Self Representation

You draw what you see. And what you see is almost entirely engineered by humans. Therefore, almost all of what you draw is design. We create our own subjects, and then draw them over and again. The same is true, even, of our landscapes, which almost always show lands shaped by cultivation, almost never the forest primeval. We escape ourselves only in mountain- or sea-scapes. And perhaps rock gardens.

I find architects’ renderings of their own designs unimaginably sterile. Should I not therefore find all art, or nearly all art, similarly sterile?

Time Heals All Wounds

As the Iraq war was winding down, the same political forces that brought that war into existence tried to shift to what had always been their stage two, which was to attack Iran. By then, however, the Iraq war had been so thoroughly discredited that press and public reacted swiftly and viciously to the attempt to sell a second adventure. And the idea disappeared from view.

A little more than ten years have now passed, however. These same forces are again floating the idea of war with Iran. And I am struck by how much more muted the response to that flotation is. Here, for example, is Paul Krugman’s response ten years ago. He has written nothing so far about the renewed effort.

Why Progressives Once Fought Tariffs as They Fought Monopolies

The Nineteenth Century understood very well that tariffs have the same effect on consumers as do monopolies. Tariffs prevent foreign competitors from undercutting the prices of domestic companies, because the foreign competitors must now pay the tariffs, and that in turn allows domestic companies to raise prices. It is for this reason that in the Nineteenth Century the same Progressive movement that sought to prevent monopoly pricing, either through antitrust or rate regulation, also sought to replace tariffs with income taxation as the source for government revenue. And succeeded.

But what millions of Americans understood in the late Nineteenth Century is greeted as a bizarre and surprising result today.

Compare:

President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported washing machines has had an odd effect . . . . It is hardly surprising that the tariffs drove up the price of foreign washers. Perhaps more unexpectedly, they also prompted American manufacturers to raise their prices.
Companies that largely sell imported washers, like Samsung and LG, raised prices to compensate for the tariff costs they had to pay. But domestic manufacturers, like Whirlpool, increased prices, too, largely because they could. There aren’t a lot of upstart domestic producers of laundry equipment that could undercut Whirlpool on price if the company decided to capture more profits by raising prices at the same time its competitors were forced to do so.

Jim Tankersley, Trump’s Washing Machine Tariffs Stung Consumers While Lifting Corporate Profits, N.Y. Times, April 21, 2019.

With:

Beginning as early as the 1860s, the Democratic Party challenged Republican power with a biting critique of the central element of the consumption-tax system — the tariff. . . . The Democratic Party developed a general attack on special privilege, monopoly power, and public corruption — one that harkened back to the ideals of the American Revolution and the early republic. Most important, the Democrats described the tariff as the primary engine of a Republican program of subsidizing giant corporations. In 1882, in his first public political statement, the young Woodrow Wilson declared that the tariffs had “Monopoly for a father.” . . . . In the face of these problems, millions of Americans . . . regarded the progressive income tax at the federal level as the next-best alternative . . . .

W. Elliot Brownlee, Federal Taxation in America: A History 77, 79 (3d ed. 2016).
To battles won that were then fought anew,
Our bodies hastened while our minds withdrew.

Fight Censorship with Quality

I do not know which delivers the stronger evidence of our cultural decline, the fact that this headline is right, or that the author seems to think the story paints only Chinese censorship in a bad light. All the great films of Hollywood’s golden age were, of course, censored. But they still managed to shine through to us with the brilliance of a thousand suns, because they were about people, not the spectacle that censors cut out of films.

The Poetry of Revolution

Il est en ce moment dans une situation de puissance dont il n’apprécie pas l’importance stratégique. Tous les acteurs politiques et sociaux principaux se tournent vers lui, lui demandent de persister, se proposent de le protéger, se réclament de lui, retiennent leur souffle tous les vendredis pour voir s’il sera là. C’est extraordinaire cette découverte qu’il existe un peuple, qu’il a une voix, qu’il a une présence, qu’il incarne une identité dans laquelle on se retrouve. C’est comme si, ayant été orpheline pendant longtemps, l’Algérie découvrait quelle avait une mère et un père qui s’appellent le peuple, et qu’elle est ce peuple. C’est sans doute l’une des plus belles découvertes que le mouvement ait permis de réaliser, quel que soit son avenir.

«Le succès du mouvement dépend de sa capacité de résister à la tentation de la violence», TSA, April 17, 2019.

The Great Chain of Power

Just after I took her picture, two Chinese tourists shouted at her in Mandarin, an attempt to get her to look at their cameras. When she turned her head away and hid it in her hands, they laughed.

Paul Mozer, Being Tracked While Reporting in China, Where ‘There Are No Whys’, N.Y. Times, April 16, 2019.

This is consistent with my experiences in Xinjiang and Qinghai two decades ago. Even then, before urban China was really rich, there were Chinese tourists in these regions, tourists who viewed the locals as underdeveloped and exotic, not realizing, perhaps, that when Americans visited their hometowns of Beijing or Shanghai, it was they who were the exotic and underdeveloped ones in the eyes of the tourists.

Ugarit

The romance of the Bronze Age.

In the early years of Ramesses III’s reign [around 1200 B.C.], worrying news began to reach Egypt from the pharaoh’s emissaries in the Near East. All along the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, cities were being sacked and torched, harbors burned and looted, entire nations laid low. While coastal communities had been harried by pirates for decades, this new onslaught was of an entirely different order of magnitude. Most frightening of all, it had come from out of the blue, the sighting of enemy ships on the western horizon being the first warning of an impending attack. By the time the inhabitants of the Mediterranean ports could muster their defenses, their enemies were upon them. As Egypt watched from afar, great cities and civilizations were reduced to rubble, and the cultural achievements of centuries went up in smoke.

The first to fall was the great maritime city of Ugarit [in modern Syria, near the city of Latakia today]. Its altruism was its undoing. The king of Ugarit had dispatched a sizeable military force to southern Anatolia in response to pleas for urgent assistance from neighboring lands already under attack. Ugarit’s soldiers were fighting alongside the Hittites, while its navy was patrolling the coast of Lycia. By being an exemplary ally, Ugarit had unwittingly put itself in the line of fire. Overstretched and underdefended, its remaining forces were hopelessly incapable of defending Ugarit at home when the attack came. In an eleventh-hour attempt to save his entire realm from destruction, the king of Ugarit wrote a desperate letter to his counterpart in Alashiya (Cyprus). Its tone of panic is palpable: “the enemy ships are already here, they have set fire to my towns and have done very great damage in the countryside.” It was too late. The clay tablet bearing the king’s letter was never sent. It was found much later [in the 20th century], still in the kiln where it had been fired, amid the rubble of the devastated city, a vivid firsthand account penned on the eve of destruction. Ugarit was laid waste, never to be reoccupied. One of the great natural harbors of the Mediterranean was reduced to smoldering ruins. . . . The dreaded Sea Peoples[, who “remain unidentified in the eyes of most modern scholars,”] had returned.

Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt 325-29 (2010).

Solar Storms and Grand Strategy

Boeing’s continued use of pulleys to control its 737s, even the most recent generation, is some of the better news to emerge from the MCAS disaster so far. One wonders whether an excellent first-strike strategy would not be this: (1) unlike the rest of the world, engineer away from electrical solutions; (2) wait for a global-electrical-technology-destroying solar flare (they apparently occur every hundred years or so); (3) strike!

The Streets Should Be Free. Let’s Decongest While Keeping Them That Way.

In her column on congestion pricing, Emily Badger exhibits the unquestioning acceptance of the legitimacy of the price system that lamentably characterizes so much work by progressives today. She argues that because driving has a cost, drivers should be asked to pay that cost through congestion pricing, and she suggests that our current system, in which driving in the city is free, was the uneconomic product of lobbying by the car industry. Hence the title of her column: The Streets Were Never Free. Congestion Pricing Finally Makes That Plain.

In fact, the elimination of bridge and road tolls that took place alongside the popularization of the automobile sat on a sound economic foundation: when the marginal cost of adding another driver to the roads is low, you should encourage as many drivers to use the roads as possible. Charging a price for access discourages use, and therefore unnecessarily limits the number of drivers on the roads.

Accordingly, argued Columbia economist Harold Hotelling in 1938, the proper way to pay for the cost of building and maintaining bridges and roads is to make people pay for them regardless how much they use them — because that way the price won’t limit use — and the only way to do that is to pay for roads and bridges through taxes, rather than by charging tolls. Of course, traffic was not a thing unknown to economists in the early 20th century. But they thought cities would eliminate congestion by building more and bigger roads — expanding supply to meet demand — not by rationing supply, and the efficient way to do that was again by paying for bigger roads through taxes and granting drivers access to them for free. The car industry may have helped the process of de-tolling along, but it was sound economics.

For the time. What everyone missed was that there are more costs to roads than just those of their creation and maintenance: they also destroy the climate, by enabling energy-inefficient driving, as opposed to energy-efficient public transportation. And it turned out that roads simply could not be built big enough to eliminate congestion. So it was not efficient to maximize the number of drivers after all, and the marginal cost of allowing an additional driver onto the roads was therefore not always near zero.

That has led Badger, and the climate movement more generally, to the conclusion that we should have been charging a price for access to roads all along. But that does not follow at all. As Badger points out, congestion and climate concerns make driving a scarce resource, meaning that no matter how high the price charged for access to the resource, more cannot be brought online. So the price system here isn’t needed to stimulate supply; the only work it would do is to winnow down demand to match the fixed level of supply of the resource. That in turn makes price here no more than a rationing mechanism.

And not a necessary one at that. For there are an infinity of ways to ration scarce resources. By birth year. By height. By how early you wake up in the morning. Etc. Price rations based on wealth, and that’s why progressives interested in solving the congestion problem should reject price as the means to that end.

Badger seems unaware that there are alternatives to the price system when it comes to rationing. She observes that:

If we had that problem with other kinds of infrastructure or commodities, we’d charge people more for them. If airline tickets were particularly in demand, their prices would go up. If there were a run on avocados, grocers wouldn’t respond by keeping them as cheap as possible.

All true, but those are all markets in which the goods in fixed supply are sold by private enterprise. Of course private enterprise will use price to ration access, because rationing with price is profitable. But roads and bridges are owned by governments, and governments both have goals other that profit maximization — such as ensuring that everyone has access to basic infrastructure, regardless of wealth — and other ways than price of raising revenue — such as through the tax system. Why is the behavior of markets in the face of shortage a good model for the way governments should behave in the face of shortage?

Moreover, in all the markets Badger mentions, higher prices are capable of calling forth greater supply. When airline prices rise, new airlines enter the market. When avocado prices rise, Mexico sends more avocados. But we aren’t trying to encourage private firms to flood the market with other ways to drive to work. We just want to limit use. We don’t need price for that.

In the information age, non-price approaches to rationing are easier to implement than ever before. I’ve argued that New York should just create an app to grant access to roads during busy periods, routing users to public transportation when congestion is bad. But that doesn’t have to be the only way. A little imagination and attention to technological alternatives could certainly reveal more.

But what we don’t need is unquestioning acceptance of the neoliberal playbook as the solution to our climate problems, or the sacrifice of our values — like the civic value of equal access to public space — that the playbook requires.

To her credit, Badger does seem concerned about the classism of charging for access to the city. But the solution she suggests, subsidized rates for the poor, just can’t work. Any subsidy that truly puts the poor on an equal footing with the rich will defeat the purpose of congestion pricing, by failing to price drivers out of the market. The utilities that subsidize rates to the poor, to which Badger points as a model, don’t use their rates to ration access, as congestion pricing would do, but rather use their rates to cover the fixed costs of maintaining the utilities, so the utilities don’t mind if the subsidy increases demand. Congestion pricing advocates often suggest that the class consequences of congestion pricing can be solved with an administrative tweak; but these tweaks work only to salve guilty consciences.