Swimming Against the Currents in the Late Afternoon

I am in a testamental mood these days. I know the word does not yet exist. I am just trying to blend together the virtues of “testament,” as in, “last will and testament,” of the Biblical and legal term “testimony,” and maybe even of the term – not so common on the street -, “testes.” So, now, the word “testamental” exists. I just made it up and you all understand it. By the way, I know, there is a word “testamentary.” It does not suit my purpose.

I am old, now, older than I ever anticipated being (80, N. S. !). When I was growing up, life was much shorter than now; so, we had modest expectations. People died at every age of everything and nothing. Antibiotics were few, scarce and expensive. Both the anti-polio and the TB vaccines were invented while I was a kid. My paternal grandmother died at around sixty; my maternal grandfather, at twenty-six (of course, the cause was not illness; it was a German bullet.) My maternal grandmother, his widow, lasted only until age 75. (She left with a Gitane clenched in her right hand.)

Today feels a lot for me like late afternoon. I am swimming in a mostly calm ocean. The sun has not gone down much yet but there is a sense that night is coming. Even the seagulls have gone quiet. So, I look back, infrequently and only superficially, but I do. Overall, I had a lucky and almost charmed life. I was in good health most of my years and so were those most dear to me, or mostly so. I served in the military but my existence was never really threatened by armed others with bad intentions. Mostly, I had pretty much the life I wanted without necessarily deserving it. More on this below.

Emigrating to the US, I morphed in reasonable time from a French high school dropout to an American scholar, not a great American scholar, mind you, a fairly well respected one (1350+ scholarly mentions and counting, according to the specialized outfit ACADEMIA that keeps track of those things. That’s pretty good; ask anyone.) In America, from day one, numerous strangers and acquaintances gave me a hand, or a push upward, even a shove, occasionally. During the hard years, the benevolence of many helped keep my head above water. Even a Chinese restaurant server in San Francisco, regularly gave me double helpings of fried rice for the price of one. He was an older man with whom I did not have a single word in common. I have every reason to feel grateful and I do, every day. America makes everyone better, even the bad guys.

Fast forward a few years. Soon I was teaching college. From then on, I was always involved in research. Yet, I made my living mostly by doing something I liked, telling stories, or teaching, same thing. In the end, I also found a way to get paid for reading, exactly what I loved doing as a child and as a teenager. I retired about fifteen years ago. Since then, I have written three-plus books. The first and the third are in English, the second, in French. Incidentally, the third book, the second recent book in English, is under a nom de plume, the pseudonym: “John René Adolph.” You can just guess why I had to use a pen name. (Or, you can look up the electronic version of the book on Amazon. Warning, not a family reading!) I also wrote a slew of short stories plus a goodly number of political essays. None of the latter is of a scholarly nature. They are more of a kind of fou-fou sociology. So, I had a second career as a writer, one lacking somewhat in seriousness, a career as a moderately and pleasantly frivolous writer. Most of my stories and nearly all my essays are on my blog: factsmatter.wordpress.com. Most were also published, after a fashion.

The three books written since I retired are all published by Vanity Press, I am afraid. (A fourth book is in the hopper.) I figured I did not have the time at my age to go around begging commercial publishers to take a look at my productions. From the little I have seen, they treat you very badly. In fact, they generally won’t even talk to the poor souls who think they are writers. They only deal with literary agents. And you need an agent just to get an agent. Plus, I am convinced that unless you write porn or romances novels (same thing, more or less), you won’t find a publisher unless you are serial killer, or a disgraced politician, someone who already has a name! I am not surprised. I always knew, if only in a vague way, that the easiest thing about books, after reading them, is writing them. Do I wish I had tens of thousands of readers? Yes. With the royalties income to match? You bet! Am I bitter? Not at all. Remember, I am talking about my second life.

Of course, I can hear some unsympathetic murmurs from here: you were an unpublished writer. What did you expect? The world is overflowing with people who think they are writers and who have no right to think so. Again, what do you expect? Well, in fact, when I did the first of my last three books, I had already published two earlier ones, much earlier ones, unfortunately. Both books had been commercial successes. One was in French. It had even received a national award in France. It does not count, I was told, because it’s in French. The other was a thin volume in English, published forty years earlier. Too old to count, I was told. I never mentioned my many scholarly publications in that context because that’s the kiss of death for a regular writer, a trade writer. Who wants to read a book by a professor that has not been assigned and the reading of which will no produce a grade?

I have been married twice. The first time, when I was a pretend-hippie, it was for four and half months. The second marriage lasted forty-five years, so far. (Let no one claim that I don’t learn from experience.) My wife and I managed to adopt and raise two children. My academic job gave my talented wife space to be a painter who did not often have to work outside the home. More luck: I really like her paintings; they make me feel rich; I don’t have to pretend. I don’t even want her to sell them. Early on, when we were fairly poor she sold one good one, for a good price. I have not stopped mourning it. And, by the way, I dabbled in painting myself for several years. It’s hard to explain but I have no illusions about the quality of my own paintings. I am what the French call derisively: “un peintre du Dimanche,” an amateur who paints only on Sundays, as a hobby. Some of my many small paintings nevertheless generate much pleasure in a certain part of my brain. Shoot me but I actually like looking at my paintings! Every so often, I give one away to a friend – always with the dim fear that it will end up in his garage. (In my scenario, my friend’s wife orders him to put “this horror” away. Most of my friends are American-born males, of course. Almost all of them are wimps who obey women. This fact irritates the women in their lives, I have noticed.)

There is one more happy thing I need to mention about my life, even if it will not be clear to everyone. Because I lived in California, not far from the sea, because I made a decent living, and because I had plenty of leisure time, including time to travel, a wonderful thing happened to me that I dared not even dream of in my rudderless youth. Between ages 20 and 60, I mush have spent 15% of my wake time underwater. I don’t mean scuba diving, that’s just not chic; I mean free diving, holding your breath. Moving alone under the sea is so different from everything else you know that it’s is like having another, parallel life. The best I can say is that, in my case, it was as if I had had a long-term affair and that my wife approved of it. I would love to tell you more about my underwater biography but you probably wouldn’t believe me. Fortunately, I have photographs as evidence whenever I feel like bragging.

I was born and reared in Paris, that is, in a fairly cold and rainy place (outside of the travel posters). It’s also at the latitude of Labrador; look it up. Daylight there lasts about six hours in December. I realized far into adulthood that had always suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a real and widespread but largely ignored illness. The Paris climate and latitude made most of my childhood unhappy, although I did not even know it; I just thought it was normal to be cheerful only late spring and summer. When I moved to California – latitude of Algiers – for other reasons, my emotional world opened up, like going from black-and-white movies to Technicolor. I became contented on a regular basis, almost year around. My personality even changed from sometimes somber to mostly sunny.

Yet, in my old age, I find myself swimming against more currents than I had hoped for. Three in particular form obstacles to my well-deserved senior peace of mind. It all begun with radio host Rush Limbaugh’s departure from this earth to collect his own much better-deserved reward. I had been listening to him almost every morning for twenty years. Discombobulated, I beat the bushes looking for new radio shows to furnish my mornings. Perhaps as a result of gross incompetence (I wouldn’t put it past me), I ended up with a mixture of BBC World Service and National Public Radio. I know, I know the latter sounds unlikely for a libertarian-leaning conservative like me but, actually, NPR has a handful of really good programs. “How I Built This” is one, the Sunday morning show hosted by the author of Freakonomics is another. And then there is the excellent story-telling hour, “The Ted Radio Hour” that airs also on Sundays, I think. By the way, I would give my left big toe to be invited on that latter show though I have not even applied. Incidentally, I did local radio for three years. It was very interesting, unlike any other experience. It earned me many friends. Ten years later, shopkeepers who recognize my voice still give me discounts.

Anyway, once you have your radio set adequately tuned in the morning, sometimes, often, you don’t get up to change the channel. What you picked at 8 AM. stays with you till noon though the programming has become inappropriate, unhinged from your interest and preferences, or downright objectionable. So, for two years now, I have been served a steady diet of talks, and pseudo-documentaries about sexual crimes and recriminations, diatribes against inequalities (plural) and, of course, alarmist, uninformed preaching about climate change. Together, they spoil the quality of my daily life, of my last swim. They make me feel as if I were working hard against three significant currents. Now, one unpleasantness at a time.

The frequent talk and cries of anguish and claims of being a “survivor,” and confessions, and forced resignations, and voluntary resignations around real and/or alleged sex acts, and acts of a superficial sexual nature that aren’t sexual but are treated as such, blend into a cacophony that is never far out of my hearing. It makes me feel almost like a stranger to the human race. The reason is that it appears that almost everybody – every male human being (“XY”) – as we used to call them, at least, has committed some grave sexual infraction, yesterday or thirty years ago. But I think I haven’t. And it seems that I have lived my whole life surrounded by rapists or near-rapists without a hint of that reality. So, I feel excluded.

I performed a scrupulous examination of my memory from age twelve. (Fortunately, I have a good memory in general, down to small details, except for names.) I am completely certain I never touched a female human being (“XX”) without clear and repeated signals, not even in kindergarten (nor a male human being, by the way). In fact, I was often called “slow” in that area. A French woman my age thus, an old lady, told me just recently that when we were both fourteen, at the beach, she spent a whole summer trying to get me interested. All to no avail. The thing of it is that I liked her and found her attractive. She ended up seducing my brother, a couple of years later, as a consolation prize, I suppose. I am 100% sure I never raped any woman except by insistent, repeated, and clear requests on her part. (Yes, some women’s fantasies swing that way, wouldn’t you know?) Once, when I was about thirty, a woman in my age range even tried to force herself on me. She went so far as to break down my bedroom door lock to get at me. It was more farcical than tragic, actually. I never thought of turning her in although she was a colleague. I am positive attempted rape is different for women though but I am less than confident that you can even mention this nowadays.

Looking to avoid the appearance of sainthood, I dig further. I discover it’s likely that, on several occasions, I used off-color language in the presence of women (cis- and perhaps trans-women; I don’t know) to whom I was not especially close. I shouldn’t have done that and I am very sorry. If there is an excuse for such detestable behavior, it is that I learned it in the bosom of my family. I had a grandfather, a widower, who delighted at family meals in having for dessert several discreditable jokes he told right at the table. The women present, including my Mom, would roll their eyes but their eyes were always smiling, I noticed, even as a small boy. By the way, this is the same grandfather who died in his seventies, in his mistress’ s bed. The mistress managed a good wines and spirits shop. I come from good stock! Enough about near-copulatory events but I still don’t know if I am a saint or a pariah thanks to NPR’s obsession with sexual misbehavior.

Then, there is the issue and the non-issue of inequality. (It’s now often called “inequity,” for greater moral heft.) It comes up several times a day on my radio. First, liberals and, I think, perhaps, most people, routinely confuse inequality and poverty. Here is a small exercise. Consider the following (imagined) facts. This year, my income is twice higher than your income. The following year, my income quadruples while yours only triples. Thus, there is no doubt but that the inequality between us has increased greatly. Question: Are you poorer the second year? Difficult to get the straight answer this question deserves: “No.” But, of course, we are today very far from considerations of simple income.

Nearly every morning, I overhear touching interviews of successful African American women, singers and actresses for the most part. It’s always the same story: How difficult it was to make it in a world dominated by white men. Yet, the most highly remunerated entertainer in the history of the world, the richest, is a … Black woman. (Yes, I mean Oprah, of course.) Go figure! Interviewers, all white upper-middle class females with that particular diction – you know – clearly enjoying their white guilt, never think of mentioning this contrarian fact. Or the great Tina Turner who is quietly enjoying the end of her life in royal luxury on the French Riviera. (Yes, I agree, she earned each and every diamond of it.) There are many other examples. White demi-stars often follow the Black interviewees on the same channels. They all try to find some tremendous obstacle – besides the obvious male chauvinism – they had to surmount. It can be being short, of Italian background, or being born in New York City, or being born in the Midwest, nearly anything will do. At last resort, they can always claim they were molested as children. It looks like almost all women were, at least those who amount to anything or who are on their way to it. (See above.) “Almost all” because my own sisters and my wife never claimed they were molested but then, they were never interviewed on NPR. No, I am not denying that sexual violence against women exists. I also know that in most American states, rape will get you 10 to 15 years. If this does not get predators’ attention, nothing will and it’s time for women to pack heat. As for the horror of child molestation, I blame it squarely on parents’ lack of attentiveness, on their distance from their children.

The inequality narrative is competitive and it often turns almost insane. Recently, on one of those two networks I mentioned, somebody celebrated the anniversary of the first space walk by two women. What is being celebrated here, years later, I wondered? I am sure walking in space is fiendishly difficult and scary. I am a tough guy but I am also sure I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. Yet, dozens of guys had done the same before those two women. So, what’s to brag about, that the girls went out of the space station without a strong dude even holding their hand for re-assurance? Isn’t this a self-defeating inequality story?

There is worse. Only a couple of days ago (late May 2022), BBC World Service interviewed a Kenyan man because he had been a member of an all-Black team to climb Mount Everest. The team had been put together by an African American mountaineer who had recruited Black men from several parts of the world. Nice, I am thinking, an international team! But wait, where is the edifying part of the story? I agree that the Kenyan guy had merit. The opportunities to become a good mountain climber are far and few in sub-Saharan Africa. After you have done famed but not that steep Mount Kilimanjaro a half-dozen times, it must get old on you. So, I don’t think at all that the Kenyan climber deserves kudos for his negroid features or for his dark skin, or for the disadvantages unfailingly associated with such features. And neither do the other Black victors over Everest. That Kenyan is in the same league as the beloved Jamaican Olympic luge team of several years ago much of the world remembers well. We are ready to love him because of his location of origin, not because of his race. By the way, any African American in the team was free to live on top of the Rockies and to train relentlessly, and to train several days a week. Same for the Black Canadians, if any. So, where is the big deal?

Here is the very best worst I heard under the general rubric of inequality. I hesitate to recount it lest I be accused of making it up abut I swear it’s true. Someone was discussing on the radio, as usual, the impending end of the world from climate change. Within a couple of sentences, the speaker, perhaps carried away by righteous emotion, asserted that “indigenous communities” would be the most severely affected. Now really, do I have the talent or the nerve, to make this up?

And, by the way, if you consider recent meetings of Defense Ministers of Western democracies you will notice that they look more and more like 1960s coffee klatches, with purses, skirts, nicely done hairdos, and lipstick all over. Which reminds me: the new French Prime Minister is a woman. Did you happen to see all the violent protests in Paris, the riots by Frenchmen who don’t want to be governed by a woman? No, you didn’t! There wasn’t even a murmur. I think that you female dogs are usually barking up the wrong tree. How about directing your attention and your anger where they are really needed? I am thinking Afghanistan, for example where several million teenage girls are currently prevented from going to school at all. Not a whisper from you about this humanitarian disaster.

The gem above about indigenous communities makes me think of the third current against which I am forced to swim every day. I refer, of course, to the incessant hysterical whining about climate change’s impending shutting down of the world. The first personal unpleasantness connected to this issue is that 95% of those I hear pronounce on either what causes climate change, or on its multitudinous consequences, all bad, 95%, I say, are obviously not trained or credentialed to say anything on the subject. (OK, let’s be perfectly honest here. I say 95% in an effort to appear moderate. In fact, I am really convinced that over 99+% have no idea what they are talking about.)

And then, there is the generally low quality of the research endeavor on climate change. Oh, the elusiveness of much needed metrics, the defective metrics, the readily available good metrics ignored, the sloppy collection of data, the faulty and/or dishonest study designs (Remember the hockey stick, anyone?), the haphazard or overly imaginative causal reasoning, the actual suppression of contrary evidence, the blinding omission of what obviously belongs in the discussion! I am referring last to the fact, for example, that nuclear energy produces no (zero) greenhouse emissions yet barely earns any mention from climate missionaries. And how about the benefits of the global warming aspect of climate change; do you ever hear about them? Isn’t it true, for example, that the northern and southern limits of wheat maturation are going to move respectively north and south, making bigger harvests possible?

And then, there is the deliberate disregard of the human (economic) ravages implicit in most of the solutions advanced to remedy the alleged consequences of climate change. I mean the continued poverty of those who are poor now. This disregard leads to blindness toward fairly obvious solutions. Ocean rising? Why not call in the Dutch? Most of them have been living very well six feet below sea level for centuries. At the time, they managed it all with their hands and shovels, with horses and windmills. Too much carbon in the atmosphere? Quickly plant billions of trees that will remain privately owned. It’s pretty cheap, and everyone likes trees, even conservatives like me. Etc.

No, it’s OK, no need to throw me a life jacket. I will just keep swimming. I will manage. I am pretty sure I can reach the next shore in spite of the currents. I am certain, I will make it before the end of the world at least. I am in no hurry anyway. Thanks all the same.

Lit in Review: The impact of epidemics on historical economics, part 1

The most recent Journal of Economic Literature includes four essays on how historical epidemics and pandemics affected major macroeconomic variables. Together, they account for 170-someodd pages, which I will summarize below. Each of them is a detailed literature review on decades of historical research. While they are dense, they are for the most part readable. Part 2 will summarize three articles from The Journal of Economic Perspectives on Macro Policy in the Pandemic.


“Modern Infectious Diseases: Macroeconomic Impacts and Policy Responses” – D. Bloom, M. Kuhn, and K. Prettner The greatest strength of this paper is in critically discussing the various methodologies and theories we have available to even answer the question of how epidemics affect the economy. This is aside from the problem that “narrow economic considerations take inadequate account of the ethical, normative, and political dimensions of decisions that relate to saving lives.”

Generally, micro-based methods that focus on the impacts on individuals and add them up ignore indirect, complex interactions that macro-based methods do capture. For instance, increasing the probability that a 15 year old survives to age 60 by 10 percentage points (roughly equivalent to moving from India to China) increases labor productivity by 9.1 percent. On the other hand, most macro models miss behavioral responses are an insufficiently complex. One problem is that my individual incentive to take preventative actions depends on everyone else. This is something I noticed in my own life – here in Texas where almost no one wore a mask, I had a strong incentive to stay masked myself; when we traveled to any state west of us, almost everyone was masked and surfaces were regularly cleaned, so I felt much less urgency to wear a mask myself. Their conclusion is that diseases will be difficult to eradicate via “private actions alone.” They therefore conclude that some form of government lockdown is likely to be warranted.

Epidemics will have different impacts on the economy depending on a) disease-specific characteristics (how much do they impact working-age population, how much long-term damage do they do, etc) b) population characteristics, particularly how much poverty there is and c) country characteristics, particularly government capacity. Because of this, the same epidemic might have minor impacts in one country, create a poverty trap in a second, impose economic hardship in a third while leaving long-run health mostly untouched, or leaving the economy mostly unaffected but harming health and increasing the incidence of other diseases in a fourth.

“Epidemics, Inequality, and Poverty in Preindustrial and Early Industrial Times” – G. Alfani Most important point: epidemics reduce poverty by either a) changing society/laws/markets in ways that are pro-poor and b) killing more poor people than other socioeconomic groups. If a particular disease leads more to the latter, then there will be very small impacts of disease on poverty. Standard intermediate macroeconomics says that wages come from productivity and the more land or physical capital each worker has, the higher their wages will be. Because of this, the usual story I tell my students about the Black Death that killed off 20-35% of western Europe but left the capital alone is that it raised wages for the poorest and created a large middle class, setting the stage for the Renaissance. Alfani shows Gini coefficients [measures of inequality] falling by 30 percent or more.

But this didn’t happen everywhere. “Government intervention may have suppressed wage bargaining for an extended period of time” in post-Colombus Mexico (Scheidel 2017), or Black-Death-era Spain (Álvarez-Nodal and Prados de la Escosura, 2013), and Poland.

And it didn’t happen always. Repeated epidemics in the 17th century that were as deadly as the Black Death in some communities didn’t seem to reduce inequality at all, either in total or compared to what happened in communities that were unaffected. Why not? One difference is that when epidemics happened more often, governments changed inheritance rules to ensure large amounts of wealth stayed controlled by only a few. He also argues that demand for labor will decrease, and if it decreases as much as the labor supply, wages may not increase at all. On top of these effects, I infer from his paper that later epidemics killed a higher percent of skilled workers than the Black Death did, and that stunted any change in the skill premium. Then there are diseases like cholera that not only hit poor areas hardest, but tended to increase and concentrate the negative aspects of poverty.

Alfani and Murphy (2017): “From the fifteenth century, most plagues were particularly harsh on the poor. This has to do both with the poor’s relatively unhealthy living areas, but also with how they were treated during the epidemics. Once doctors and health authorities noticed that plague mortality tended to be higher in the poorest parts of the city, they began to see the poor themselves as the potential culprits of the spread of the infection.” That attitude is contrasted with efforts to improve sanitation and nutrition to both reduce disease and improve the lives of the poor.

“The 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Its Lessons for COVID-19” – B. Beach, K. Clay, and M. Saavedra “The first lesson from 1918 is that the health effects were large and diffuse” and we may never know just how large because of inaccurate record keeping, “issues that also undermine our ability to quantify the impact of COVID-19.” The second lesson: The Spanish flu epidemic was more likely to kill working-age adults, so it had a major long-run labor supply shock which COVID is unlikely to cause, even though both have caused recessions.

Among the differences between the two are that epidemics were not unusual in 1918 and it happened right at the end of World War I, which had upset many economies already and led to falling productivity for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. We have also documented a wide range of negative health impacts from the 1918 epidemic and are only beginning to document the longer-term impacts of COVID, which will have to be studied in the future.

Interestingly, while there was some attempt at social distancing and closing society down in 1918, it was much shorter-lived and not as severe as what we tried during COVID. While they were “somewhat effective at reducing mortality in 1918, … the extent to which more restrictive [regulations] would have further reduced pandemic mortality remains debated.”

“The Economic Impact of the Black Death” – R. Jedwab, N. Johnson, and M. Koyama There are three primary lenses through which economists have viewed the Black Death. Malthusians argue that smaller populations increase wages (by raising the capital/labor or land/labor ratios) and lower inequality. The “Smithian” view is that larger populations are necessary for a greater division of labor, specialization, and larger markets that support important technologies. The third strand focuses on the role of institutions, both as causes and effects.

“In the very short run [the Black Death] caused a breakdown in markets and economic activity more generally.” In a longer run sense, though, England, Spain, and Italy had very different divergences between wages and productivity. Put another way, England had larger Smithian effects than Spain or Italy and Italy had the largest Malthusian effects. Thus, rather than one model being “right” and the other “wrong,” there is more of a continuum, moderated in part by institutions.

In the years after the plague, people moved out of rural areas to the cities that had been hardest hit because wages had increased more there, which also increased reforestation. In Western Europe, workers’ bargaining power increased, eroding the institution of serfdom. Craft guilds increased dramatically, though their net effect is questionable – decreasing competition through monopoly power but increasing human capital accumulation through apprenticeships. States grew in size and influence, perhaps because there were fewer people to oppose them, with growing taxation accompanying investment in public health and the ability to impose quarantines.

On Persons, Individuals, and Humans

It is only from a notion of the human, common to all men, that the concept of person can be dissolved into the idea of individual.

The relevance of the concept of person lies in its ability to describe functional relationships with its environment: sui juris or alieni juris, noble, patrician, commoner, serf or lord, father, minor, capable, incapable, etc. In pre-modern times, according to each function, a normative system exclusive to caste, position or estate, known as “privilege”, corresponded.

Rather, Modernity dissolves fixed personal relationships into an undifferentiated diagram of spheres of individual autonomy. Each human being ceases to be a person attached to a certain fixed function in the social fabric and, by the mere fact of being human, is the holder of his sphere of individual autonomy, equal to that of any other human being.

The legal system ceases to govern particular relationships between people to become a structure empty of intentions and purposes, which only determines procedures and delimits equal and predictable fields of interaction and clear methods for the resolution of disputes among the holders of the different spheres of individual autonomy.

The principle ceases to be that of difference to become that of equality. The difference becomes the exception, to be justified on a functional basis that results in a public benefit.

However, in the non-political sphere, that of civil society, the difference does not disappear, but is expressed in each of the individual exceptionalities, within each respective sphere of individual autonomy, while it is accidental and irrelevant to the legal-political system.

There are certain special situations framed within specific legal regimes, such as minority and intra-family relations, which enshrine assistance obligations, usufruct rights and a system of representation and guardianship.

Consequently, the role of the public sphere within civil society is defined by the procedure to be followed to settle the conflicts that could arise from the collision of the different spheres of individual autonomy.

From the moment in which each human being is an autonomous individual, the legitimate exercise of power in relation to the population does not consist in giving specific orders to subjects but in administering a set of procedures whose specific purpose is to serve as a means for different individuals settle their disputes peacefully.

Of course, in Modernity and in liberal democracies relations of command and political obedience subsist, but within the governmental structures themselves, which in turn incorporated procedural rules that limit discretion in the exercise of power and establish functions and hierarchies that define competencies and delimit individual responsibilities.

However, both modern government structures and the legal consecration of a social structure composed of equal individuals in dignity and respect are not the result of an invention but the consequence of a historical evolution whose becoming does not cease and whose hindrances persist in the field of the aforementioned civil society.

That the differences between people are exclusively functional and that such functions report a benefit to all the individuals involved, in such a way that none of them is used exclusively as a means, but is seen as an end in itself, is an imperative for the public sphere, but only a programmatic aspiration in the field of civil society.

In turn, that each person deserves equal consideration and respect is a discovery in the true sense of the word. Quentin Skinner in “The Foundations of Modern Political Thought” recounts the role played in the Late Middle Ages by the discussion that every person was endowed with an immortal soul, deserving of salvation, for the subsequent conceptualization that every human being is worthy also of legal protection regarding their fundamental interests, such as their life, their personal freedom, or their possessions.

Regarding the natural law doctrine of human rights, which states that human beings enjoy a certain set of guarantees and rights against the state and against other people, it is usually dismissed as metaphysical.

However, such statement can be understood more clearly if it is related to its historical evolution: the different freedoms already existed but assigned to different people according to their caste or status, who had an immediate and specific interest in their protection.

To cite an example, in the Partidas of Alfonso X of Castille, we find every detail of social life regulated: some had the right to bear arms but not to work, since they had to be available to the king in his court to eventually go to war; others had the right to exercise a certain trade or profession, excluding those who did not belong to their corporation, but they were not free to change their activity, neither in terms of their subject matter nor their geography. In the pre-modern world, the holders of freedoms had a specific interest in defending them, but their ownership depended on circumstances that, in the vast majority of cases, were out of their control and, in others, obsolete in terms of their functionality.

Given that this legal-political system had very little plasticity to adapt to changes in the surrounding circumstances, it was generally inefficient, stagnant, and unstable and, therefore, conflicts manifested themselves in recurrent revolts.

Modernity consisted in the universalization of liberties. This means that freedoms – or immunities against power – that already existed and whose entitlement was limited to reasons of belonging to certain castes or estates, to the exclusion in many cases of one another, began to be extended to all human beings by the mere fact of being such.

That is to say, there is nothing metaphysical in the natural law doctrine of human rights. It actually consists of the universalization of rights that already existed and were recognized.

The novelty that this brought is that each human being ceased to be considered as a person in relation to his family, his social status or his caste, to be considered as an autonomous individual and equal in rights to any other, holder of rights that he was actively interested in exercising as well as others whose content he hardly had any news or specific interest.

In turn, men exchanged differentiated rights that protected certain personal interests in exchange for new abstract freedoms, the same for each of the remaining individuals. As a result, each person gained potential spheres of action and saw specific regions of power restricted.

The nobleman gained a freedom to work and trade that he may or may not have an interest in exercising, but he lost the power he had over his serfs or was displaced by commoner bureaucrats in government functions. The shoemaker gained the freedom to emigrate to other cities or to change his trade to that of a blacksmith, in which he may or may not be interested, but he also received competition in his own town from other new shoemakers who emigrated from other latitudes, who effectively exercised such rights.

Such transformations and their discontents can be verified in the conservative authors of the beginnings of the Contemporary age, as is the case of Charles Dickens, among others.

That is why the universalization of fundamental rights -for the English tradition- or natural rights -for the American conception- constitutes both a discovery of intellectual research on historical evolution and a political program.

Whether such an extension is desirable and to what extent it should be continued or reversed largely defines political positioning from right to left. For this reason, historical evolution is not a legitimizing device in itself, but a process of discovery of various forms of social and political organization that is subject to a critical evaluation regarding which institutions and practices to incorporate, preserve, resist or modify.

On the open texture of conflicts

Just as language carries with it a phenomenon of open texture, according to which the reference and meaning of some of its terms are modified in response to changes in the environment — for example, saying that the head of state is commander in chief of the armed forces implies different denotations and connotations as war machines, communications, and command styles evolve -, conflicts that are prolonged over time also undergo changes in the terms that define them, as their surrounding context varies.

Thus, a dispute between individuals about the ownership of a certain asset, such as that of two heirs in dispute over the award of a property that is part of the hereditary heritage, will have to vary in intensity according to the changes in the market value of the said asset and according to the changes in the needs of those heirs as well.

Note, likewise, that the said transformation of the conditions in no way affects the conformation of the hereditary rights, but rather it is in the interest of each of the parties to enforce them.

Under certain circumstances, some of the said heirs will have to prefer to maintain the undivided inheritance and under others they will have to activate the dissolution of the hereditary community, generating a conflict in case of disparity among the heirs.

Although rights protect interests -such as life, personal liberty or stability upon possession-, not all interests deserve legal protection -such as the claim of an individual to hold a monopoly in the production of a certain good- and, among those interests which do enjoy legal protection, it will be relative and hierarchical.

Given that a legal system forms a set of consistent normative parameters, the changes in the decisions of individuals are motivated by variations in the relative value of the interests protected by said legal system, also assuming that such individuals are rational agents – i.e., they have transitive preferences.

As a corollary of the above, the normative system, while remaining identical to itself, will have to be neutral for the dynamics of the conflict, since the parties will have shaped their plans and expectations in accordance with their prescriptions.

That is why we often find analyses devoid of axiological and merely descriptive approaches. This does not mean that the rules, be they positive or natural, are not observed, but rather that a degree of compliance and constant enforcement is verified, which makes it possible to look for the reason for the changes in the decisions of the agents in other conditioning factors, such as the technology, the relative prices of goods, climatic phenomena, etc., etc..

Nor does this mean that the law does not evolve or undergo disruptive changes: there are legislative changes and judicial precedents that are modifying the content of the norms and, in turn, the norms themselves suffer the consequences of the open texture of the language in which they are expressed.

When these changes do not respond to a change in the value of the interests, but respond to a need of the legal system itself to maintain a stable and predictable order of events, the legal system maintains its neutrality, since it is transformed, jurisprudential or legislatively, when its formulations – even when they have a high degree of enforcement – are not sufficient to maintain a peaceful order of human interaction and, therefore, legal innovation has the function of reinforcing the maintenance of peace.

At this point in the discussion, it is appropriate to venture into the consequences of a legislative or jurisprudential change that had in view a different purpose than strengthening the function of law as a mechanism of social control aimed at maintaining peace between individuals who interact with each other.

If the change is jurisprudential, many times the law solves such a phenomenon endogenously: any jurisdictional pronouncement by a judge or court that departs from the content of the legal norms or that such departure is motivated by the transgression of its legal duty of impartiality with respect to of the parties to the conflict will render such pronouncement null and void and the judges will have incurred prevarication.

However, when a law is sanctioned by the legislature in contravention of its duty to dictate general and abstract norms and, instead, has the aim of favouring vested interests, little can be done beyond achieving a declaration of unconstitutionality, either by part of a constitutional court or by an ordinary court in the exercise of diffuse control of constitutionality.

This is for those cases in which the law in question also violates laws of a higher rank such as the Constitution.

Notwithstanding, when a norm is constitutional and, however, it was not enacted for the purpose of legislating in general and abstract terms, but instead sought with its sanction to favour certain vested interests to the detriment of others or public interests, little can be done for the legal system to correct itself according to an endogenous mechanism and the law, therefore, will have lost its neutral character.

It is this lack of neutrality of the legal system that delegitimizes it as a peaceful means of resolving disputes between individuals and, consequently, sharpens the intensity of conflicts, whether they consist of disputes between individuals or escalate into political questioning regarding the legitimacy of the legal-political system itself.

It was not for nothing that there were revolutions, such as the French one, which led to the enactment of civil codes, as a way of crystallising the reestablishment of a neutral normative order, generally described as fair. Note, likewise, that the Napoleonic Code did not contain any innovations, but rather consecrated –and synthesised- legislatively the jurisprudential evolution of the previous centuries.

Similarly, a territorial dispute between two countries could remain diplomatic for decades and, under a change of circumstances, escalate the conflict to a warlike stage.

This change in circumstances may be due to a redefinition of the interests of one or both countries, discoveries of wealth in the disputed territories, or technological innovations that modify the relationship of the respective countries with the geography of the disputed territory.

Note that in no way do these changes in the conditions surrounding the conflict affect a change in the titles of sovereignty over the disputed territory, but what changes is the intensity of the interest in it and the calculation of the chances of success in the event of a war escalation.

However, at the international level we find a plurality of normative sources -international custom, treaties, the norms of international organisations-, without courts of application in most cases and without a clear enforcement system to guarantee impartiality.

Despite arbitral awards can be found among small nations, which submit a territorial issue to the arbitration of a third power or institution that enjoys prestige between both countries, an issue that the parties involved do not consider of vital importance to them; but in most cases we are faced with conflicts or claims that will last over time, as long as the war alternative is disadvantageous for both parties.

Sustaining the principle that all agents who make decisions are rational, it is appropriate to ask under what conditions for such agents it is still reasonable to maintain a negotiation and under what others the most reasonable indicates escalation in the intensity of the conflict.

When the controversy occurs between two parties subject to the jurisdiction of a state and the object of the controversy has a certain relevance, the options of the parties follow one another between negotiating or going to trial.

On the other hand, among sovereign nations, although there is the alternative of submitting to an arbitration award, when the disputed issue interferes with a vital interest or makes the country’s own survival, the military confrontation constitutes the option to negotiation.

Paradoxically, when two individuals have a confrontation that is so insignificant as to be taken to court, the options also lie between negotiation or the deployment of violence -verbal or moderately physical, below the threshold of what the law would consider a crime. This occurs because both the international sphere and certain spheres of human interaction are naturally regulated.

From our point of view, this is one of the most relevant theoretical controversies: if such a natural system can be entirely deduced from reason -as maintained from Hugo Grotius onwards- and, therefore, can be stated and agreed upon by the consensus of the parties through a rational discussion, or if we can characterize natural law as an empirical normative system -as conceived by David Hume in the 18th century and later rescued by Friedrich A. Hayek- that grows spontaneously.

This last conception about the empirical character of the international rule-based order can be a convincing alternative to both realism and idealism. Even more so when the question of the neutrality of the liberal international order is questioned, both from realism and from critical currents. Since the empirical rule system emerges at the same time as the expectations of the agents, the neutrality of the resulting order will be highly probable.

Therefore, in accordance with this vision, the variation in the intensity of the conflicts will not have to be sought or justified in a modification of the rules of the game, but in a change in the relative weight of the interests in dispute, that is, in the open texture of the nature of conflicts.

May the Fourth…

On May 4, 1919, a student protest against the ceding of Chinese territory to Japan by the Versailles Treaty initiated a reassessment of China’s attitude to its own past in the face of Western modernity and domination. The May Fourth Movement, as this ongoing reassessment came to be called, rejected the early liberal emphasis on piecemeal reform and constitutionally limited, elite-led government, but its own brand of liberalism remained indebted to the categories and concerns of late Imperial and early Republican liberal debates.

This is from the amazing Leigh Jenco, and it’s titled “Chinese Liberalism.” Read the whole thing (pdf).

A few words — and many quotations – about the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Friedrich Hayek

In a brief autobiographical note, Friedrich Hayek refers to the influence he had received in his younger years from both his teacher Ernst Mach and his distant cousin Ludwig Wittgenstein:

But I did, through these connexions, become probably one of the first readers of Tractatus when it appeared in 1922. Since, like most philosophically interested people of our generation I was, like Wittgenstein, much influenced by Ernst Mach, it made a great impression on me.”

F. A. Hayek – Remembering My Cousin, Ludwig Wittgenstein

This can be seen in the analytical rigor present in his essays published in the 1920s and in his book Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle (Geldtheorie und Konjunkturtheorie) (1929), translated by N. Kaldor and H. M. Croome from the German. However, such influence was not exclusively limited to Hayek’s youth. He was also present in the conception and writing style of The Sensory Order, published in 1952, and Law, Legislation and Liberty, the first volume of which, Rules and Order, was published in 1973.

From my point of view, the following aphorism of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the one that best allows us to appreciate the reflection of said work in Hayek:

4.12 „Der Satz kann die gesamte Wirklichkeit darstellen, aber er kann nicht das darstellen, was er mit der Wirklichkeit gemein haben muß, um sie darstellen zu können -die logische Form.

Um die logische Form darstellen zu können, mußten wir uns mit dem Satze außerhalb der Logik aufstellen können, das heißt außerhalb der Welt.“

Which could be translated as follows:

4.12 “The proposition can represent the whole of reality, but it cannot represent what it must have in common with reality to be able to represent it – the logical form.

To represent the logical form, we should have to be able to station ourselves with the proposition somewhere outside the logic, i.e.: outside the world.”

This statement about the limits of representation later finds its correlation in the following aphorisms from Hayek’s The Sensory Order, about the limits of knowledge and of the transmission of information:

8.14. While there can thus be nothing in our mind which is not the result of past linkages (even though, perhaps, acquired not by the individual but by the species), the experience that the classification based on the past linkages does not always work, i.e., does not always lead to valid predictions, forces us to revise that classification (6.45-6.48). In the course of this process of reclassification we not only establish new relations between the data given within a fixed framework of reference, i.e., between the elements of given classes: but since the framework consists of the relations determining the classes, we are led to adjust that framework itself.

Note that if there is something that “does not always work,” then we are confronted with the limits to our representation. I think that the said “framework of reference” could play the role of the “logic form” and what Hayek is describing here is the dynamics of a negative feedback process.

8.18. The new experiences which are the occasion of, and which enter into, the new classifications or definitions of objects, is necessarily presupposed by anything which we can learn about these objects and cannot be contradicted by anything which we can say about the objects thus defined. There is, therefore, on every level, or in every universe of discourse, a part of our knowledge which, although it is the result of experience, cannot be controlled by experience, because it constitutes the ordering principle of that universe by which we distinguish the different kinds of objects of which it consists and to which our statements refer.

Here, the subject, instead of being outside the world is inside another universe of discourse.

8.67. Apart from these practical limits to explanation, – which we may hope continuously to push further back, there also exists, however, an absolute limit to what the human brain can ever accomplish by way of explanation—a limit which is determined by the nature of the instrument of explanation itself, and which is particularly relevant to any attempt to explain particular mental processes.

Nevertheless, there are certain universes of discourse that human beings can never access to -so, they are outside their world.

8.69. The proposition which we shall attempt to establish is that any apparatus of classification must possess a structure of a higher degree of complexity than is possessed by the objects which it classifies; and that, therefore, the capacity of any explaining agent must be limited to objects with a structure possessing a degree of complexity lower than its own. If this is correct, it means that no explaining agent can ever explain objects of its own kind, or of its own degree of complexity, and, therefore, that the human brain can never fully explain its own operations. This statement possesses, probably, a high degree of prima facie plausibility. It is, however, of such importance and far-reaching consequences, that we must attempt a stricter proof.

Here, Wittgenstein’s logic form delimits the said structures of a higher degree of complexity which the subject given in a simpler universe of discourse could never trespass.

8.81. The impossibility of explaining the functioning of the human brain in sufficient detail to enable us to substitute a description in physical terms for a description in terms of mental qualities, applies thus only in so far as the human brain is itself to be used as the instrument of classification. It would not only not apply to a brain built on the same principle but possessing a higher order of complexity, but, paradoxical as this may sound, it also does not exclude the logical possibility that the knowledge of the principle on which the brain operates might enable us to build a machine fully reproducing the action of the brain and capable of predicting how the brain will act in different circumstances.

8.82. Such a machine, designed by the human mind yet capable of ‘explaining’ what the mind is incapable of explaining without its help, is not a self-contradictory conception in the sense in which the idea of the mind directly explaining its own operations involves a contradiction. The achievement of constructing such a machine would not differ in principle from that of constructing a calculating machine which enables us to solve problems which have not been solved before, and the results of whose operations we cannot, strictly speaking, predict beyond saying that they will be in accord with the principles built into the machine. In both instances our knowledge merely of the principle on which the machine operates will enable us to bring about results of which, before the machine produces them, we know only that they will satisfy certain conditions.

Thus, the knowledge of the principle enables us to build an abstract machine such as language, the price system, or the law, in order to form expectations of future human actions. Since such abstract machine would be built using the knowledge of the principle, it would not be deliberated designed but grown from the experience.

While Ludwig Wittgenstein confronted the subject of knowledge against the limits of the conceptual representation and threw him into the silence and into the realms of mysticism, Friedrich Hayek, on the other hand, chooses to place the said limit instance in an order of discourse more complex than the human mind, which could be the market, the language itself, or the extended society.

For Hayek, the social order works as an abstract machine, which continuously processes information and appears in the event horizon of the subjects to confirm or readjust their own classificatory systems. These classificatory systems that, in an abstract plane, each individual has and that are in a continuous process of readjustment based on the novelties that come from the spontaneous order, are abstract but, at the same time, empirical.

Among such abstract orders are the normative systems and the first volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty is devoted to their study.

‘Learning from experience’, among men no less than among animals, is a process not primarily of reasoning but of the observance, spreading, transmission and development of practices which have prevailed because they were successful-often not because they conferred any recognizable benefit on the acting individual but because they increased the chances of survival of the group to which he belonged. The result of this development will in the first instance not be articulated knowledge but a knowledge which, although it can be described in terms of rules, the individual cannot state in words but is merely able to honour in practice. The mind does not so much make rules as consist of rules of action, a complex of rules that is, which it has not made, but which have come to govern the actions of the individuals because actions in accordance with they have proved more successful than those of competing individuals or groups.”, Chap. 1, Reason and Evolution

Here we find a process of natural selection of rules of conduct, thus, provided not by representational reason, but from experience.

The first of these attributes which most rules of conduct originally possessed is that they are observed in action without being known to the acting person in articulated (‘verbalized’ or explicit) form. They will manifest themselves in a regularity of action which can be explicitly described, but this regularity of action is not the result of the acting persons being capable of thus stating them. The second is that such rules come to be observed because in fact they give the group in which they are practised superior strength, and not because this effect is known to those who are guided by then. Although such rules come to be generally accepted because their observation produces certain consequences, they are not observed with the intention of producing those consequences-consequences which the acting person need not know.  Chap. 1, Reason and Evolution

Here we find a concept that Hayek will use extensively along the rest of Law, Legislation and Liberty, the articulated and the unarticulated. In the terms previously used in The Sensory Order, the unarticulated is what belongs to another universe of discourse, of a more complex level.

The process of a gradual articulation in words of what had long been an established practice must have been a slow and complex once the first fumbling attempts to express in words what most obeyed in practice would usually not succeed in expressing only, or exhausting all of, what the individuals did in fact take into account in the determination of their actions. The unarticulated rules will therefore usually contain both more and less than what the verbal formula succeeds in expressing. On the other hand, articulation will often become necessary because the ‘intuitive’ knowledge may not give a clear answer to a particular question. The process of articulation will thus sometimes in effect, though not in intention, produce new rules. But the articulated rules will thereby not wholly replace the unarticulated ones, but will operate, and be intelligible, only within a framework of yet unarticulated rules. Chap. IV, The Changing Concept of Law

Thus, the process of articulation of new rules is not a labor of creation of new ones, but of discovering them through the limits of the universe of discourse of the individuals.

The contention that a law based on precedent is more rather than less abstract than one expressed in verbal rules is so contrary to a view widely held, perhaps more among continental than among Anglo-Saxon lawyers, that it needs fuller justification. The central point can probably not be better expressed than in a famous statement by the great eighteenth-century judge Lord Mansfield, who stressed that the common law ‘does not consist of particular cases, but of general principles, which are illustrated and explained by those cases’. What this means is that it is part of the technique of the common law judge that from the precedents which guide him he must be able to derive rules of universal significance which can be applied to new cases.

The chief concern of a common law judge must be the expectations which the parties in a transaction would have reasonably formed on the basis of the general practices that the ongoing order of actions rests on. In deciding what expectations were reasonable in this sense he can take account only of such practices (customs or rules) as in fact could determine the expectations of the parties and such facts as may be presumed to have been known to them.

And these parties would have been able to form common expectations, in a situation which in some respects must have been unique, only because they interpreted the situation in terms of what was thought to be appropriate conduct and which need not have been known to them in the form of an articulated rule. Chap. IV, The Changing Concept of Law

Here, “rules of universal significance” should be understood as knowledge of the principle. The general practices denote that the said order, despite of being abstract, is, nevertheless, empirical. The common expectations are readjusted through a process of articulation of rules which redefine the universe of discourse of the individuals of a given community or society.

This conception of rules allows us to a better comprehension of the notion of natural rights, since they are empirical, despite their enforcement:

Whether we ought to call ‘law’ the kind of rules that in these groups may be effectively enforced by opinion and by the exclusion from the group of those who break them, is a matter of terminology and therefore of convenience. For our present purposes we are interested in any rules which are honoured in action and not only in rules enforced by an organization created for that purpose.

It is the factual observance of the rules which is the condition for the formation of an order of actions; whether they need to be enforced or how they are enforced is of secondary interest. Factual observance of some rules no doubt preceded any deliberate enforcement. The reasons why the rules arose must therefore not be confused with the reasons which made it necessary to enforce them. Chapter V. Nomos: The Law of Liberty.

Finally, despite being the enforcement of natural rights a matter which depends upon a political decision, the authority is a subsystem inside of the same level of discourse of the individuals of the same political order. Thus, the political authority could not trespass the limits of the knowledge of the said empirical order without consequences concerning its stability. It should deal with the rules which act as the framework of individual interaction using just knowledge of the principles, articulated in general and abstract rules. As we succinctly have seen, the youth influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Friedrich Hayek endured until the last books of the latter. I dare not say that the Tractatus encloses the clues of interpretation of the most intricated works of F. A. Hayek, but its reader will find some common ground upon which to build a more prolific interpretation of his legacy.

Some derivations from the uses of the terms “knowledge” and “information” in F. A. Hayek’s works.

In 1945, Friedrich A. Hayek published under the title “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in The American Economic Review, one of his most celebrated essays -both at the time of its appearance and today- and probably, together with other studies also later compiled in the volume Individualism and Economic Order (1948), one of those that have earned him the award of the Nobel Prize in Economics, in 1974.

His interpretation generates certain perplexities about the meaning of the term “knowledge”, which the author himself would clear up years later, in the prologue to the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty (1979). Being his native language German, Hayek explains there that it would have been more appropriate to have used the term “information”, since such was the prevailing meaning of “knowledge” in the years in which such essays had been written. Incidentally, a similar clarification is also made regarding the confusions raised around the “spontaneous order” turn, which he later replaced by that of “abstract order”, with further subsequent replacements:

Though I still like and occasionally use the term ‘spontaneous order’, I agree that ‘self-generating order’ or ‘self-organizing structures’ are sometimes more precise and unambiguous and therefore frequently use them instead of the former term. Similarly, instead of ‘order’, in conformity with today’s predominant usage, I occasionally now use ‘system’. Also ‘information’ is clearly often preferable to where I usually spoke of ‘knowledge’, since the former clearly refers to the knowledge of particular facts rather than theoretical knowledge to which plain ‘knowledge’ might be thought to prefer” . (Hayek, F.A., “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, Volume 3, Preface to “The Political Order of a Free People”.)

Although it is already impossible to substitute in current use the term “knowledge” for “information” and “spontaneous” for “abstract”;  it is worth always keeping in mind what ultimate meaning should be given to such concepts, at least in order to respect the original intention of the author and perform a consistent interpretation of his texts.

By “the use of knowledge in society”, we will have to refer, then, to the result of the use of information available to each individual who is inserted in a particular situation of time and place and who interacts directly or indirectly with countless of other individuals, whose special circumstances of time and place differ from each other and, therefore, also have fragments of information that are in some respects compatible and in others divergent. 

In the economic field, this is manifested by the variations in the relative scarcity of the different goods that are exchanged in the market, expressed in the variations of their relative prices. An increase in the market price of a good expresses an increase in its relative scarcity, although we do not know if this is due to a drop in supply, an increase in demand, or a combined effect of both phenomena, which vary joint or disparate. The same is true of a fall in the price of a given good. In turn, such variations in relative prices lead to a change in individual expectations and plans, since this may mean a change in the relationship between the prices of substitute or complementary goods, inputs or final products, factors of production, etc. In a feedback process, such changes in plans will in turn generate new variations in relative prices. Such bits of information available to each individual can be synthesized by the price system, which generates incentives at the individual level, but could never be concentrated by a central committee of planners. In the same essay, Hayek emphasizes that such a process of spontaneous coordination is also manifested in other aspects of social interactions, in addition to the exchange of economic goods. They are the spontaneous –or abstract- phenomena, such as language or behavioral norms, which structure the coordination of human interaction without the need for a central direction.

“The Use of Knowledge in Society” appears halfway through the life of Friedrich Hayek and in the middle of the dispute over economic calculation in socialism. His implicit assumptions will be revealed later in his book The Sensory Order (1952) and in the already mentioned Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973, 1976 and 1979). In the first of them, we can find the distinction between relative limits and absolute limits of information / knowledge. The relative ones are those concerning the instruments of measurement and exploration: better microscopes, better techniques or better statistics push forward the frontiers of knowledge, making it more specific. However, if we go up in classification levels, among which are the coordination phenomena between various individual plans, which are explained by increasingly abstract behavior patterns, we will have to find an insurmountable barrier when configuring a coherent and totalizer of the social order resulting from these interactions. This is what Hayek will later call the theory of complex phenomena.

The latter was collected in Law, Legislation and Liberty, in which he will have to apply the same principles enunciated incipiently in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” regarding the phenomena of spontaneous coordination of individual life plans in the plane of the norms of conduct and of the political organization. Whether in the economic, legal and political spheres, the issue of the impossibility of centralized planning and the need to trust the results of free interaction between individuals is found again.

In this regard, the Marxist philosopher and economist Adolph Löwe argued that Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, and himself, considered that such interaction between individuals generated a feedback process by itself: the data obtained from the environment by the agents generated a readjustment of individual plans, which in turn meant new data that would readjust those plans again. Löwe stressed that both he and Keynes understood that they were facing a positive feedback phenomenon (one deviation led to another amplified deviation, which required state intervention), while Hayek argued that the dynamics of society, structured around values such like respect for property rights, it involved a negative feedback process, in which continuous endogenous readjustments maintained a stable order of events. Hayek’s own express references to such negative feedback processes and to the value of cybernetics confirm Lowe’s assessment.

Today, the dispute over the possibility or impossibility of centralized planning returns to the public debate with the recent developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and genetic engineering, in which the previous committee of experts would be replaced by programmers, biologists and other scientists. Surely the notions of spontaneous coordination, abstract orders, complex phenomena and relative and absolute limits for information / knowledge will allow fruitful contributions to be made in such aspects.

It is appropriate to ask then how Hayek would have considered the phenomenon of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), or rather: how he would have valued the estimates that we make today about its possible consequences. But to adequately answer such a question, we must not only agree on what we understand by Artificial Intelligence, but it is also interesting and essential to discuss, prior to that, how Hayek conceptualized the faculty of understanding.

Friedrich Hayek had been strongly influenced in his youth by the Empirical Criticism of his teacher Ernst Mach. Although in The Sensory Order he considers that his own philosophical version called “pure empiricism” overcomes the difficulties of the former as well as David Hume’s empiricism, it must be recognized that the critique of Cartesian Dualism inherited from his former teacher was maintained by Hayek -even in his older works- in a central role. Hayek characterizes Cartesian Dualism as the radical separation between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge, in such a way that the former has the full capabilities to formulate a total and coherent representation of reality external to said subject, but at the same time consists of the whole world. This is because the representational synthesis carried out by the subject acts as a kind of mirror of reality: the res intensa expresses the content of the res extensa, in a kind of transcendent duplication, in parallel.

On the contrary, Hayek considers that the subject is an inseparable part of the experience. The subject of knowledge is also experience, integrating what is given. Hayek, thus, also relates his conception of the impossibility for a given mind to account for the totality of experience, since it itself integrates it, with Gödel’s Theorem, which concludes that it is impossible for a system of knowledge to be complete and consistent in terms of its representation of reality, thus demolishing the Leibznian project of the mechanization of thought.

It is in the essays “Degrees of Explanation” and “The Theory of Complex Phenomena” –later collected in the volume of Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, 1967- in which Hayek expressly recognizes in that Gödel’s Theorem and also in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s paradoxes about the impossibility of forming a “set of all sets” his foundation about the impossibility for a human mind to know and control the totality of human events at the social, political and legal levels.

In short, what Hayek was doing with this was to re-edit the arguments of his past debate on the impossibility of socialism in order to apply them, in a more sophisticated and refined way, to the problem of the deliberate construction and direction of a social order by part of a political body devoid of rules and endowed with a pure political will.

However, such impossibility of mechanization of thought does not in itself imply chaos, but on the contrary the Kosmos. Hayek rescues the old Greek notion of an uncreated and stable order, which relentlessly punishes the hybris of those who seek to emulate and replace the cosmic order, such as the myth of Oedipus the King, who killed his father and married his mother, as a way of creating himself likewise and whose arrogance caused the plague in Thebes. Like every negative feedback system, the old Greek Kosmos was an order which restored its lost inner equilibrium by itself, whose complexities humiliated human reason and urged to replace calculus with virtue. Nevertheless, what we should understand for that “virtue” would be a subject to be discussed many centuries later from the old Greeks and Romans, in the Northern Italy of the Renaissance.

Hayek the globalist

“Since it has been argued so far that an essentially liberal economic regime is a necessary condition for the success of any interstate federation, it may be added, in conclusion, that the converse is no less true: the abrogation of national sovereignties and the creation of an effective international order of law is a necessary complement and the logical consummation of the liberal program.”

How This Paris Boy Became an American Scholar (Plus a Disquisition on Language Learning)

Here is another escapist story. If the autobiographical genre annoys you, I don’t blame you and don’t read this story.

First of all, don’t wince or grimace. I just said “scholar,” not “eminent scholar,” nor “famous scholar,” not even “respected scholar.” It’s just a descriptive term; the word describes much of what I did for a living. Period.

I grew up on the unglamorous east side of Paris where visitors never go, or didn’t then. My family’s apartment was in a government subsidized project. It was really a project but a good one, well built, well maintained, with central heating and full bathrooms, but no elevators. Graffiti had not been invented yet. I shared a room with two brothers. There was only enough space for one small desk, an important detail in my story.

My family was not poor but it definitely wasn’t rich. Everyone was unimaginably poor in the forties and fifties by the standard of 2022 anyway but, fortunately, we didn’t know what 2022 would be like. France was in a period of economic expansion for much of the time I was growing up. We could almost feel the tide that was going to raise our boats too. We did not have phone service but we never went hungry; we had good medical care. (I did realize though until the French Navy clothed me that I had been cold every winter of my childhood and youth. It was normal.)

And then, there were the schools. It seems to me, seventy years later, that the elementary schools did a more than adequate job. I am guessing that almost all of us came out reading, writing and doing a little more than basic math (including trigonometry). Elementary education was adequate and more for people who were going, in their vast majority, to rise but modestly in the social scale of the time. I seem to recall that half my fellow students quit school at fourteen to become apprentices. The rest -including my three sibling – went on to a variety of schools, many of them more or less vocational. Not me.

When I was twelve, a miracle happened in my family. I passed an exam that got me accepted in a respected, prestigious academic school in central Paris (Lycée Condorcet). It was a combined junior high and high school It’s hard to explain to Americans but it was a public school; there was no tuition. It was a feeder school for the best French universities. Many famous people were alumni. Few children from my part of Paris made it there. (In fact, I never met one in six years.)

As you might guess, there was a social class aspect to this respectability although it was a free public school. I would guess that as many as two thirds of the students there came from bourgeois families, as conventionally defined. Their parents were top managers in big corporations, attorneys for same, or they owned one, or they were doctors, and high-level engineers. (I know quite a bit about those bourgeois kids because around age 14, I began going to parties at their apartments where I discovered wall-to-wall carpeting.) There was even a sprinkling of foreign kids whose parents were diplomats. Some of the bourgeois kids came from private elementary schools; many more came from public schools that were just better then mine that, perhaps, maintained higher standards. Their home environment was probably more propitious to studying in ways that I still don’t understand well. After all my own home environment favored and rewarded studying hard and getting good grades and even “prizes” at the end of the year.* (But maybe, they each had their own desk where they could stack up their books.)

So, at twelve, I had pretty much the run of Paris by subway because the school was far from where I lived. It was good for my maturation. Classes began at 8:30 five days a week, they ended at 11:30 then, began again at 1 to finish at 4:30 four days a week . We had lunch at school. On Wednesday, or Thursday, there was no class at all. There was school on Saturday but only in the morning. On full school days, I chose to stay after class at study hall until 6 or 6:30. That added up to eight hours or more inside the walls of the school, a long time for a young boy.

The study hall was a large single room with ten rows of desks. It served without distinction students from age 12 to 18. You could do pretty much what you wanted in study hall except that you were not allowed to make noise because it might disturb others who were actually studying. So, no talking allowed. For three, or maybe four years, study hall was nearly always proctored by the same man. He was apparently qualified to teach English but he was not part of the faculty. In that elite school, it was not enough to be formally and practically qualified, you had to carry prestige or, at least, the seed of prestige in your attaché case. I think most or all of my instructors had achieved a scholarly degree pretty close to a PhD (“l’aggréegation”). My Spanish professor did not have one but he was a ranking Spanish Republican refugee. My first math instructor possessed that degree and he was also a well published author of fiction. My second geography professor was an expert on American science fiction. And so on.

The study hall proctor was the nicest of men whose function put him in a difficult position: Sometimes, he had to discipline students. As far as I now, he had only one punishment. He made you copy the three main forms of English irregular verbs: “go, went, gone.” How many verbs you had to copy depended on the depravity of your transgression: twenty verbs, fifty verbs, uncommonly, one hundred verbs. After so many hours at school and, perhaps, I was hungry, had low blood sugar, I did not maintain the silence discipline very well. In the course of several years, I must have copied five times three hundred irregular English verbs. Somehow, I did not mind. A part of my brain was smarter than I. (Happens all the time if you pay attention.)

After my second year in that good school, my general performance began to slip. I am not sure exactly how it started but I became gradually disengaged from several disciplines. I often cut the corresponding classes. As befits an elite institution, my school operated on the basis of a loose, ill-defined honor system. It was such that my parents were never made aware of my delinquency. And, no, puberty did not particularly trouble me except for the fact that it took me a while to figure out whether girls liked boys who looked a lot like them or rather, hairy rough types with broad shoulders and even some acne. In those years, there were events and developments in my nuclear family that bothered me and distracted me and these may have played a role in my long and slow fall from academic grace. It started with math which became too difficult for me and on which I just gave up. Then, physics and then, chemistry also dropped off my radar. No one said anything, in part because I was earning the equivalent of straight As in French, later in Spanish and, of course, in English. I was also doing quite well in History and in Geography. I was thus an excellent student to half the instructors; that was good enough for the other half.

Things went from bad to worse. It did not help that when I was seventeen, I had a hot hot girlfriend. She had many assets. One of those was that both her parents weren’t home one day of the week. That was a day when physics and chemistry were scheduled. Of course, I cut school on that day! What would you have me do? In those times, there was a high school graduation exam that also served as an admission ticket to most universities. The exam was then difficult and deliberately selective. I went to take the exam like a sheep to the slaughter. I failed, of course but with excellent grades in History, in French, in Spanish and… in English. I repeated a senior class in high school with the same predictable outcome. In the France of then, it was like social death. I had not been apprenticed to a pork butcher, or attended a graphics high school like my older brother and my younger brother. I had nothing. I was no one.

By some concourse of circumstances right out of a reverse morality tale, about the same time, I received a scholarship to spend one year in high school in California. It was a merit scholarship. I hightailed it to the US. There, I did quite well. I spoke English badly but I understood everything. If I had not been blinded by the humility surprisingly common among young men, I would have noticed that I wrote English better than many of my American classmates. In California, I noticed with interest the wonderful American institution of the community college where just about anyone can go in and the good ones come out to transfer to a real university. So, yes, in case you are counting, I spent three years total as a senior in high school. Nothing to brag about, really!

Fast forward: I am twenty-one and about to be released from the French Navy into which I had been drafted. I have no skills, no particular revealed talent, no diploma, no nothing. I apply for a visa to go and study in a California junior college near where I had spent a year. Long story short: At the community college, I discover I am a late bloomer. I do well, better than well, in fact. I win a full tuition scholarship to Stanford where I transfer as a junior. I do well there too. After graduating in four years flat, I go back to France for a year to work in a very good job, in urban planning. There, I decide I want to study some more. I apply to graduate school, also at Stanford. I get accepted with full tuition fellowship and a stipend.

I performed well in graduate school also, in large part because I could write well. I earned a PhD. A fairly normal and quite respectable academic career followed. (Go ahead, Google me.) The fact that I wrote well and easily had everything to do with the good course of my academic research. My writing made me attractive to others with research skills far superior to mine. They recruited me eagerly throughout. I became a member of star research teams without striving, or even trying. I was very productive with the other guys. I might not have been otherwise. Hard to tell: I only have one single authored scholarly article. It has had a very long shelf life but still, that’s only one.

What does this have to do with my French high school study hall proctor, you might ask at this point? Well, it does; bear with me. Remember that nearly all of my scholarly career took place in a language other than my native tongue. As an immigrant in polyglot and multicultural California, I became well aware of the struggles of diverse categories of immigrants to operate in a foreign language: English. A teacher for thirty years, I also witnessed at close range the struggle of hundreds of US-born college students to learn languages other than English, mostly Spanish and French. I also saw several of my fellow professors try and fail. As a matter of fact, other than teachers of modern languages, I only ever met one (1) Anglo reared in the US who had mastered a foreign language. (The language instructors I encountered were all competent.)

I had many occasions to ask myself: What do the students who fail to learn a language (beyond knowing how to ask for more beer), the monolingual Mexican immigrants who earn half of what they otherwise would, and my few colleagues who tried in vain, have in common? The answer came to me a little at a time and then, it became blindingly clear: They failed to clamber over the wall of irregular verbs conjugations. It’s simple: Those who do go on to learn everything else; who who don’t just give up, mostly forever.

But now, a digression. I am completely convinced that, contrary to an idea that is very widespread in the USA, living in the country of the language one studies is not a necessary precondition to learning it nor is it a miracle cure for monolingualism. If it were, immigrants would learn quickly the

language of the country where they live. In fact, few if any learn it without formal schooling. And, I hate to tell you, college parents, but your children’s expensive “study abroad” stays almost never bear that particular kind of fruit. (they may be useful in other respects.) Your children never come back “fluent in _____,” whatever “fluent” means. How do I know? I interviewed dozens, perhaps hundreds of them (over thirty years) in the weeks and months following their return. None of them could ever say, “If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have gone.” None! (“Si j’avais su que cela allait être comme ça, je n’y serais pas allé.” “Si hubiera sabido que hubiera sido asi, no hubiera ido.”None!

The main, all-important reason people fail to learn a foreign language is that they give up when the time comes to master more than handful of irregular verbs, or even earlier. Here are two natural and fully representative examples; you may notice that they are about verbs everyone uses in everyday life:

Spanish: Verb to go: Ir

Present: Yo voy

Tu vas

El va (You formal address: Usted va)

Nosotros vamos

Vosotros vais (You, plural)

Ellos van (Ustedes van)

Simple past: Yo fuí

Tu fuíste

El fue (Usted fue) Watch the spelling!

Nosotros fuímos

Vosotros fuísteis

Ellos fueron (Usted fueron)

French: Verb to be: Être

Present Je suis

Tu es

Il est

Nous sommes

Vous êtes

Ils sont

Well, you get the idea!

In summary: There is no articulate sentence without a verb. Verbs have to be conjugated, person by person (I, you, he). In European languages, there are tenses to indicate timing (I am, I was, I will be). If you don’t control both person and tense you can often still communicate but it will be at the level of a five-year-old: “I go yesterday.” That is neither encouraging nor rewarding for adults. It’s also quite limiting.

Now, in my dotage, I think back at my early life. If my study hall proctor in Paris had been a less mild man, he would have imposed a less fruitful punishment; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been more disciplined, he wouldn’t have had occasion to punish me the way he did; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been worse, he would have had me expelled from study hall; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If the boys room in our small apartment in Paris had been larger, I might have had my own desk; I would then probably not have attended study hall; I wouldn’t then be an American scholar. Go figure!

Sometimes though, I can’t help but feel some regret. I am pretty sure I would have made a really good pork butcher. I think I would have been an inspired designer of esoteric pâtés, for example. That’s if my parents had not blindly pushed me toward a classical education. That’s if that study hall proctor had not meddled in my destiny!

© Jacques Delacroix 2022


* In the 1940s, at the end of each school year, the best students in each class of 30-40, were ranked. Those best students, perhaps 1st to 6, st –received a prize in a formal ceremony everyone else hated. The prizes were well chosen books. Books were still expensive then. Once, I received the French translation of Gulliver’s Travels. (Just bragging.)

A Bloody Hawaiian Paradise

I have been away from this blog because I was busy with politics on Facebook (my bad). Also, I have been struggling to produce a new book. It’s a collection of stories:”Astonishing Women.” Wish me luck. Below is another story not in that collection. It’s an escapist story, of course. Don’t we need one, right now?

I am moving idly on the surface looking for I don’t know what. I am in the ocean, at the bottom of a cliff close to my house near Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. At that time, I have under my belt (weight belt, of course) ten years of intense diving in the cold, murky waters of California, and a little less in the warm, clear waters of Mexico. Here is an important detail: I am a free diver; I go down holding my breath. Scuba (based compressed air tanks) is kind of wimpy and it involves too much equipment that will distract you from your real goal. The real goal is catching something good to eat, of course. I don’t want to sound like I am bragging but OK, I don’t really care so, here goes: I have become such a proficient spear fisherman that I rely entirely on a sling, a long, light aluminum handle with a steel trident at one end and a strong rubber loop at the other. It’s a far cry from a spear gun. The sling requires that you get real close to the prey.

On that day, I am just exploring. I am new to Hawaii and the spot I have chosen is not promising by conventional standards. It’s just close to the house I am renting. There is plenty of sea life in the fairly opaque water but nothing to get excited about. I notice a surfer in the water. I can tell from afar that he is a brown skinned native Hawaiian. Soon, he is gliding by me shouting something. I did not catch what he said but I guessed that he was yelling at me to get the f… out of his way. He told me later, on land, that he had come by to re-assure me, to tell me that there was a big shark in the water nearby but that he had talked to the shark and asked him to leave me alone. He also said he knew I would be fine because his family had the same shark as a clan totem, and thus, he had influence. When he told me all this, I don’t know if he was in earnest or he he was putting me on. I have to admit that with the constant flux and re-flux of naive continentals, haoles, on his island, the temptation must have been great. Whatever the case, I forgive him and the fact is that I was not bothered by any shark.

I swim away in another direction and soon find myself in a patch of clear water where I can see the bottom. I dive down to explore some scree of fallen rocks, the kind of formation that provides hiding places for sea creatures. Sure enough, on the third dive, I make it to the bottom and look under a rock where a large gray pointy mouth with beady eyes on both sides faces me. It’s so big that at first, I don’t recognize what it is. And yes, I know, I am beginning to sound like a typical fisherman; so be it! Back on the surface, I catch my breath and my train of thought and I realize there is a conger eel in that hole, a big one. I have caught conger in France before but the size of that tropical specimen has thrown me off. I arm the rubber band on my spear, drop down head first and shoot the fish right in the mouth. It convulses wildly but, in the process gets out of its hole. I swim up vigorously holding the spear straight up with the eel writhing wildly on it. Fortunately, the water depth is modest and the shore close. I land on a grassy edge of the water and there, I am afraid, put the poor conger out of its misery with a large rock.

More fish story: The largest conger eels ever caught according to Google weighed 300lbs; it was taken by net. Mine wasn’t even close to that because I was able to half-carry it, half-drag it up the cliff to where my pick-up truck was parked. I observed that it was a little longer than I was tall, maybe six feet. I guessed that its weight may have approximated mine, 180 lbs at the time, or perhaps less. Anyway, I drive the few minutes to my house. I had just rented it a couple of days before. A newcomer to Hawaii, I had resisted the temptation of the small, expensive condos lining the lagoon that borders the south face of the small city of Hilo. I am on a teaching sting, not well paid enough for such luxury and anyway, my adventurer’s heart has told me there must be more interesting housing arrangements. Guided by a local young man, a student, I ended up renting a big house in a plantation village ten miles from downtown. My house had been used to shelter cane cutters in the days when there were still many cane cutters. Then, the sugar industry quickly mechanized and the houses became useless almost overnight. An adventurous Filipino immigrant had bought one as a rental. My new home has six bedrooms arranged along a central corridor, a big kitchen, and a toilet. The shower is in a separate hut outside. My house is one of twelve or so disposed around an oval dirt path surrounding a grassy area where kids play baseball.

I have not yet met any of the adults in the settlement but like everywhere, children have the run of outside and of much of inside. As soon as I park in front of my house, a swarm of kids surrounds my truck. When they spot the big conger eel in the back, there are many shouts, most in their dialect I do not understand. Two ten-year-old run to another house all excited. Shortly afterwards, an old lady comes out of the same house carrying a hatchet. She crosses the grass to my truck and without a word, without even looking at me, opens the back-gate and instructs several children to carry the big fish next to a log stump nearby. When this is done she proceeds to hack the fish, my fish, into a dozen or so chunks. The chunk she leaves for me is plenty enough. The kids all run home carrying big pieces of my big fish in recycled vegetable plastic bags the old lady has brought along. I am so stupefied, I have no idea what to say. Yet, since I am already somewhat of a social scientist at the time, I recognize that I have witnessed a demo of what Karl Marx has called “primitive communism.” OK, I know, I know, there isn’t much to this story so far but wait, I am going somewhere with it.

The conger eel’s flesh is dense and a little flaky. It tastes very good. It’s reminiscent of lobster if you don’t overcook it. I eat a big piece parboiled for dinner, hot, with rice. I have more, cold, with pineapple from the backyard, for lunch the next day. (I had to resort to pineapple because I couldn’t remember how to prepare from scratch the mayonnaise the cold conger was entitled to by French right.)

The next day is a Friday. Around six, two men in their late twenties knock at my door. One is the normal mixed brownish color common on the Big Island. The other has flaming blond hair and green eyes. (He is a descendant of the many Portuguese imported from the Azores to cut cane, after the Chinese and the Japanese and before the current Filipino immigration. Detour on Hawaii’s demographic history: The island’s planters kept bringing in people from different parts of the world for the arduous job of cutting cane. Every group’s children snubbed the cane fields and the planter had to try again with another group.) Both guys say hello. One begins talking to me in a dialect I do not understand well. At any rate, I gather that they have come to invite me to go hunting the next day. They will pick me up at 5 am sharp. I know it’s “sharp” because the guy keeps hitting his wristwatch with his index finger. I do not know anything about hunting in Hawaii but I am game pretty much for any game.

In the morning, I am up and waiting with my first cup of coffee and a piece of bread inside of me. I am wearing strong shoes and a thick shirt, with jeans. I am holding the shotgun I have brought to Hawaii on the off-chance I will be able to hunt birds with my gifted Labrador. A big SUV rolls by and stops. The guy from the day before comes out. He barely says “Hi”, and mentions to me to return the shotgun inside the house. He hands me instead a nice, visibly well oiled rifle. He spends all of two minutes making sure that I know how to load and unload the gun and how to put on the safety. We get into the car where two other guys are waiting, including Blondie. They all say “Hi.” We take off toward the top of the volcano. Twenty minutes later, I still don’t know what I am going hunting for. So, I ask and it turns out one of the others speaks standard English. “Goat” he says, “feral goat.” I am a man of immense culture so, I remember that “feral” designates animals once domesticated that have returned to the wild. But, “goats”? To me, they are kind of nice animals living near a farm from which one gets goat cheese. I am perplexed but I say nothing.

After thirty minutes or so, we stop and get out. There are two dogs with us. We walk and stop, walk and stop in the foothills that line the volcano. Few words are exchanged. The dogs, nose to the ground, seem to be searching in vain. Then one guy swears softly. We are on the edge of a sort of shallow valley. The hill on its other side is one large meadow. There, right there, on that the side, is a herd of ten or twelve goats. There is more muttering from which I gather that the animals are too far to shoot and that there is no way to approach them without being seen, heard, or smelled. The others begin to turn away with more swearing. I don’t know the rules so, I tell myself, “Why not?” I stop, click a shell into the barrel, shoulder, aim at a white goat, easily the most visible, and shoot. The animal goes down, the others flee uphill.

The other guys turn back and more swearing erupts, loud swearing, this time. We all run across the little valley to go up and retrieve the white goat. What can I say? Beginner’s luck, probably but still, I am in good health, I have perfect vision, I am steady on my feet, I don’t get excited easily, I know enough to press the trigger slowly and steadily. (Believe it or not, I had a bit of training, in the French Navy, of all places.) I was good in California at taking down ducks and geese in flight with a shotgun. So, there is a chance I am a good rifle shot who does not yet know it. And, in case you are wondering: My companions are not spiteful; they seem glad to not have to go home empty-handed. It seems they hunt for the larder rather than for the glory. My goat is good and dead with a bullet through the chest. In twenty minutes, my buddies have gutted, dressed and quartered the animal and apportioned it to the plastic garbage bags they have brought along. I ask for the pelt but they tell me it has too much lice.

Back at the village, I receive my share, more than enough for me alone. For lack of more culinary knowledge, I barbecue it the next day. I am a Paris boy, after all; where would I have learned to cook goat meat? I wouldn’t even know people ate goat if I were not such an eclectic reader. Anyway, several children invite themselves and bring their own Coke. The meat is pretty good, tough but tasty, kind of gamy. Afterwards, I have to nap in my hammock outside, overwhelmed as one can be after gorging on large quantities of animal protein.

Life goes on; I teach my classes during the week but the next Friday, the same guys come to invite me to hunt. This time, I ask point-blank what we are going for. My brain is getting used to the Hawaiian dialect but I can’t believe the answer: Tomorrow, we are going for feral sheep. Part of me is a little worried at this mention of yet another farm animal. What is it going to be the next time around, feral donkey? We drive to another part of the volcano early the next morning. Long story short: We kill two small brown sheep. The second is downed by two shots. I am pretty sure mine was the first shot but I don’t make an issue of it (obviously!) This time, I get a whole hind leg. I invite two of my university acquaintances from the mainland – fellow haoles – to join me the next day. I bake the meat the way I would any leg of lamb. It smells strongly but it has more fat than the goat did. I enjoy myself. My guests less so. They are a little too effete for the experience, it seems. They think of meat as coming wrapped in cellophane. It doesn’t matter; we have plenty of beer and they brought dessert. They are at least intrigued.

The next weekend, two older men invite me to go fishing with them. They tell me they can lend me a rod but that I am welcome to try to spear fish in their area. We leave the village at a decent hour in their four-wheel drive, go a short distance on a dirt road near the shore and then, straight cross-country. I have never done this before. We ride over big boulders and muddy areas at the speed of a man’s pace. It’s uncomfortable and worrisome but the old dudes obviously know what they are doing. Finally, we stop in a clearing on the edge of a low cliff. The men lay out their gear while I put on my light wetsuit. Once in the extremely clear water, holding my thin spear, the thought strikes me that probably no one ever has dived in this spot, never, ever! It’s a warm feeling. There are plenty of fish around, including giant multicolored parrot fish with protruding rabbit teeth, that must taste awful but also several species I know to be edible. A part of my brain tells me this is a time for exploring, not for bagging ordinary fish. I go up and down looking under rock formations when I am down. (Remember that I am free diving, diving on my own air.) After an hour, I have caught three nice sized spiny lobsters (with small claws, langousteslangostas.) They are difficult to see in the penumbra under rocks because, unlike the reddish California and Caribbean lobsters’, their carapace is dark blue and yellow mottled.

I am also bringing back a cowrie the size of my fist. It’s sitting on my desk as I write. It’s not different from one you would find in any good curios shop yet, it almost cost me my life (another story). The old guys have caught by hook and line all the fish they wanted. We drive home slowly. They give me some fish, I give each a lobster. They protest energetically, which suggests that lobster is not often on Hawaiians’ menus. I eat the third lobster by myself, like the pig I am!

Speaking of diet, at the time, I am diving several times a week. Sometimes, I even spear fish between classes. Actually, I bring home a lot of fish that I usually share in the village. Having been reared in surprisingly cold and rainy Paris, I enjoy a lot tropical living. The water where I dive is often warm and clear. I love picking a banana off my own tree every morning before breakfast, and the super-ripe pineapples the landlord sends my way every other day. I collect easily four or five kilos of ripe wild guavas whenever I want just stopping my car on the side of the road on my way to work. Everything is expensive in Hawaii but I don’t buy much, just gasoline to go to work and to explore the island a bit, also rice, bread and beer, and coffee. (The locally grown coffee – Kona – is the best in the world, I think. Of course, I can’t afford it.) I eat mostly fish and wild meat, and the occasional small lobster, with a little rice and fresh fruits from around the village. I am in the best shape in my life.

But, soon and with regrets, I am preparing to leave. I actually want to stay in Hawaii for at least one year but my doctoral dissertation is stuck and there is a nasty divorce coming over the horizon. I just have to return to California where I have lived for most of fifteen years. I have a plane ticket for a Wednesday. On my last Friday in the village, my buddies show up to invite me to go hog hunting. Of course, it’s feral hog! The wild boar of Asia and Europe does note exist in the Pacific. The Polynesians who first settled the Hawaiians islands brought small domesticated pigs on their giant canoes. They must have fed them coconut flesh and fish leftovers on the long journey from Tahiti. Some pigs escaped and established themselves happily in the Hawaiian fruit-rich bush. There, they grew in size and grew and grew and they have never stopped growing. Now, they tend to be huge.

We leave earlier in the morning than usual, when it’s still dark. Today is different. No one hands me a rifle so, I go back inside and grab my shotgun. “Don’t take it,” one guy says. There are three SUVs this time. Astoundingly, in each one are a man or two and six or seven dogs of all kinds and sizes. There is even a large, blond French poodle. I recognize only two dogs from around the village. We drive to another area of the volcano, one covered by old lava and exposed to weather so it’s almost forested. As soon as we stop, the dogs are let out. I notice vaguely that still, no one is carrying a firearm. I am puzzled, but it’s my place to observe and learn, not to question. Within a few minutes, a dog gives voice and the whole pack leaves off barking and running in the same direction except two that seem too busy to sniff the ground to join in. All the men follow the pack. Fortunately, we are running almost all downhill on the uneven ground.

In a short while, the dogs sound louder and we join them in a sort of natural circus. They have a pig trapped there against a lava wall. It’s a big black beast with a huge head. The dogs keep it harried so it does not pay the several of us men much attention. Our leader pulls a long knife off his belt and hands it to me. “Are you out of your mind?” I shout. He shrugs lightly and walks forward, kneeing the dogs out of his way. He steps straight to the hog and cuts its throat in a single swift gesture. The blood spurts; the dogs surge forward to get a taste. I catch my breath and examine the animal. I am transfixed by the double set of curved teeth jutting out of its mouth, like in the movies. The guys let the dogs lick the fresh blood for a while then, they kick them out of the way to begin doing what needs to be done. In less than a half hour, the beast is gutted, skinned and butchered; the meat is neatly divided into five black plastic garbage bags for each of us to carry up the hill. When we get back to the cars, the dogs that had stayed behind are nowhere to be seen. We just abandon them as we hustle the other dogs back into the vehicles.

Back in the village, I get my largely unearned share in the form of what looks like a big roast. My hunting buddies have noticed my interest in the set of curved teeth and they sort of know I am leaving. So, they hand me today’s trophy in the form of a lower jaw with four curved fangs still in. I still have to ask them about the mysterious thing appeared out of nowhere, a ready-made hunting dogs pack, although I have already half guessed. It turns out that whenever they want to go hunting for hog, the preceding Friday night, the guys visit their buddies who are in charge of the dog pound. Now, it’s a special dog pound. It does not hold stray dogs captured on the streets. Nobody cares about stray dogs in Hawaii. (It’s America but also the Third World, then.) Instead, the municipal/county pound houses dozens of dogs at one time that are in quarantine while their owners prepare to join them from somewhere or other on the mainland. (My own Labrador had spent two months there, I believe, at great expense to me. Somehow, she got pregnant there. Another story.) So, as it happens, the inventive islanders have developed a system whereas impounded dogs can be paroled for a weekend. The hunters pay a small fee and take charge of however many dogs they can transport. The hunters return the dogs on Monday morning. The pound supervisors get an income supplement; the hunters have an instant pack they couldn’t possible support; the dogs no doubt enjoy the vacation. How about the owners who are paying through the nose for their dogs’ maintenance? Well, what they don’t know can’t hurt them. There is still the small matter of the dogs who got lost on the volcano. Well, they must be declared dead of cardiac arrest. Their owners will get another pet and recover eventually.

Back home, I rub whatever I have on the roast, including Coke in addition to salt and pepper and I place it the oven at moderate heat. Then I roll up my sleeves and consider the big pig jaw. Now, remember, I am a Paris boy. Not much prepares me for the task. I quickly figure out nonetheless that pliers are not the way to go because they might break the trophies. I figure that bone is softer than ivory so, I decide to boil the whole jaw. It stinks to high heaven but the jaw does seem to soften a little. I let it boil for ten hours, all windows open. My landlord is an amiable guy and tolerant. Plus, he says he is sorry to lose me. He would like me to come back. I eat the pig roast with a lady neighbor who brings cooked sweet potatoes. The roast is tough but tasty. The neighbor goes home with half of the remaining half, for her nephew, she says. The next morning, I repeat the stinky jaw softening operation for another five or six hours. Passers-by smile knowingly: haoles!

The Monday preceding the Wednesday when I am flying to California, I eye an old couple walking up the path toward my house. Somehow, they seem dressed up. I am puzzled, of course, but I go back inside. In minutes, there is a knock at my door. I open and the old Asian couple says good morning while bowing deeply, Japanese-style. (More than half of the population of Hawaii is of Japanese origin; at the time, some are even immigrants from before World War II.) I bid the old couple in, sit them down and ask them if they want coffee; they assent. They are silent while I boil the water and prepares the coffee. I have never met those people although I am not surprised they are neighbors. “I am Mr Yamoto,” says the old guy, “and this is my wife, Mrs Yamoto. We speak for the Japanese in Papaiku.” -Silence – “We heard that you are leaving, maybe. If it is true, we hope you will change your mind. If you do not, we hope you will return soon. You see, among us, we need sashimi all the time, for Christmas, for weddings, for birthday parties, for almost all occasions. The past couple of years, with the new big hotels opening downtown, we have not been able to get all the fresh fish we want. With all your spearfishing and all, we were hoping you could become our regular sashimi provider. We think it’s an honor but we would pay you well too.” I am instantly flattered like I have seldom been but also instantly saddened. I confirm that I am going back to California, unfortunately.

Then, the old lady pipes in with a voice I barely hear, “If you come back, we will make sure you are elected to [ ].” The last word eludes me but I get the drift. The Big Island has an exotic political system, a mixture of straight California political science design and of exotic Third World additions. The latter include a plethora of tiny elective positions that bring the incumbent some social honor and sometimes also a small stipend. I have gathered that it’s common for the factions to stand a haole for such elections as a convenient way to avoid direct clashes between the different ethnic groups. (I think the Japanese-Americans could probably win all the elections if they wanted to; they are careful not to.) I promise to write if and when I plan to come back. The old people get up to leave with contrite smiles.

On Tuesday morning, finally, I manage to pry all curved hog teeth from the softened jaw. I celebrate silently while I pack them carefully in plastic. Then, I go dig a hole in the backyard for the jaw. (Won’t 22nd century anthropologists be puzzled when they find the remains?) I have time to pack and take a long last swim in the warm Pacific. In the evening, some of my university colleagues give me a skeptical going-away party. They are skeptical because they don’t really believe I am leaving this job and this liefstyle for good. Half of them half think I will be back for the next semester. My boss is miffed because he had recruited me personally. He will have to recruit all over again. Sorry. On Wednesday, I am lucky to the end. As my plane lifts off, it’s raining heavily over Hilo which saves me from strong regrets at having to leave.


Reel forward eight months. I am now living in Indiana where I have obtained a tenure-track position. Indiana wasn’t my first choice, being so far from any sea. But the university there has promised to help me solve a serious problem I have with the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. (It will, eventually, yet another story.) In California, back from Hawaii, I had found lodgings in a converted wood water tank. (Would I make this up?) It belonged to an old black lady who treated me like her white pet. (Not complaining, here; could do worse.) Soon after arriving, I had looked for someone with drill bits small and hard enough to pierce my hog teeth. Then, I did the obvious and got a dentist to drill four neat holes in four minutes in return for an abalone dinner. Contrary to what you might think, I did not hang the trophies on a thin gold chain; I am too well-bred for this. Instead I threaded a fine, ordinary string through them and tied a square knot in the back to close the loop. As I was finishing my thesis, I allowed myself a handful of parties in town. Against my manly tanned chest, the necklace seemed to make an impression on some of the women, an animal impression, if I dare say so. Well, I had to leave for a real job. I don’t even remember what I lived off during those few months without a job.

My doctoral dissertation is in the can finally, not gloriously but not ignominiously either. I drove from California to Indiana in the same old pick-up truck, the truck of the conger eel. My smart Labrador went with me, of course. I hauled a small trailer across country with my five sticks of furniture. I began teaching almost before I could find my bearings. I found a place to live easily, a little out of town. The cost of living is low here. The local people are pleasant and polite. Still, the divorce has now rolled over unto my side of the horizon. I am saddened and alone. One evening, instead of driving straight home, I stop at Papa Bear’s for a drink. I meet someone who buys me a drink just because I am new in town; I reciprocate, of course. Several of his friends join us because it’s past six pm. One of the friends is pretty girl with a flared skirt. I happen to be wearing my hog tusks necklace that evening. (May have been premeditation; I don’t put it past me.) The new girl shows an interest in it and I tell her half the story. Of course, she thinks of Hawaii as impossibly exotic. She beams at me.

We have several more drinks. Then, I realize that everyone has left except the girl. She and I get even more drinks and we become cozy, thigh against thigh on our bar stools, with little kisses on the neck. The girl is in her early or mid-twenties. I can tell from her speech that she is not a student, or faculty member, but a local girl. Soon, I tell her it’s time for me to go home to feed my dog. I don’t exactly invite her but I explain to her how to reach my little duplex near the lake. The Hoosier girl makes it there right after me. (Yes, we drove drunk a lot in those days. The figures show that we also died a lot.) I am barely getting out of my clothes; I am hanging the hog tusks necklace on its nail in the bedroom when she comes through the door.

I don’t want to go into details because I sincerely hope this story is going to make it to Family Story Hour. Let’s just say we do what healthy young people will do when they are a little lonely and a little needy, and more than a little liquored up. We stop long enough to feed my dog, after all, and to make sandwiches for ourselves. She leaves early in the morning because she has to go home to prepare for work. We have exchanged neither vows, of course, nor phone numbers but it’s a small town and I have told her in what academic department I work at the university; and she knows where I live, obviously. She also knows the scar high on my left thigh. I wake up with a hangover, naturally. I get up for a remedial cup of coffee. Then, I take a shower, hot, cold, hot. When I re-enter my room to put on my clothes, I vaguely detect that something is a little bit off. Then, it hits me: The tusks necklace is not hanging from its nail above the bed. I look inside the bed and turn back the sheets. I look under the bed. Nothing! I have to face the obvious: The girl with the flared skirt has stolen my necklace.

The Hawaiian hog tusks have become a trophy for the second time. This time, the winner earned it fair and square (unlike me with the original win), if you know what I mean. In any event, I never bumped into the girl again, not at Papa Bear’s, not in any other bar, not at the small downtown, not on campus perchance. Her evil deed done, she has vanished into thin air. I recovered from the loss in the end. Nowadays, there is even a good spot in my heart where I think of her. I imagine that there is a sweet young girl in southern Indiana who received a baroque, primitive necklace made of curved animal teeth from her grandmother who was smiling warmly and knowingly as she handed it to her.

© Jacques Delacroix 2022

The Misdiagnosis That Continues To Save Lives: Origin Story Of The War On Cancer

In 1969, Colonel Luke Quinn, a U.S. Army Air Force officer in World War II, was diagnosed with inoperable gallbladder cancer. Surprisingly, he was referred to Dr. DeVita, the lymphoma specialist at National Cancer Institute, by the great Harvard pathologist Sidney Farber — famous for developing one of the most successful chemotherapies ever discovered. Nobody imagined back then that Colonel Luke Quinn, a wiry man with grey hair and a fierce frown with his unusual and likely incurable cancer, would significantly impact how we look at cancer as a disease.

Vincent DeVita Jr, MD; Author: The Death of Cancer

Having been coerced to take up the case of Colonel Luke Quinn, despite gallbladder cancers not being his specialty, Dr.DeVita began to take a routine history, much to the annoyance of Luke Quinn who was used to being in command. Though Quinn glared at Dr.DeVita for reinitiating another agonizing round of (im)patient history, he said he had gone to his primary care physician in D.C. when his skin and the whites of his eyes had turned a deep shade of yellow — jaundice. Suspecting obstructive jaundice—a blockage somewhere in the gallbladder, Quinn was referred to Claude Welch, a famous abdominal surgeon at Mass general who had treated Pope John Paull II when he was shot in 1981. Instead of gallstones, the renowned surgeon found a tangled mass of tissue squeezing Quinn’s gallbladder—gallbladder cancer was pretty much a death sentence. On the pathologist’s confirmation, Quinn, being declared inoperable, was sent to Dr.DeVita at NCI as he wanted to be treated near his home. 

James H. Shannon Building (Building One), NIH campus, Bethesda, MD

Dr.DeVita, however, noticed something quite odd when he felt Quinn’s armpits during a routine examination. Quinn’s axillary lymph nodes—the cluster of glands working as a sentinel for what’s going on in the body—under his arms were enlarged and rubbery. These glands tend to become tender when the body has an infection and hard if it has solid tumors—like gallbladder cancer; they become rubbery if there is lymphoma. Being a lymphoma specialist, the startled Dr. DeVita questioned the possibility of a misdiagnosis—what if Quinn had lymphoma, not a solid tumor wrapping around his gallbladder leading to jaundice?

On being asked for his biopsy slides to be reevaluated, the always-in-command Colonel Luke Quinn angrily handed them over to the pathologist at NCI and sat impatiently in the waiting room. Costan Berard, the pathologist reviewing Quinn’s biopsy slides, detected an artifact in the image that had made it difficult to differentiate one kind of cancer cell from the other. Gallbladder cancers are elliptical, whereas Lymphoma cells are round. The roundish lymphoma cells can look like the elliptical gallbladder cancer cells when squeezed during the biopsy. This unusual finding by Berard explained why Quinn’s lymph nodes were not hard but rubbery. The new biopsy showed without a doubt that Quinn had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma —the clumsy non-name we still go by to classify all lymphomas that are not Hodgkin’s disease. 

COSTAN W. BERARD, MD (1932-2013)

The NCI was working on C-MOPP, a new cocktail of drugs to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had shown a two-year remission in forty percent of aggressive versions of this disease. The always-in-command WW II veteran had somehow landed in the right place by accident! It was a long three months for the nurses though, as they hated him for leaning on the call button all-day, for complaining bitterly about the food, for chastising anyone who forgot to address him, Colonel Quinn, and for never thanking anyone. But incredibly, he was discharged without any sign of his tumor; he had gone from certain death to a fighting chance. 

The fierce and unpleasant Colonel Quinn is crucial because his initial misdiagnosis unknowingly spurred the creation of a close network of influential people during his remarkable escape from certain death. He could do this because he was a friend and employee of the socialite and philanthropist Mary Lasker—the most consequential person in the politics of medical research. Read my earlier piece on her

Mary Lasker on her living room sofa; Mid 1950s. Courtesy of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

Mary Lasker, the timid, beehived socialite circumvented all conventions of medical research management and got the U.S. Congress to do things her way. Mary’s mantra was: Congress never funds a concept like “cancer research,” but propose funding an institute named after a feared disease, and Congress leaps on it. Her incessant lobbying with the backing of her husband, Albert Lasker and her confidante, Florence Mahoney, wife of the publisher of The Miami News, helped create the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart Institute, the National Eye Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, the National Institute of Aging, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 

From Left to Right: Luther Terry, Mary Lasker, Lister Hill, Florence Mahoney, and Boisfeuillet Jones [Credit: The National Library of Medicine]

Though Mary Lasker knew the value of independent investigators pursuing their unique research interests, she supported projects only when a clinical goal was perceptible, like curing tuberculosis. In 1946, Mary, having noticed microbiologist Selman Waksman’s work on streptomycin—a new class of antibiotics effective against microbes resistant to penicillin—persuaded him and Merck pharmaceutical company to test the new drug against TB. By 1952 Mary’s instinct had won over Waksman’s initial skepticism as the widespread use of streptomycin halved the mortality from TB! Mary Lasker’s catalytic influence on basic research leading to a Nobel Prize-winning discovery is a case in point.

Her clout over Congress was in its prime through the 1950s and 60s when the National Cancer Institute (NCI) was developing the first cancer cures. It was also the period when Colonel Luke Quinn became her influential lieutenant. The Congress believed Luke Quinn represented the American Cancer Society, but he was Mary’s lobbyist in reality. When Quinn got sick, Mary used her contacts to get Welch and Sidney Farber, but it got her special attention when Quinn’s incurable torment was overcome. The ongoing public concern for cancer and Albert Lasker’s death due to pancreatic cancer made it an ideal disease for Mary to draw the battle lines. Quinn’s recovery convinced her that the necessary advance in basic research had occurred to justify taking the disease head-on. In April 1970, she began building bipartisan support by having the Senate create the National Panel of Consultants on the Conquest of Cancer. She prevailed over the Texas Democrat senator Ralph Yarborough to appoint her friend, a wealthy Republican businessman Benno C. Schmidt —the chairman of Memorial Sloan Kettering board of managers—to be the chairman on the conquest of cancer panel. She backed him up by arranging Sidney Farber as the co-chairman. The panel also included Colonel Luke Quinn and Mary herself.

In just six months, the panel issued “The Yarborough Report.” The report, mainly written by Colonel Luke Quinn and Mary Lasker, made far-reaching recommendations, including an independent national cancer authority. It recommended a substantial increase in funding for cancer research from $180 million in 1971 to $400 million in 1972 and reaching $1 billion by 1976. Finally, it recommended that the approval of anticancer drugs be moved from the FDA to the new cancer authority. Senator Edward Kennedy presented the recommendations as new legislation for the Ninety-Second Congress. Though not a Senate staff member, Colonel Quinn, trained by Mary in the art of testifying before the Congress, orchestrated the hearings, set the agenda, and selected the people who would testify.

Washington Post: 9 December 1969;  Citizens Committee for the Conquest of Cancer. 

The Nixon administration did not immediately embrace the bill as he wasn’t thrilled by Edward Kennedy’s involvement. Being Ted Kennedy’s close friend, Mary asked him to withdraw as a sponsor. Under Senator Pete Domenici, the bill renamed the National Cancer Act had to pass in the House. Paul Rogers, who headed the House Health subcommittee—Colonel Quinn and Mary Lasker had no influence over him—objected to removing the NCI from the NIH umbrella. He cautioned the NIH would face similar threats of separation in other disease areas. A revised bill agreed to this demand and kept the NCI under the NIH but gave it a separate budget and a director appointed by the President. 

https://ascopost.com/issues/may-25-2021/how-the-national-cancer-act-of-1971-revolutionized-cancer-care-and-what-lies-ahead/

On December 23, 1971— fifty years to this day—the National Cancer Act was signed as a Christmas gift to the nation by President Richard Nixon, two years after Colonel Luke Quinn walked into the NCI with a wrong diagnosis. Though Quinn ultimately died of his relapsed cancer, a few months after the signing of the Cancer Act, the war on cancer had commenced with cancer research on the fast track. It was a victory for Mary Lasker, perhaps the most effective advocate for biomedical research that Washington had ever seen.

WASHINGTON: March 12 —Luke C. Quinn:au, a Capitol Hill spokesman, for the American Cancer Society, died of the disease yesterday in the National Institutes of Health

In hindsight, Mary Lasker’s triumph came with two significant disappointments. First, her crusade had failed in transferring the authority for approval of anticancer drugs from the FDA to the NCI—a failure that would plague the National Cancer Program well into the future. Second, the premise of the National Cancer Act that the “basic science was already there” and a quantitative boost in resources was all that was needed to bring victory was flawed. In combination, the two disappointments—the subjects of a future blog post—have spotlighted a perceived progress gap in cancer research by the tax-paying general public rather than underlining the tremendous conceptual progress made due to the War on Cancer. 

A dividing breast cancer cell.
Credit: National Cancer Institute / Univ. of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute

Ultimately, this blog is for you to appreciate the 50th anniversary of the lucky accidents and the incredible effort in creating the National Cancer Act. At the same time, personally, cancer researchers—the boots on the ground—like me who experience the non-triviality of progress in cancer will dwell on the insistence of simplistic linear views of progress in cancer research for public consumption.

“Blood is Thicker Than Water: Elite Kinship Networks and State Building in Imperial China”

A long tradition in social sciences scholarship has established that kinship-based institutions undermine state building. I argue that kinship networks, when geographically dispersed, cross-cut local cleavages and align the incentives of self-interested elites in favor of building a strong state, which generates scale economies in providing protection and justice throughout a large territory. I evaluate this argument by examining elite preferences related to a state-building reform in 11th century China. I map politicians’ kinship networks using their tomb epitaphs and collect data on their political allegiances from archival materials. Statistical analysis demonstrates that a politician’s support for state building increases with the geographic size of his kinship network, controlling for a number of individual, family, and regional characteristics. My findings highlight the importance of elite social structure in facilitating state development and help understand state building in China – a useful, yet understudied, counterpoint to the Euro-centric literature.

Read the whole thing (pdf).

(Monday’s) comic book edition

The Code is dead, to begin with. Watchmen (DC) is awesome, a near-Orwell experience. On comics historical curios and intellectual drifts. Here goes.

Vol. 1 – That other 50s scare and all

Somewhere somehow I picked up the Comics Code Authority story. It goes like this: The rise of mass-media in early 50s saw a creeping moral panic against the more “graphic” content of comic books (think horror, violence and the like). In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated the supposedly detrimental influence of comic books, taking into account speculative, biased evidence. The emerging threat of government regulation prompted the creation of the Code by the comic publishers, so that they could check content themselves. The self-censoring initiative could use some tuning: It was overly strict, shaking-up and aggressively downsizing the industry. Thus, a government “nudge” led to a private sector (over)reaction, with ill effects. The sector, however, adapted and continued, underground or otherwise.

*The* seal – source

Ironically, it was another government nod that galvanized a Code overhaul in 1971, as the Nixon administration asked Stan Lee of Marvel to incorporate an anti-drugs storyline in Amazing Spiderman. The arc proceeded without CCA approval in mid-1971 (funnily, just before the international monetary system entered turmoil). And it was in 1973 (say hello to the first oil crisis) that the depiction of murder in a popular comic book (Amazing Spiderman, again) marked the passage from the campy superheroes of the Silver Age (c. 1956 – 1970) to a more diverse and socially attuned bunch in the Bronze Age (c. 1970 – 1985). As the disillusionment of the 70s gave its place to cynicism in the 80s, so did the comic heroes matured, with works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The archetypes formed in the period (Dark Age, typically 1985-1996), grim and complex, redefined the genre and are still here today.

The Code was updated again in 1989, but failed to stay relevant in the face of increasing bypassing/ sidelining via new distribution methods (all hail the market in action). Just 20 years ago, Marvel abandoned it. 10 years later, in 2011, the last adherents, DC and Archie, finally desisted, too.

Vol. 2Randian Quests & Answers

Α couple of (relatively) fresh articles flashed from The Comics Journal:

Mysterious Travelers: Steve Ditko and the Search for a New Liberal Identity

How Ayn Rand Influenced Comic Books

Not an exactly nuanced analysis, the second one (it contains a few useful links though), but still, both presented things to consider. As it turns out, the co-creator (along with aforementioned Stan Lee) of f – Spiderman, Steve Ditko, endorsed objectivist ideals in early 60s (he even contributed a piece to Reason back in 1969). Here is another scholarly short paper on his impact:

“A Is A”: Spider-Man, Ayn Rand, and What Man Ought to Be (PS: Political Science & Politics)

If mid-60s Peter Parker, “[c]old, arrogant, detached from the lives of others, but driven to follow his purpose and pursue higher ends”, seems objectivist enough, then the Question and Mr. A., Ditko’s creations in late 60s, are the real thing. These two were featured in smaller publications, and later provided the inspiration for Rorschach (Watchmen).

Fists will fly – source

The character was intended not only as a tribute to Ditko, but also as a stark criticism for randian convictions, meant to make a bad example of them. However, the controversial fictional zealot resonated (a bit too well perhaps) with the audience. Indeed, the character delivers some of the most memorable quotes ever, his unflinching crusade against the morally bankrupt (political class included) is iconic, and his damaged humanity invites some sympathy.

Depending on priors and inclinations, one can certainly discern smatterings of Rand’s ideas in Rorschach (“no gray”, believing in “a day’s work for a day’s pay”, among others). But I think that his trope could be assigned to other venues, too. For example, a fantasy aficionado will see a Paladin gone (very) wrong, maybe, or a casual will stick to the apparent right-wing leanings per se, and so on.

The other route of Rand influence is traced to Frank Miller and his Dark Knight take on Batman. The arc of a lone (capitalist) hero versus media-induced apathy and the corrupted establishment (and said establishment’s lapdog, Superman) has a libertarian facet, yes. I will get it (next week probably), read it and, then, return.

Some Monday Links – Of bloody summer stains, busted hopes and laundries

Also lingo. And beards.

Why Cuba is having an economic crisis (Noahpinion)

The Language of Totalitarian Dehumanization (Quillette)

On the Cuba events. Governments and protests, now that’s a strained relationship. Talking about the so-called “Second World” countries, Nikita Khrushchev did not even know what booing is, until he encountered it in his visit to London in 1956.

Few years later, during a massive strike in the Russian city of Novocherkassk, a crowd stormed the central police station. Whether it was a genuine assault, or a naive display of defiance from a people inexperienced in protesting, the government’s fearful puzzlement turned to cold, brutal aggression. Unarmed protesters at the center of the city, mistakenly thinking that those days were over, remained steadfast at the face of warnings to disperse. That is, until security forces opened direct fire against them. The ensuing massacre was covered-up for three decades. Since this was an à la Orwell un-event, no high-ranking officials’ records were stained.

Khrushchev’s aloof ignorance strikes a nerve, contrasted with the people’s heartbreaking one. Both glimpses are captured in the brilliant (though somewhat uneven) Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford.

All things said, Karl Marx Loved Freedom (Jacobin). More beards.

The Greek government, like its French counterpart, is escalating the push for vaccinations. As constitutional scholars argue the limits of state power regarding personal freedom and the public good, historical precedents are brought forth (for the US, c. early 1900s), involving mandatory vaccinations, quarantines and discrimination. The discussion draws from equal protection of the laws jurisprudence and smoothly led me to Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886):

Yick Wo v. Hopkins established fair implementation of statutes (History Net)

The decision set a milestone and has been cited some 150 times.

The backdrop of the case is rich. As it turns out,

An 1880 ordinance of the city of San Francisco required all laundries in wooden buildings to hold a permit issued by the city’s Board of Supervisors. The board had total discretion over who would be issued a permit. Although workers of Chinese descent operated 89 percent of the city’s laundry businesses, not a single Chinese owner was granted a permit.

Oyez

The regulation was one in a series of many that reflected the anti-immigrant (especially anti-Chinese) sentiment, following the influx due to the Gold Rush (1849).

An illustration of the time, echoing the 3-day pogrom vs Chinese immigrants, San Francisco Jul. 1877 – Source

Yick Wo: How A Racist Laundry Law In Early San Francisco Helped Civil Rights (Hoodline)

A particularly badass line, from the unanimous opinion authored by Justice Stanley Matthews, shows that the Court did not hold back:

Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances, material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution.

Monday Links, sticks and two (or maybe three) smoking sentences

Gangsters vs. Nazis (Tablet)

How the Jewish mob fought American admirers of the Third Reich. An excerpt:

Judd Teller, a reporter for a New York Jewish daily, relates how he met one day with “several men who said they were from ‘Murder, Incorporated’ and wanted a list of ‘Nazi bastards who should be rubbed out.’” Teller took the request to Jewish communal leaders. They told Teller that if the plan would be put in motion, “the police would be informed promptly.” Teller relayed this warning to his Murder, Inc. contact. Upon hearing this, the mobster angrily replied, “Tell them to keep their shirts on. OK, we won’t ice [murder] the bodies; only marinate them.” According to Teller, this is exactly what they did. He said the attacks by the Jewish mobsters was sufficient “marination” to drastically reduce attendance at Nazi Bund meetings, and discouraged Bundists “from appearing in uniform singly in the streets.”

The Inimitable Orwell (Commonweal)

On the Politics and the English Language essay. I try to stick to the six rules, but I fear I am not totally “outright barbarous”-proof. Another list with writing rules – a more light-hearted one – comes from Umberto Eco, the noted Italian scholar:

Umberto Eco’s 36 Rules for Writing Well (Openculture)

Speaking of proper phrasing, here is a passage from Lysander Spooner (Thomas L. Knapp posted it in the comments section of a NOL piece by Jacques Delacroix):

[W]hether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.

Now, I may have found the second prospective opening for my public policy course, should I ever offer one (the absurd part is that I lack almost everything else to supply it, demand included). It is pithy, sharp and, importantly, timeless. The alternative one-liner I would possibly pen day one at the imaginary class:

Property imposes obligations. Its use by its owner shall at the same time serve the public good.

Weimar Constitution (1919), art. 153(c)

While not as punchy as Spooner’s aphorism, it has qualities and can raise eyebrows. Both phrases are metal. Independent of context, they have more or less exactly what it takes to pick and stick. Perhaps both of them should set the opening, leaving the audience free to choose the way forward.

Back to Spooner. Another prominent figure (of American individualist tradition this time) I had not heard of till this day.

Lysander Spooner (Online Library of Liberty). The particular passage comes from his No Treason. No. VI. The Constitution of No Authority (1870).

The Wings of Competition in Things Daily – Source

I took note that he challenged the government monopoly in mail services (a field with quasi-military structure, typically used as a matrix to consolidate state bureaucracy/ power, btw) with his American Letter Mail Company, on ethical and economic grounds. The state finally forced him out of business in 1851, though competition temporarily drove fees down.

(If you care about post stamps – I don’t – USPS to issue Ursula K. Le Guin stamp this month (Book Riot). I enjoyed Le Guin’s Earthsea and plan to read The Dispossessed, a veiled study of social systems I hear, before summer end)

If anything, Spooner seems to have shared the fiery convictions and language of his contemporaries at the First International. That was a time of memorable lines, obviously. This easily comes to mind:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

The Communist Manifesto (1848)

They also sported some serious beards. Those of Spooner and Marx are respectable, but I would award James Guillaume’s bonus points for the extra menacing vibe.