Dear U.S. news media — February 16, 2017

Dear U.S. news media

You’re clearly doing your job. This is awesome. Keep it up. We’re in the middle of a war between an authoritarian and the truth. You seem to be benefiting from two facts:

  1. The ruling party, in both the legislative and executive branches, has no interest in controlling its leader.
  2. There are still men and women of conscience within the civil service.

A lot of us had lost hope. This is helping us regain it. Let us know how we can help. I’m doing my part by subscribing to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, Pro Publica, and any other real news sources I can get my hands on.

A lot of us were scared that our institutions of civil society were too threadbare to stand up to a wannabe authoritarian. This is giving us hope. I’m still scared, but I’m more hopeful now than I was a few days ago.

A downpayment on a review of Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study In Mediaeval Political Theology — February 13, 2017

A downpayment on a review of Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study In Mediaeval Political Theology

Some sort of Christ image, which I'll research later

This will have to be the most cursory of reviews. I took nearly 2600 words of notes as I read the book, and I’ll find the time soon to distill them into a review (along with everything else I’m behind on writing here). Suffice to say in the meantime: this book blew my mind, and both the depth and the breadth of the erudition are staggering.

The book starts from, seemingly, a simple premise: what exactly was meant by the term “the king is dead; long live the king”? On this slender reed is solidly balanced a mountain of scholarship. In what at times feels like extreme amounts of word parsing, Kantorowicz elaborates on the slow evolution, from Aristotle through to George III, of our understanding of kings’ dual natures — to simplify greatly, they are part man and part god. (If you want the less-simplified version, I’d recommend you read the whole book.)

When we say that the king is dead but that the King lives on, we mean something like: the immortal institution of the Crown persists, even though the fallible body of the king may have passed on. But what is this immortal institution of the Crown? Is it the corporate body of the people? Is it, like Jesus, the angelic soul of the King himself, set aside the corruptible body of the king?

I really must be going, but let me just say in parting (temporarily, I assure you) that, almost as a passing thought, Kantorowicz’s next-to-last chapter contains a full elaboration of Dante’s philosophy (drawing heavily on Gilson, it seems). It completely upends my understanding of the Inferno, which I formerly took to be about Christianity. To Kantorowicz, Dante is doing nothing less than inventing a humanistic parallel to Christianity for man’s intellectual ideals, as manifested in the human community.

Periodically I encounter a book that gives me a feeling of intellectual vertigo; the last book that did that before Kantorowicz was Plagues and Peoples. The King’s Two Bodies is the first book I can remember that combines intellectual vertigo with an extraordinary level of intellectual precision. I was focusing intently on each sentence, even while each chapter drew me through centuries of scholarly history. It’s a shockingly expansive masterwork. Recommended in the highest terms.

The decline in American carnage (in Boston and New York, anyway) — February 7, 2017

The decline in American carnage (in Boston and New York, anyway)

I hadn’t ever seen a time series of violent crime in Boston. The current rate of violent crime is really quite low by historical standards — shockingly so. The Uniform Crime Reports website is poorly run, but go to a UCR-navigating website, select cities whose population is between 500k and 999,999, go to the next and select Boston, then click Get Table. I cached the results before they vanish down the Trump memory hole.

Violent crimes are down 60% from where they were in 1985, while the city’s population is up 14%.

The numbers for New York are quite similar.

Somehow Chicago doesn’t report violent-crime numbers into the UCR. Not sure why.

Some thoughts that seem true, post-Women’s March edition — January 24, 2017

Some thoughts that seem true, post-Women’s March edition

  1. Obviously we need to focus. A generalized march against Trump is great, but turning this into results will require some focus.
  2. What you focus on and what I focus on will differ. I care about different things than you do.
  3. I care about expanding and improving health-care access. The Affordable Care Act was a start, but just a start.
  4. We could do better than the ACA, if only from the angle of explaining to people what it does.
  5. “Medicare-for-All” is damn easy to explain.
  6. Current Republican plans for ACA reform involve making it manifestly worse, so that they can make it work worse and then tell us in a few years that government can never do anything right. See Jon Gruber’s excellent comic explaining the ACA and its putative “reform”. (Hat tip to the estimable mrz.)
  7. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect that we’ll get Medicare-for-All in this new, terrible reality. But let’s start the bargaining at the correct end of the spectrum, rather than starting with Republican ‘reforms’ that will destroy Obamacare. Let’s make Obamacare better.
  8. We’re not going to get anything without organization. Without a concentrated lobbying power, the Women’s March will be the new Occupy Wall Street — cute, but ultimately fruitless. I’m looking around to find the right organization to take this fight to Congress. Health Care For All, maybe? I’ll let you know what I find.
  9. In Massachusetts we’re particularly lucky: our Congressional delegation wants the same things we do. Lobbying them will look different than lobbying a Congressperson in a swing state. I’m no expert on how this works. I’m asking around.
  10. Another thing I care about is expanding and securing Social Security. We should be expanding Social Security, not cutting it. Let’s start the bargaining at increasing Social Security benefits and making it available to people 50 and over. Let’s let Republicans tell the elderly why they need to cut the program that the elderly love so much. And if it’s such a good program, why shouldn’t more people get access to it?

Social Security for more people, and Medicare-for-All. That’s a good place to start, isn’t it?

A grotesque mediocrity —

A grotesque mediocrity

Of the writings dealing with the same subject at approximately the same time as mine, only two deserve notice: Victor Hugo’s Napoleon le Petit and Proudhon’s Coup d’Etat. Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d’etat. The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history. Proudhon, for his part, seeks to represent the coup d’etat as the result of an antecedent historical development. Inadvertently, however, his historical construction of the coup d’etat becomes a historical apologia for its hero. Thus he falls into the error of our so-called objective historians. I, on the contrary, demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.

Blog-post series idea, quantitative-literacy department: Top Tens — January 23, 2017

Blog-post series idea, quantitative-literacy department: Top Tens

Here’s a quick idea for a series of blog posts: “If you want to do [x], you will need to address the following 10 items; everything else is negligible.” For instance: if you want to cut the Federal budget appreciably, you’ll need to cut defense, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or the interest on the federal debt; everything else amounts to very little. (In particular, the National Endowment for the Arts amounts to very little. There may be a list of sound ideological reasons to kill it, but budget-balancing is not at the top of that list.)

Or: if you want to raise American life expectancy, you’ll need to reduce a few major causes of death; giving everyone a flu shot, while useful, won’t cut it.

Or: if you want to reduce health-care costs, you’ll need to focus on the last few years of life; making me pay more for the occasional X-ray won’t cut it.

These are just hypothetical examples, and I’ve not worked out the detailed numbers on any of them; doing so would be part of the fun of the exercise. The goal of the exercise, overall, is to give people — including myself! — a clarifying idea of where the big wins come from. For instance, how much life expectancy could we gain from imposing a $1 tax on cigarettes? (A book I read recently but haven’t yet reviewed probably contains exactly this number.)

Useful idea? What else would people like to see in such a series?

LazyWeb (if that’s still a thing) request: where to read unsanitized Martin Luther King? — January 17, 2017