Some Monday Links

Famous Brand Logos Are Reimagined as Medieval Illustrations (My Modern MET)

Loyalty to the Brand flag – source

The allure of cosmopolitan languages to courtiers and pop fans (Psyche)

The First Authoritarian (The Hedgehog Review)

The Korea Analogy (The Duck of Miverva)

Heading Into the Atom Age—Pat Frank’s Perpetually Relevant Novels (Quillette)

Got to appreciate the Atompunk aesthetics. I have also spent considerable time with the Fallout games (only the first two ones).

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.)

Some Friday Links – Ukraine in Moscow

Also, 1-year mark of blogging achieved

We visited Moscow twice, in late 2010 and mid-2011. I remember a clean, buzzing – if a bit intimidating – metropolis, rich in signature sites. I thought to share that where we stayed, Ukraine was all over: Across the street was located the Hotel Ukraina, one of the “Seven Sisters” (skyscrapers of the Stalinist era). Ukrainskyi bulvar, a pedestrian walkway run along our block. It featured a small park with a statue of writer Lesya Ukrainka. Down the green walk was the Kiyevski railway terminal, a badass station (it was in good company, I prefer no 5, Yaroslavsky station) that serviced metro lines and trains to the Ukrainian capital (Kiyv/ Kiev, see relevant link below).

Here be few links on the Ukrainian front, not of the “latest headline” kind. The discourse at least here in Greece is polarized, and geographically we are close enough that the infamous Chernobyl disaster haunted our parents when we were kids.

Understanding the War in Ukraine (A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. I picked this blog from Naked Capitalism).

A Drunken Grandfather Goes to War (Economic Principals)

Tocqueville and Ukraine: European Union, Freedom, and Responsibility (Quillette)

Why Is Ukraine’s Capital City Now Called ‘Kyiv,’ Not ‘Kiev’? (Mental Floss)

The Greek word is squarely in Kiev mode.

Thoughts, Hopes And Disappointments in Kyiv: A Street Photographer’s Photos of Ukraine – 2001-2021 (Flashbak)

Some Monday Links

Ulysses at 100: why Joyce was so obsessed with the perfect blue cover (The Conversation)

“Context is that which is scarce” (Marginal Revolution)

I had sensed this in training modules, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. A good instructor, apart from presentation skills, should also provide just the right amount (sic) of context.

America’s Long War on Cancer: What Was It Good For? (Bloomberg)

Some tidbits of context for things Vishnu wrote about here.

The Price of Nails since 1695: A Window into Economic Change (Journal of Economic Perspectives)

Yes, Let’s Call ‘Beijing’ Peking (National Review)

Some Monday Links (extend, not pretend version)

The Strange Career of Paul Krugman (Tablet)

If anything, it warrants at least some praise for finally giving a date to an oft-cited, curiously undated essay by Krugman, Ricardo’s difficult idea.

Learning Sixteenth-Century Business Jargon (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Brainwashing has a grim history that we shouldn’t dismiss (Psyche)

Made in Japan – source

Another Case Against Science’s Objectivity Myth: Nepotism in Publishing (The Wire Science)

Who Controls the Narrative?: On David M. Higgins’s “Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood” (LA Review of Books)

Hasui Kawase’s Beautiful Prints of Japanese Landscapes (Flashbak)

Some Monday Links: Mostly Economics

The New Economics (Foreign Affairs)

The author begs to explain “how the U.S. and its Allies are rewriting the rules on spending and trade”. Informative on recent developments, and the f-yeah! attitude is kind of welcome. Unsurprisingly, it attributes all maladies to the big bad “neoliberal” specter. And it loses its title’s thunder, if we remember that Walter Heller, the important Keynesian economist and presidential advisor, half a century ago noted:

Today’s talk of an ‘intellectual revolution’ and a ‘new economics’ arises not out of startling discoveries of new economic truths but out of the swift and progressive weaving of modern economics into the fabric of national thinking and policy

W. Heller, 1966 – Source

A good analysis of the old “New Economics”, which obviously drifted to activist macroeconomic management, can be found in Marc Levinson‘s An Extraordinary Time (NOL has referenced his work before).

Please Do Not Call Inflation ‘Transitory’ (Bloomberg)

A comment on the term “transitory” and its religious connotations.

The Secret Behind the Monopoly Board (WSHU)

The popular Monopoly game is actually older than its recent 85th anniversary indicates, and of Georgist descent.

edit: Fixed a link, added an omitted word – M.T.

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.

Francophonie et connerie

Comme c’est souvent le cas le soir, je lézarde devant TV5, la chaîne francophone internationale. C’est l’heure du journal télévisé. L’annonceur, francais selon sa diction, annonce gravement que ce jour est l’anniversaire de la mort des époux Rosenberg, exécutés en 1953 “parce qu’ils étaient Communistes”. Comme, à cette époque, il y avait au moins 100 000 Communistes aux Eats-Unis, ces deux-là n’auraient vraiment pas eu de chance!

Un autre jour, je regarde un documentaire français: “Gharjuwa, épouse de la vallée.”  C’est sur une ethnie népalaise qui pratique la polyandrie: une femme, plusieurs maris. Le sujet est intrinsèquement intéressant, Et puis, le fait que la femme polygame ait le gros sourire aux lèvres tout le long de l’interview confirme pas mal de mes à-priori sur ce qui rend les femmes heureuses, en fin de compte! (Ce n’est pas sorcier.) Et puis, le tout se passe dans un environnement montagneux magnifique. Comme c’est le cas pour la plupart des documentaires français que je connais, la photo est excellente.

L’une des tâches de la femme polygame est de préparer la bière. Une voix masculine dit le commentaire en Français. Soyons francs: je ne sais pas si c’est le commentateur qui a rédigé le texte. En tous cas, il nous avise de ce qu’au Népal, la bière ménagère se prépare en faisant “cuire ensemble” une céréale (ou plusieurs; maïs ou blé noir, ou les deux, je ne suis pas sûr) et de la levure. Je fais un retour en arrière mental. C’est bien ce qu’il a dit. Mais, la levure, c’est ce qui transforme les sucres des céréales en alcool et en CO2. Mais la levure se compose d’organisme vivants qui trépassent vite à la chaleur. Pas question de la faire cuire avant qu’elle ait fait son travail. Ou alors, on a de la bouillie plutôt que de la bière. La description qu’on nous donne  est donc aussi fausse qu’absurde.

A priori, selon son accent et sa diction, le commentateur est français ou belge. Il vient donc d’un pays célébré dans le monde entier pour ses vins et aussi pour ses bières, ou alors, massivement, seulement pour ses bières. Des pays respectés aussi pour la supériorite de leur boulangerie et de leurs pâtisseries levées. Vins, bières, pains, pâtisseries exigent la maîtrise des levures. Comment peut-on être aussi ignorant d’une partie aussi importante de sa culture materiélle pourtant séculaire? Et puis, je sais bien qu’en principe, l’ignorance et la connerie sont des choses différentes. Pourtant, il y a des cas où on a du mal a distinguer l’une de l’autre. Je me demande comment on peut avoir été élevé dans la culture française ou la culture belge et être si profondément mal informé, à moins d’être également stupide.

Mais j’éprouve aussi de l’indignation comme ainsi dire au second degré: Comment les public francais et autres francophones peuvent-ils laisser passer de telles manifestations d’ignardise grossière sans se plaindre, sans réagir? Le fait est courant, répandu selon mon usage de l’éventail, il est vrai limité, de media francophones à ma disposition. J’ai d’ailleurs inventé la formule suivante, (en Anglais) : “Si vous voulez apprendre rapidement quelquechose de faux, suivez simplement les cinq premières minutes d’un documentaire en Français!”

J’ai du mal à souscrire à l’idee que la langue francaiss, la langue de Diderot, serait intrinsèquement porteuse d’insouciance vis-à-vis de la vérité toute simple bien que cela ne soit pas complètement impossible.

Je m’interroge donc sur les possible causes sociologique de ce qui me paraît plus qu’un accident. Je veux parler de l’apparente indifférence aux faits associée à l’usage de la langue française contemporaine. Je ne sais pas s’il s’agit vraiment d’ un phénomène culturel en profondeur: Les faussetés ne dérangent simplement pas beaucoup les Francais. (Il me semble, subjectivement, que les autres francophones, Canadiens, et Belges, par exemple, sont moins coupables.) Je me demande si les causes des ces frequentes débâcles factuelles sont plus tortueuses et donc, moins directement culturelles:

“France 2 fait un documentaires sur les Népalaise à plusieurs maris. C’est chouette. Je vais téléphoner à Robert pour lui demander s’il peut prendre mon neveu Charlot pour le narrer. Justement, en ce moment, il ne fait pas grandchose.”

De vraies questions. Toutes les réponse m’intéressent, celles provenant de France autant que celle émanant d’autres pays francophones. Ecrire à jdelacroixliberte@gmail.com.

Le beau et ignare documentaire en question sort de chez Atmosphère  Production  avec le concours du Centre national du cinéma. (“Evidemment”, j’ai envie de d’ajouter.)

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 7): The open texture of the words of the law

However, the law itself has its own endogenous system of production of rules, which operates on the abstract plane of the configuration of the structure of the relationships between its terms, and whose dynamics depends on the negative feedback process implied by the judicial work itself to clarify the words of the law for each specific case to be decided. Both in codified law systems and in customary law systems, the current positive law is clearly defined. The legal systems in which previous judgments oblige judges are even more rigid than codified systems, since in the latter it is enough for the legislature to enact a new code for the positive law to change. On the contrary, the judges must make a hermeneutical effort to modify the doctrine consecrated in a judicial precedent without this constituting an arbitrary ruling.

However, both in coded and customary legal systems, the law, which is always enunciated in express statements, carries with it the phenomenon of the open texture of language. These are not the cases of ambiguity, vagueness, or obscurity of the letter of the law. These latter cases can be solved by the doctrine, composed of scientific works that investigate the debates between the members of the legislative power at the moment of sanctioning the norm whose text carries such problems, or resorting to the normative antecedents of which the current law took its vocabulary.

However, vagueness, obscurity, and ambiguity in the words of the law configure linguistic problems with legal relevance, but not legal ones in themselves. What really matters to study are the cases of open texture of the language of the law, since it is through these cases that the law evolves.

In cases of open texture of language, the anomaly occurs in the universe of events to which the language refers. An obvious example: a constitution written in the 19th century can establish that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of land and sea forces. It would not be necessary to reform its text to incorporate the air force – or even weapons built to act outside Earth’s orbit.

However, the dynamics of legal traffic are mostly made up of less obvious cases in which the open texture of language forces judges to establish the words of the law for the specific case, resorting to a hermeneutic interpretation of the law for which “common sense” is not enough. In customary law these hard cases are those that generate a new precedent that often define what is inside and what is outside the “good legal sense.” The authors disagree among themselves on how to characterize this aspect of judicial work. However, the remarkable thing is that these “difficult cases” generated by the phenomenon of the open texture of the language are what make the law respond autonomously to changes in the conditions of the environment that the same right has as a regular task.

Indeed, Friedrich Hayek states in Law, Legislation and Liberty an attempt to separate law and politics based on the evolution of law according to a process of natural selection of norms. While it expressly recognizes that a legal system can be sanctioned in its entirety by the legislator, it also highlights the ability of legal systems to make an immanent critique of themselves, through the judicial system.

Although Hayek does not analyse the phenomenon of the open texture of language in his work, it does characterize law as a structure of norms that continually readjust to changes in circumstances following a negative feedback process, through successive judicial decisions. In Hayek’s own words, what establishes a legal order is a set of expectations about the behaviour of congeners that will be considered or not according to law. For example, if a party fails to meet its contractual obligations, it can expect the other party to refuse to comply with them and that, if sued, the latter will be supported by the courts. This expectation also works as an incentive to fulfil contracts and reduce litigation.

On the other hand, another feature of legal systems -particularly modern ones- that Hayek highlights is the definition of a range of expectations that will be systematically thwarted. This is what determines a structure for human action and implies the consecration of the principle of closure: everything that is not expressly prohibited is allowed. This allows individuals to form their life plans with the expectation that they will be fulfilled and with the ability to anticipate the behaviour of their peers, since they will be under the same incentive structure. The latter leads to a third characteristic of modern legal systems, which allows them to function as self-regulated systems: the principle of isonomy or of the same law for all. The incentive structure determined by the range of expectations that will be systematically frustrated, in a system that results from the same application for each individual, allows the definition of individual spheres of autonomy, within which each individual has free discretion, but when entering into collision with each other, each one will be able to infer what expectations they can have regarding a possible judicial ruling.

The reverse of this system is the “Administrative State,” by Carl Schmitt, in which only that which is expressly authorized by a decision based on expediency, and the status system of the Ancient Regime, is permitted, that each group had a private legal system or privilege-strictly speaking, our current modern system of rights consists in the extension to all human beings of the liberties or privileges that the nobles had wrested from the kings at the time. Therefore, it is a great risk that the number of regulations is such that the rule becomes that only what is specially expressly regulated can be done, depending on the dynamics of the change of the decision of the authority taken in administrative files, and that such is the segmentation of regulations according to pressure groups and interest groups, that they return to a system of privileges instead of equality before the law.

It is not difficult to find numerous current examples: the public transport system could reach levels of regulation such that it could practically be said that only such activity can be carried out with the express authorization of the public authority to that effect. The alternative is not the absence of regulation, on the contrary, the alternative is the modern State of Law: a set of positive norms, dictated by the competent authority and formulated in general terms. These rules that regulate public transport do not have an abstract content, but rather a concrete one: the set of objectives expressly set by public policy. While the rules of private law have an abstract content, that is, they lack a specific purpose, the rules of public law not only have a specific and specific purpose, but that such purpose must be expressly declared, in such a way that justice they can evaluate whether the willing means disposed by the public authority are related and proportional to the purpose of the rule of public law and, in turn, the citizens consider whether such ends are worth pursuing.

To continue with the exemplification of public transport of passengers and merchandise: there is a sphere that corresponds exclusively to private law. This refers to the rules that attribute legal responsibility between the transporter and the transported: the obligation of the transported to pay the ticket or the freight, the obligation of the transporter to transfer the people and goods without them suffering damages. In this sphere there is no concrete purpose of the norm. It only limits itself to stating the set of expectations that the parties can count on, regardless of who they are specifically and what the specific purpose of the transport is.

Correlatively, the regulation of public transport, which belongs to the orbit of public law, does have certain specific purposes. For example, take care of public safety and ensure an efficient distribution of the cost of accidents. For this purpose, it may provide that public transport companies register, periodically review the status of their units, which must meet certain minimum standards, and establish the obligation to contract civil liability insurance. Anyone who complies with these provisions, for example, could devote himself to the activity of public transport, passengers or merchandise. How many and who will be the transporters is something that the public transport regime should not compete with. The number of carriers will be fixed by the price system. Nevertheless, to the control of public transport must concern that the units that circulate are in good condition, that their drivers are suitable and have an insurance that covers their civil liability, so that the transported does not have to face the cost of accidents before an eventual bankruptcy of the carrier. On the other hand, the system of private law, in a parallel and autonomous way, distributes the responsibilities between the parties, without addressing who is each one.

[Editor’s note: Part 6 can be found here, and the full essay is here.]

Learning Academic English Through Leftist Propaganda

Yesterday, in a large bookstore Apollo (part of the major shopping mall) in Tartu, Estonia, in a section “English books,” I stumbled upon a bunch of leftist literature.  It is offered as the mainstream political and social issues books to those Estonians who learn English and those English-speaking people who live in the country. Among this literature is virulently biased Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward (Trump as a “Russian asset,” “fascist,” and so on), then a diary of the leftist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (progressive profs usually force their sociology students to love this “classic”), and a primer of the identitarian left Racism: A Critical Analysis by Mike Cole. The “crown jewel” of the shelf was Crowds and Party by Jodi Dean, a rising star of current aggressive college leftism. In this book, she seeks to exonerate communism and class warfare, and to rekindle the Leninist concept of the vanguard communist party as the alternative to “evil” “neoliberal” capitalism. Of course, one could not see any conservative or libertarian literature on those Apollo bookshelves to serve as an alternative. 

To me, this choice of social and political issues literature, which I frequently observe during my travels at airports, shopping malls, and major bookstores around the world, serves as an inspiration to fight on to change this “mainstream.” I also hope that the young YouTube generation does not pay attention to this paper garbage. What worries me is that some well-rounded Estonians who might purchase this propaganda in hope to learn non-fiction and academic English might internalize the leftist jargon and receive distorted picture about what is going on in US. 

Watson my mind today

Apart from grading, reviewing, and my soon-to-be 5-yr-old’s birthday, that is…

–  A good question from Don Boudreaux. “Assuming (contrary to fact) that American trade deficits do necessarily cause Americans’ indebtedness to foreigners to rise, why do you bemoan these deficits? Why not instead cheer them? … Being indebted to foreigners means that we Americans must repay these debts, which in turn means that we Americans must in the future work to produce more goods and services for export. Isn’t this situation precisely what you and other protectionists want? Isn’t a rise in the demand for American exports – especially a rise not derived from, or offset by, a simultaneous rise in American imports – your very ideal?”

–  Speaking of protectionism, Tyler Cowen on Elizabeth Warren’s agriculture proposal: “a disappointment on two fronts: too wonky to be considered a purely political document, but not nearly wonky enough to be defensible in terms of substance.” It fails to understand inflation and food price data, calls for more protectionism, and doesn’t remove subsidies. He says he might be persuadable on a “right to repair” law, but worries about copyright infringement.

–  One of the issues Ludwig von Mises himself, I am told, never fully settled in his mind was over patents and copyright. It seems a necessary evil to encourage innovation, but granting someone a government-sanctioned monopoly just grates the wrong way. Now we’ve got “patent trolls” to add to the mix, who do not innovate themselves but buy up patents to collect licenses and sue or threaten to sue others. A paper finds that patent trolls encourage more upstream innovation while discouraging downstream innovation.

–  Why does Scott Sumner simultaneously support the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike last year and expect a cut this year? As a market monetarist, he would like the market to dictate Fed policy and “the fed funds futures market forecasts a rate cut. … Because markets continue to forecast slightly below 2% inflation, even as the economy slows, the market forecast of an interest rate cut should be taken as evidence that a rate cut is probably needed at some point this year.” I also enjoyed the picture that goes with the article – he is an owl, neither a hawk nor a dove.

–  There’s a dictionary, detailing how Africans speak about politics, including some fascinating idioms. “Three-piece suit voting” refers to supporting the same party for all elected positions. On the contrary, “skirt-and-blouse voting” means to vote for different parties for presidential and legislative elections.” Other enjoyable examples at the link.

–  538 has an interesting piece on the perceived fairness of kidney donation systems, and the real struggle that still exists trying to get people to accept slightly less-regulated systems (let alone actually compensating donors’ families).

–  David Henderson: Occupational Licensing is a Bad Idea. Still. Really.

Nazism: left or right? (again)

A few days ago, Brazil’s Foreign Affair’s Minister declared that Nazism “derives from the left”. Asked about his minister’s remark, president Jair Bolsonaro confirmed that he understands Nazism as a left-wing movement.

The understanding that Nazism is a left-wing movement is growing among Brazilian conservatives, especially those who support Bolsonaro’s government. On the other side of the debate, Bolsonaro’s adversaries ridiculed his remark or manifested concern with his “historical revisionism”.

Seems to me that classifying Nazim as a left-wing movement is not a Brazilian exclusivity. Political commentators from other countries (such as Dinesh D’Souza) are saying the same thing. It is probably more accurate to say that Brazilians are following a trend.

This trend, however, is not new. One of Friedrich Hayek’s main points in Road to Serfdom was to tell social democrats (who were indeed democrats in the classical liberal sense of the word) that they were closer to Nazis than they would like to admit. Hayek’s remark was as polemic then as it is now, but mainly because he is saying the truth: as Milton Friedman said, “The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.” If I remember correctly, it was also Friedman who said that in order to obtain perfect equality more government would be necessary, which would completely undermine the desire for equality, for those in government would most certainly not be equal to everyone else.

The standard in Political Science is, of course, to call Nazim a right-wing movement. However, we see in moments like this how political and how little scientific Political Science can be. What many people observe is that Nazism shares a lot with communism: both are violent, both emphasize the collective (and not the individual), both rely on popular leaders, and so on. Of course, there are also differences: Nazism has nothing of the class-struggle so central to communism and certainly doesn’t appeal to the cosmopolitanism present in “workers of the World, unite!”.

With all that said, I have a growing feeling that there are only two political tendencies: “live and let live” and all others. Some people can’t stand the possibility of having others living a different lifestyle from them. Some people can’t stand people who disagree. Some people like to blame others. Some people truly believe that those who think and do like they do are superior to everyone else. These people come together and ask the government to force everyone else to comply.

Proposal: Let’s stop calling them “Property Rights”

I think an alternative that is both clearer and more general is “Decision Rights”. When I teach Coase Theorem I use both terms, and (I think) students have an easier time grasping it when they realize that property rights are really just rights to make certain decisions. I can’t see a good reason to keep using the term property rights except that by historical accident it’s become entrenched jargon.

Property sounds like “stuff” to most people. And property rights sounds like “owning stuff”. This raises two points that need clarifying:

1. There is more to the world than just the physical, and there is more to property than just stuff.

I would argue that economic rights are human rights. (I would also argue that corporations are owned and staffed by humans but are not humans themselves.) And I would say that right to self-ownership is a particular type of economic/human right.

When we talk about environmental issues, the root problem is usually over some shared resource (e.g. we can’t neatly privatize the atmosphere and let now-private conflicts be resolved in court). It’s much easier to focus in on the relevant particulars when our language directs us to what’s really at stake (e.g. whether I can decide to put more than X amount of pollution into the atmosphere without legal consequences).

2. I own a bit of land and I can make many decisions about how to use it. But I can’t set up a nuclear reactor or burn a massive pile of debris. My ownership is not carte blanche, but a bundle of different rights. I have the right to use (for normal domestic purposes), to exclude, to sell, etc. By “I own” what I really mean is “I can make a particular set of decisions.

I hope my hard core libertarian friends will agree with me that the decisions I can make are not limited by what is explicitly legislated. I suspect my interventionist friends will disagree. But I also think interventionists can agree that it’s more reasonable for me to have a set of decision rights (how ever nebulous the extent of that set is) than some more magical sounding dominion/ownership over a particular fifth of an acre.

The notion of decision rights makes it clearer what political debates are over. If we want to pass a law saying you can’t put a pool in your yard because of spotted owls, “property rights” muddies the discussion. The law would take away a particular property right–which is to say, the right to make a particular decision. But the debate is going to devolve into “you’re taking our land” vs. “no we aren’t.” It’s close to the real issue, but not close enough.

tl;dr: When we talk about “property rights” or ownership what we really mean is a set of various decisions that one has a right to make. Those decisions might be over the use of what we traditionally call property (e.g. my yard), but it might also be over shared resources (e.g. the atmosphere), decisions with collective impacts (e.g. ecosystem management–or lack thereof), or socially constructed issues (e.g. intellectual property). The term “property rights” is not clear or obvious (particularly for people who aren’t already likely to read this blog). A better term would be “decision rights.”

SOTU: a Masterwork of Co-option.

Sheila Broflovski ‘solves’ the ‘problem’ of ‘obscenity’.

A professor of Political Science at my school described the modern left-right paradigm for the class today — to paraphrase, he summed up the political landscape of the US with the all-too familiar perspective: ‘conservatives want less government, and liberals want more government’.

I opined, silently, in my seat.  Sensing my disapproval, the professor asked if anyone had a differing perspective on the country’s political spectrum.  I raised my hand and pointed out the perspective of this oft-regurgitated axiom of political theory.  rephrased the point: Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.  When it was suggested by a classmate that I was coloring the axiom to suit my political bent, I defended my choice of language.  This phrasing, I argued, is the happy middle ground between the original, popular formulation that the professor used, and a statement that more closely aligns with my actual opinion: Conservatives want freedom, and Liberals want slavery.

When placed together, these three phrasings of the same observation illustrate the powerful effect nomenclature can have on a statement — and sheds a pinhole of light onto the vastness of the power of language analysis with respect to ideology:

Conservatives want less government, and Liberals want more government.

Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.

Conservatives want you to be free, and Liberals want you to be a slave. 

The words we chose to use when we frame our thoughts betray our underlying perspective.  Language is the seat of understanding, and can be deconstructed to suggest motivation and perspective.  Analyzing the language used by self-styled ‘progressive liberals’  (forgive the quotes — the term itself is completely removed from cogency as a representation of meaning, as is ‘conservative’.  These two terms as used in modern US politics do not come anywhere near connoting accurate definitions) yields a lexicon that I dub the language of Co-option.  This liberal dictionary is used by a vast majority of the public out of rote; most people do not consider deeply the meaning of the language they use.  Those that speak this dialect knowingly craft the language, and therefore, the thinking, of the larger public who adopts the dialect and spreads the meme and built-in collectivist programming therein.

This Language of Co-option is the language of our classrooms.  It is the language of our politicians.  It is Hegel.  It is Sociology.

Let’s vivisect the following liberal sociological speech pattern:

is bad for society.  We should do so that happens instead.”

To make the point that much clearer, let’s translate the above formulation into political rhetoric:

“For American families, x is a real problem, so our administration is committed to policy so that z will result.”

To define our terms:  the value in this construction represents a ‘problem’ — to be specific, some suggested verifiable disadvantageous phenomena, that would be mitigated by taking action.  These instances exist; we can plug in some terms for our variables to create cogent statements:  Suffocating is problematic for humans, therefore humans should breathe.  This construction is cogent because human beings need to breathe in order to avoid suffocation, which is indeed, harmful to humans.  However, such statements rarely provide people with new insights, because cause and effect tend to be plainly apparent; most everyone knows that they need to breathe to live.  It seems tedious to think such obvious statements would warrant comment, let alone, say, a State of the Union address.

The power of this statement only manifests when coupled with action — the y variable.  The point of x, of stating an obvious ‘problem’, is merely to gain the agreement of the audience to the that will follow.  In fact, in political speech, and need not have any real connection at all.  This effect has been pointed out by others, including the research of behaviorist Ellen Langer, who’s research suggests merely by adding any explanation to a request one can improve the chance of a ‘yes’ in response.

For example, take this phrase from the State of the Union Address last night:

“There are other steps we can take to help families make ends meet, and few are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit.”

to simplify:  “Poverty (x) is a problem for people, and we can fix inequality (z) with the EITC (y).”

Let’s break it down critically.  Poverty is always a problem for a family, as it is averse to survival.  If you don’t eat, you starve — as obvious as the sun shining in the sky.  This statement alone is almost as bereft of importance as ‘nice day, huh?’ or ‘how about those (insert local sports team name)!’ The President must have had a reason to make the comment.  The statement made in this way implies poverty is a fixable problem in society, rather than a product of the human condition or the laws of our natural world.  The first law of the human condition is scarcity; there is never enough of any resource to satisfy demand in any economy.  When coupled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, any natural system in the universe behaves the same way.  POTUS makes the statement about poverty implying a collective problem that can be solved by some action.

The showstopper for libertarians is usually y.  The solution to the problem offered by the state is ALWAYS aggressive force.  In the above example, that aggression is in the form of extortion — specifically, theft of property through threat of violent action via taxation.  This is stated in a positive light as phrased; the Earned Income Tax Credit is sold to the public as a tax break for some people, but comes at the expense of everyone else.  The fact that your government is extorting less money from some than from others is aptly defined as ‘inequality’, but this obvious truth is distorted and reversed completely with Co-optive language to masquerade as benevolence, yielding the aberration cited.

This construct is the essence of the Hegelian ‘crisis, reaction, solution’, and is a hallmark of Co-optive speech and thought, and permeates our zeitgeist.  Freedom-minded individuals hear this language and know just how ubiquitous it is in society — keep it in mind the next time you hear someone spray about what ‘We’ must ‘do’.  Co-option is built in to the culture and mindset of authoritarianism, and in fact, the democratic process itself as naked tyranny of the supposed majority.

Please, feel free to post your co-optive, authoritarian quotes in response below!

Narrating the Decline from a Classroom Desk,

L.A.Repucci