike Cernovich:

“There’s the alt-right [Cernovich said] which wants to do white identity politics, and then there’s people like me and Jeff [Giesea] who, we want to do nationalism without white identity politics… The alt-right’s dead.'” 

This from the guy who gladly described himself as alt-right up until he no longer needed to. Notorious Trump fanatic Bill Mitchell followed his lead, disavowing the alt-right and protesting to anyone who listens that he’s not a Nazi.

Nevertheless, the white nationalists share so many things in common with the white supremacists, that it doesn’t make sense to call them anything besides white nationalists, and not the term “economic nationalist” that’s preferred by the most powerful among their number, Steve Bannon.


He hates this picture. Please don’t share it repeatedly on social media.

To be sure, they are smarter than the WS’s. They understand that the scary rhetoric from Spencer, Daily Stormer head Andrew Anglin, and low-level Nazis at the local bar or online forum deeply offend the average voter and are never going to make it in the mainstream. They know they have to work with existing institutions such as elections, rather than pinning their hopes on fantasies of a violent race war. And while they may be working to make America whiter, they happily utilize black allies such as Sheriff David Clarke or gay Jews such as Milo. After all, unlike WS’s, they don’t want people of different races, sexualities, or religions wiped out in a genocide. They’re quite alright with them, as long as they all live elsewhere and/or accept second-class status.

On this, our American WNs were taught well by their European cousins. When Cernovich slams a WS for trying to bring up the “Jewish Question,” it’s not because he gives a damn about the Jews. It’s because he knows perfectly well that European WN parties such as the National Front, Sweden Democrats and UKIP only gained success by also (at least publicly) forbidding such speech. They do quite well compared to Britain’s openly WS party, the BNP, which has faded to irrelevancy. Old racist hobbyhorses like the “Jewish Question” or reminiscing about lynchings are sure losers and have no place in the new politics. Nobody understands the new order better than the former (?) head of Breitbart, and Bannon knows we aren’t restarting old battles from the 1930s.

Bannon knows that now, it isn’t about oppressing minorities. It’s instead about privileging members of the majority. It isn’t coming down hard on opponents of the regime. It’s about unfairly enriching friends of the regime. It isn’t about actively hating women. It’s about only looking after the interests of men. By at least superficially covering up the virulent negativity that defines the WS movement, the WN’s message becomes acceptable to a large percentage of regular mainstream people and their quite valid concerns about open-borders immigration and the selfishness of our current ruling class, concerns which Bannon correctly observes are only addressed by political movements resembling his own.

But though they quite loudly split from their WS cousins soon after the election, they are still cut from the same stuff. After all, just a few months ago, the two flavors of fascism were working together, hand in glove. They agree on most of the big issues, after all: that America and Europe should be mostly white; that all of Islam, and not just the radicals like ISIS, constitute a grave enemy; that women should again become chattel, concerned only with Kinder, Küche, Kirche; and that they hate the liberal globalists so badly that any strategy, no matter how ethically wrong, is fair game — and that includes the Big Lie.

Thus, we have a Trump White House that most definitely does not believe in the Golden Rule or turning the cheek, but that your enemies should be hurting far worse than you are, or else you’re doing it wrong. Or as Trump himself said, “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.”

Steve Bannon is not going to throw people in ovens or otherwise revive the Third Reich, as much as the WS wants it and as much as some alarmists fear it. But not because of any moral reason. It’s because the Third Reich lost, and if there’s one thing that Trump and Bannon believe in, it’s winning.

And he knows pointless oppression against blacks or Jews is counterproductive and would soon get his protegé impeached. But Muslims? Only the Left seems to care about them these days, and keeping Left and Right at each other’s throat is just an added bonus to oppressing a people that Bannon truly despises. Keeping Left and Right fighting each other while the ruling class does what it wants was a favored trick of Bush 43 and Obama, and Bannon wasted no time appropriating it.

Read Breitbart articles, especially pre-Trump archives (but post- Bannon taking over after the founder’s death), to get a good appreciation of what’s in store for the country. Breitbart is not the Daily Stormer and Bannon is not a Nazi. But he’s coming from the same zip code, at least, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.

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22 days ago
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19 days ago
"He hates this picture. Please don’t share it repeatedly on social media."

“Buy American” Makes Sense, Sound True, and Does Not Work at All

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There are so many things that make sense, sound true, and are absolutely, demonstrably false.

“Since bleach is a great cleaner, and ammonia is a great cleaner, mixing them together makes an amazing cleaner.”

“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

“If you want more American jobs you have to buy American.”

This makes sense and sounds true. If you buy more American-made stuff, you increase demand for American-made stuff. If demand for American-made stuff increases, production will also increase. If production increases, companies will have to hire more Americans to make the stuff.

And yet. There isn’t a lot that most economists agree about. But there is near consensus in the world of economics, even among the fringe groups, that international trade has increased the number of American jobs on net.

Perfectly logical, sane thinking can still take you to the wrong conclusion if you don’t take all the facts into account. It’s true that flipping the light switch up turns the light on 99% of the time. But what if the light switch is broken, or installed incorrectly, or the light bulb has burned out?

Let’s explore some relevant facts that are often ignored in the debate about how global trade impacts American employment.

1. Global demand matters too

Americans aren’t the only people buying American-made stuff.

And unfortunately, there is no way for the government to encourage Americans to buy American-made stuff without incentivizing other countries’ governments to encourage their citizens to buy stuff made in their country.

Sure, if you buy more American-made stuff, you increase demand for American-made stuff among Americans. But you decrease demand for American-made stuff from the rest of the world. And, last I checked, the rest of the world was bigger than America. So you’re just putting a hard cap on demand for American-made stuff. That doesn’t create jobs.

At the company I work for, we get paid when people click the links on our website. Around a fifth of the people who visit my company’s website live outside the US. Let’s just say that 500,000 people per month visiting my site from abroad. If we start a trade war, we lose those 500,000 visits and hope that 550,000 Americans stop using websites owned by companies outside the US and use us instead. But what if there aren’t 550,000 Americans who had been using foreign-owned websites?

2. Prices rise first

“If demand for American-made stuff increases, production will also increase.”

When demand increases, supply always takes a minute to catch up. You’ve got to build factories, hire workers, find supplies, etc. All that takes time. What happens in the interim? Prices increase.

That’s why any time imports decrease prices rise, and any time imports increase, prices fall. It’s simple supply and demand.

3. Demand for stuff doesn’t always translate into jobs

“If production increases, companies will have to hire more Americans to make the stuff.”

Not so fast. While this makes sense in theory, it’s not actually true in practice. And the reason is that American businesses have figured out how to make more stuff without hiring people. Manufacturing output is actually higher today than it’s ever been. Americans make more stuff, and send it abroad, than ever before. And yet manufacturing employment is down, down, down. How? Robots.

Automation is eating American manufacturing jobs.

Makes sense. Isn’t True.

It’s true that if you want more American jobs you have to increase demand for American labor. But the largest pool of untapped demand for American labor lives outside America’s borders.

Other countries will respond in kind to the US shuttering proposed trade deals, withdrawing from trade agreements, and putting tariffs on imports. So “buy American” policies will unfortunately do nothing to save American jobs. Instead, they will do three things:

1. Reduce global demand for American-made stuff
2. Make the stuff we have to buy more expensive
3. Further incentivize American companies to invest in technology to automate production

Let’s talk about me again for a second. If you add up all the Americans who use foreign-owned competitors you still get a lower number than the number of foreign visitors to my company’s site. Suddenly “buy American” means “No raise for Cathy.” We’ve just screwed ourselves out of the traffic we had been getting from abroad for absolutely no benefit.

Bleach is a great cleaner. Ammonia is a great cleaner. Mix them together and say goodbye to your lungs. The government is trying to help with “buy American” policies. But the result will be anything but helpful for American workers.

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22 days ago
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