Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Roll Over O'Henry and Tell Chekhov the News

Sometimes, I am reading a book and suddenly just mentally step back and admire the artistry of the author.  It is a strange experience—the book has a plot, but I am not really noticing the plot but rather the amazing way the plot has been so deliberately constructed.  It’s like watching a play from backstage; you notice how everything is done.  I have this experience a lot when reading Wodehouse.  And I just had that experience with Alice Munro.

Dear Life is her last volume of short stories, but it is the first of her work I have ever read.  She won the Nobel prize, and I am quite happy to report, after reading just one book, I am certain she merited that award.  As noted here before, I have been reading short stories on a regular basis for the last year or so as a means of overcoming my prior aversion to the form.  Munro knocked the short story form into another realm.  Short stories are, almost by definition, short.  They are undeveloped relative to a novel.  (That is, as I have figured out his last year, their virtue, not a flaw.)  But, Munro writes novels which are the length of a short story.  And it is that artistry which is stunning to observe.

I’ve never really had this sensation before.  The story “Train,” for example, is 42 pages long, but finishing it, I felt like I just read a complete novel.  The characters had depth and the plot was intricate and the story unfolded seemingly slowly with sudden reversals and revelations.  Even now, I am a bit amazed that that story I just read was under 50 pages long.  Then we have “Corrie” which was an even longer and fuller story than “Train,” but was actually only 20 pages long.  I have that same wonder at many of the stories in this volume—the stories are longer than they actually are.

How does she do it?  Well, obviously, there are no wasted words.  Munro has mastered the art of compression, packing things which would take mere mortals  pages to explain or show into a precisely crafted parenthetical aside.  She is a master at creating the illusion that you have just read whole chapters of material between two connecting events in the story.  After reading a volume like this, I am quite glad I do not fancy myself a writer of short stories—I would despair of ever being able to do so much in so few pages.

Another interesting feature of a book like this—it’s silly to even try to summarize the content of the volume.  It would be like trying got write a quick summary of Faulkner or Dickens.  In Munro, there is a longing for a better life, the illusion that if one just makes the right choices, all will be well.  But, while I can write that, and while it is true of this book, what it leaves out makes a mockery of the statement. 

Instead, far better to look at, say, “Pride,” which is (in a mere 21 pages) a brilliant examination of the absurd lengths to which pride will drive us; we often note that Pride gets in the way of forming genuine human relationships, but “Pride” (the story) shows that Pride (the Vice) can actually make life worse for the proud person.  The story feels so natural, and when we see the proud making decisions which objectively make zero sense at all, it does not come across as a surprise, but rather as something that obviously a proud person would do.  Pride is a tricky thing to manage, in other words.  But why?  Why should Pride result in self-destructive behavior?  It does, but there is something odd about that fact.  The way we normally think about Pride would suggest that the Proud should always be engaging in behavior which will benefit the Proud; to be filled with Pride seems to mean that one thinks of oneself as above all the lesser beings and that one who thought that way would act in a manner in which all actions are designed for self-benefit.  Yet, it is true, as Munro’s story beautifully illustrates, that the Proud make decisions which will be harmful and they know they will be harmful, but somehow preserving Pride trumps objective self-interest.  Quite honestly, I have a hard time understanding this; indeed, before seeing it so manifestly demonstrated in Munro’s story, I would have had a difficult time even articulating the problem.

Munro’s novels masquerading as short stories are like that—they grab a hold of an oddity of human behavior and throw it into marvelous relief by the act of compressing the story to its essence.  As someone who is enamored with the Great Books, it is nice to read a brilliant contemporary writer.  Given the choice between Munro and Chekhov, I’d now opt for Munro.  That is high praise indeed.

Also high praise: this song and the story “Dolly” are each, in their own way, marvelous testaments to an enduring love.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Vision of a More Perfect Vision

Conflicting visions of the perfect society are a tricky thing to negotiate.  Imagine, for example, a municipality which levied taxes in order to pay for a state-supported brothel; think of it like a public park.  Also imagine that the workers in the brothel are conscripted; think of it like the military draft.  Now imagine a society where 51% of the people think that such State Brothels are a good idea and 49% think they are morally repugnant.  What should that society do?

We discussed that problem in my tutorial last week.  Suffice it to say that the students in the tutorial all thought the idea was terrible, but had a hard time figuring out why it should be prohibited. 

The prompt for the discussion was Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed.  Sowell doesn’t discuss the brothel question (of course—no self-respecting author would ever raise such a topic for serious consideration); he has a very different agenda.  Sowell’s book is an exercise in skewering the zeitgeist, the attitude of the modern American Left to see the world as if they are the Anointed Ones and They know the Truth unlike those Benighted Folks who disagree with them.  Sowell spends page after page taking apart the idea that the view of the Anointed is obviously right.  Sowell thinks the opposite to the View of the Anointed, what he call the Tragic View, is better.  He argues those with the Tragic View at least are willing to try to understand the Views of the Anointed, but the reverse is not true.  Sowell has little patience for the Anointed.  Indeed, if you were part of the Anointed, this book would seriously irritate you.  At one point in the midst of reading the book, I got to wondering to whom this book was written.  It would have a nice appeal to people who agree with Sowell and just want the reassurance that someone who knows a lot of stuff agrees with them.  Then I realized that Sowell’s real audience is people who have not yet formed a world view—he wants to save everyone from joining the Dark Side.

And that led to the question which started this rumination.  What does a society do if there are two diametrically opposed world views?  How do you achieve compromise on things which the two sides view as moral absolutes.  You value Freedom; I value Moral Restrictions; how do we compromise?  Either prostitution is allowed or it is not.  Either infanticide is allowed or it is not.  And the side which does not have its preferences enshrined into Law will think the social order is unjust.  But, does anybody really think we should just put laws against murder up for a vote and say “Majority Rules”?

The Vision of the Anointed is thus a mixed bag.  It is full of great examples and studies and arguments.  It is in some ways a Handbook on Social Science Research which can be Used by Conservatives in a Debate.  (Hard to believe the publisher didn’t think that would make a good title for the book—but it is an accurate title.)  On the other hand, it is a frustrating book for settling the larger issue of why someone should choose Sowell’s Vision or the Vision of the Anointed.  It isn’t clear how to address that question though.  Do you pick your underlying vision of society on the basis of social science research?  At some point, we have to acknowledge that a society can only function as a society if there is a shared moral-cultural order underlying it.  What do you do when that shared set of beliefs disintegrates?  We are in the process of finding out.

Curiously, the musical group Anointed does not have what Sowell calls The Vision of the Anointed.  Go figure.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Meditations on Leadership

Why do you want to be leader?  Is there any reason to desire to lead?

You want fame? “People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too.  And those after them in turn.  Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.  But suppose that those who remembered you were immortal and your memory undying.  What good would it do to you?  And I don't just mean when you’re dead, but in your own lifetime.  What use is praise, expect to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?”

Are you ambitious? “Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say to do.  Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.  Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”

Are you upset about the way things are and want to change them?  “And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!”

Do you just want to make the world a better place?  “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole.  Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen.  Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable?  Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”

And so, Marcus Aurelius, leader of the Roman Empire when the Roman Empire was Big, advises you in Mediations, a veritable manual on leadership.  If you are a leader, then lead.  If you are not, the don’t.
“Do what nature demands.  Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don’t go worrying about whether anyone will give you credit for it.  And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.”

Control your desire and you’ll be fine:
“Start praying like this and you’ll see.
Not ‘some way to sleep with her’—but a way to stop wanting to.
Not ‘some way to get rid of him’—but a way to stop trying.
Not ‘some way to save my child’—but a way to lose our fear.
Redirect your prayers like that, and watch what happens.”

With the fourth book in our series on leadership, we are once again in new territory.  Carnegie tells us leadership is technique; Homer tells us it is action; Plato tells us it is philosophy; Aurelius asks us why we care so much.  Marcus Aurelius was surprisingly popular with the students in the course. To be sure, they didn’t like the Stoic extreme, but some sort of Stoic-light, they would enjoy.  (They seemed to think there was something unnatural about saying that if my wife died in a fire, I should just say, “It is in the nature of humans to die,” and leave it at that.  They all thought I should be sad at the idea of my wife dying.  One student was so worried about the matter, she asked me later in the day if I really would be sad if my wife died—apparently she is terribly concerned that I really am a Stoic.)  Is there a half-way house here?  Can you sort of give up the desire to be a leader—can you just sort of want to be a leader and still be a good leader?  If Aurelius is right, the desire to have things as they are not is doomed to lead you to misery.  All of which makes it an interesting question for a leader—if the goal is to accept things as they are, then to what exactly is one leading?  How do you reconcile the seemingly tautological statement that “A leader must lead somewhere” with the Stoic belief that there is no point in wishing things were different than they are.  Is it even possible to lead like that?  Doesn’t leadership necessarily mean wanting to control things outside of your own desires?

It is inevitable: all of life ends here.  After reading Marcus Aurelius, it seems obvious that he would fully embrace that song.  But, then, what is the point of leadership?

[As an aside: last night Janet and I were at my in-laws playing pinochle, our usual Sunday evening pastime.  I got to wondering if there was ever a song about Pinochle.  There appears to be exactly one.  The link is above.  Who knew that a song about pinochle and a song about leadership and Marcus Aurelius would prove to be one and the same song?  Life is odd like that.]

Friday, February 21, 2014


In 2007, Paul Collier published The Bottom Billion, which is still the single best book for the non-expert to read if one wanted some idea about why there are still so many people living in incredibly poor countries.  There are other books which have more detail, there are other books with interesting explanations, but Collier’s book is a nice mix of theories, written in a way that one does not have to understand all the details of economic growth modeling or empirics in order to walk away having learned quite a bit about a very complicated problem.

Paul Collier just wrote another book like that.  It too is not the most exhaustive treatise on the matter.  It too will not drive all other books off the shelf.  But, if you want to know something about a rather complicated issue and want to think about the implications of a big problem, this is a rather good book.

The book?  Exodus: How Migration is Changing our World.  It deserves to be widely read, not because it provides a definitive answer (it doesn’t), but because after reading it, there is no way to think that this is an easy problem, easily solved.

Interestingly, this is not a book I would have ever just picked up on my own.  I thought I knew about the issue of migration.  But, it was a Christmas gift from Janet, who, as I have noted here before, somehow always manages to pick out books I will enjoy.  And while the book didn’t have anything I had not ever seen before, the arrangement of all the pieces brought the whole matter into focus in a fascinating way.  Collier organizes the book around the three sets of people affected by migration: the Host Society, the Migrants, and the People left behind in the country of origin.  He also frames the question not as “Is Migration Good?” but “Should there be more or less migration than there currently is?”  The reframing is incredibly important—most of the public debate on this matter is beween those who say “Migration has benefits” and those who say “Migration has costs.”  The people who talk about the benefits imagine the migrants who bring the most benefit; the people who talk about the costs imagine those who bring the fewest benefits.  So, if we simply acknowledge that some migration provides a net benefit, but eliminating all barriers to migration results in a net cost, then the question isn’t “Are there benefits?” or “Are there costs?”  but “Where are we on the range of benefits and costs?”

Best guess after reading Collier’s book—a little less migration would be good.  And what is interesting is that a little less migration would probably help all three of the sets of people affected.  The Host societies may be suffering from too much migration now.  As Robert Putnam’s much neglected work has shown, too much diversity actually lowers people’s happiness.  As migrant communities get larger, the numbers of unassimilated immigrants increases, and society becomes less cohesive, which reduces happiness levels.  If the goal of society is to increase happiness, then this is clearly a problem.  On the economic front, migrants are a bit of a wash—they bring both economic benefits and economic costs—but on the societal well-being front, best guess is that we have a bit too much migration in the world right now.  What about the migrants themselves?  They also would benefit from a little less migration.  Obviously, the migrants benefit, but the real question is not just “Do the migrants benefit from their own personal migration?’ but “Do the migrants benefit from the combination of their own personal migration and the migration of the other people who are also currently migrating?”  Framed that way, once you have migrated, you are probably better off if there were fewer migrants following in your footsteps.  This is a tricky issue: I migrate, so I benefit.  I also want to bring in my family and others who are close to me because I will benefit from that.  But, I would like to prohibit all the other people from migrating because then the benefits to me and my family and friends will be even larger.  It seems so selfish to say that, but best guess is that this is actually true.  And what about the countries of origin?  Here too, there is probably too much migration; there are too many people leaving and the people leaving are not some random cross-section of the population, but the people you would most like to have staying to help build your society.

So, if all of that is right (and, let’s be clear, those are the conclusions I draw from the book—your mileage may vary when (not if, when) you read the book), the whole world would benefit if there was less migration going on.  But, now comes the difficult part.  Imagine you are in a society which decides to reduce migration.  How do you go about doing that?  Here, the devil is in the details.  After all, some migration is good, so just closing your borders may not be beneficial.  But, which migration do you want, and how do you stop the migration you don’t want.  And if you live in a democratic society, how do you build a broad consensus for our view on the matter?  I am convinced after reading this book that those sorts of questions are much harder than I thought and that nobody really has a good answer.  I suspect an expansive Guest Worker program will be part of the solution—allow temporary migration, but reduce permanent migration.  But that is a pretty tentative conclusion.

In the end, while this isn’t a Great Book by any stretch of the imagination, and while it has flaws and could be better in all sorts of way, this is a book which if you are concerned with large public policy issues, you really ought to read.  In fact, while it isn’t as good and comprehensive as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, it is the best social science book I have read since Murray’s book came out.

A song?  Easy. There are endless from which to choose.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Philosopher King

Book 3 in the continuing exploration of Leadership and the Liberal Arts:
Plato, The Republic

[First, a translation note.  I have read this before in the Jowett translation, but this time I read the Bloom translation—it isn’t even close.  Read Bloom.]

This is a mammothly sprawling book—it is a conversation which wanders all over the place, constantly circling back to the general theme—but even there, it isn’t entirely clear what is the general theme to which the argument keeps circling back.  Justice?  Good Government?  Education?  Moral Character? Previously, I had read the book as an argument about a Good Society; this would put the book in the same category as Locke’s Second Treatise or Hobbes Leviathan or Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty.  So, it was rather interesting to read it this time, thinking about it as a manual on leadership.  Part of the definition of a Great Book is that you can reread it and learn something new every time; with this book, such a thing is easy; just pick a new central organizing principle and embark on a journey.  It is a fun book; I would have hated it had I read it is a political theory or a philosophy class, though.  This is truly one of those books where you just go along for the ride and see where you end up.  About halfway though I started wondering how well the whole thing would work as a stage play.  A curious production, but I suspect, if acted well (which would not be easy), it could be great.  The acting would be a problem though—it wouldn’t be easy to convey the sense that this is just a rambling conversation—the temptation to make it more directed or philosophical-seeming would be quite large.

What do we learn about leadership?  Well, first, Socrates is, as always, in pursuit of Leadership, with a capital L; the Truth (capital T) about Leadership, the Form of Leadership of which all earthly examples are merely pale reflections.  This is, after all, where Plato’s Cave originates—you are all in a cave staring at shadows, and I have gone forth into the light and have come back to tell you all (I shall tell you all) about Leadership, the real thing, not the shadow of the real thing.  You want to know the Truth?  To be a Leader, you obviously must be a philosopher, a true lover of wisdom, someone who pursues knowledge and wisdom to the exclusion of all else.  The Leader is the one who understands the Truth.  You want Justice?  You need a leader who understands Justice, True Justice, not the pale imitation which normal people call justice, but the Form of Justice.  You want, whether you know it or not, The Philosopher King. (Not to be confused with the Witch King of Angmar—though, come to think of it, there is a disturbing similarity between Plato’s Philosopher King and Tolkien’s Witch-King.  Intentional?)

There are two immediate implications of Plato's argument (or should that be Socrates’ argument?—it is never easy to tell) which are rather interesting:
1. There are not different types of leadership.  There is only good leadership and bad leadership; good leadership is that which comes closest to the Platonic Ideal of Leadership. 
2. True Leaders will undoubtedly fail in a real society because it would take a True Leader to recognize the importance of True Leadership.  The masses—all the farmers and soldiers, the people obsessed with honor and material gain—will have no ability to appreciate or even understand the best leaders.  All those masses are still stuck in their caves, and they cannot comprehend the Beauty and Perfection of Leadership as it Truly Is.

Those two points are related.  We think there are different types of leaders because we cannot recognize True Leaders.  And so, the best Leaders, those who would be closest to the Platonic Ideal, end up not being Leaders in the world in which we live.  So, imagine the Platonic Ideal coming to earth and walking among us; that Leader does not Lead because nobody follows.  So, is the perfect Leader still a leader if nobody follows?  Is the ability to attract followers a part of the Platonic Ideal of Leadership?  Why not?

In some ways it is hard to take the idea of the Philosopher King seriously because, quite frankly, people with a Doctorate in Philosophy are not great material for leadership. (Nb. Buckley’s quip that he would rather be ruled by the first 200 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.)  But, Socrates would have an easy time noting that our contemporaries with doctorates in philosophy are hardly lovers of wisdom; they are the sham philosophers, the charlatans, who masquerade as knowledgeable so that they can get paid to do very little in a tenured sinecure.

So, set aside the charlatans.  Imagine the true philosopher, the person truly committed to gaining wisdom and knowledge.  Would you want that person as the leader of your society or organization?  The short answer is “No.”  But why not?  I suspect it is because when we think about leadership we mean more than simply knowing where all the parts should go, but we also imagine a mechanical or practical skill—the ability to get things done—and it is not at all obvious that knowing what would be best thing to do is the same thing as accomplishing the best things.  In Plato’s Republic, a society which could never actually arise on Earth, it makes sense to have the Philosophers as Kings.  But, here on Planet Earth?  It’s not enough to have seen the light; you also need to have the ability to inspire the rest of us to want to leave the cave and the ability to lead the expedition. 

Or, at a minimum, it would be nice to get a leader who can stop the world from spinning out of control.