Saturday, May 27, 2023

Aaron Ross Powell and Brian Albrecht

Powell: I’m disappointed to see Substack giving prime promotional real estate to Robert Reich. Reich is probably best characterized as the progressive Ben Shapiro. He sounds smart and persuasive to partisans, and they like to think he’s “destroyed” the views of people they don’t like, but his arguments are thin, almost always misleading, and people with a deep understanding of the issues he’s talking about, even those sympathetic to his positions, generally view him as an unserious thinker. Progressives can do a lot better.

Albrecht: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I wonder to what extent it is reasonable to expect Substack to know the difference. They see who generates readers and subscribers. Can I really expect them to independently identify experts across fields?

P: Not in every case, no. But there are obviously cases where one really ought to know if someone purporting to be an expert in fact isn’t. “How could we have known RFK Jr. isn’t actually a well-regarded expert on vaccines?” But I don’t know how or where to draw that line. I was mainly expressing broader frustration at how many people don’t know that Reich is a charlatan.

A: That’s my frustration too.

Substack Speaks, defending Robert Reich 

This publication is a place for thoughtful discussion around writers’ work. Substack is also founded on the belief that writers and their work deserve respect.

We ask that writers keep conversations civil in the comments of this publication and other Substack spaces where we gather writers, such as events. That means respecting one other’s perspectives and life experiences in your conversations, and refraining from cruel or derogatory language. It is not a place for irrelevant rants or off-topic digressions.

As such we are disabling comments on this post. You can read more about our approach to the comments and community interactions in this publication here:

These Community Guidelines only apply to spaces that we manage, like our company publications, events, and programs, and are completely separate and distinct from the Substack Content Guidelines, which outline what is and is not acceptable on the Substack platform as a whole as part of our hands-off approach to moderation that puts writers and readers in charge -

Leighten Woodhouse is concerned: "Can someone at Substack explain why so many comments here were removed? I’m open to there being a good reason but on its face it looks a bit alarming." 

Specialist writing for a general audience at best is writing for an audience as you would like to imagine it, while trying not to be esoteric, obscure, needlessly technical or consciously high-brow.  Writing for profit can become writing for fans. It's amazing how much conversation on Substack revolves around either claims of censorship or bragging rights.

Artists are better than academics at negotiating the politics of popularity. Not that they don't mostly fail, but pedants fall hard. DeLong and Noah Smith are unbearable. Reich and Krugman are political figures and it's useless to pretend otherwise. But it's equally useless to pretend Substack isn't a publisher and that all the competition for hits is about impressing the techbro editors above. And it's interesting or not how much racial-rationalism tecbros approve. The moral indignation of Lorentzen and Taibbi are more related than one of them at least might want to admit. 

Ganz writes a piece on right-wing nostalgia for left-wing authoritarianism. 

"First off, Compact itself exists to peddle this sort of hybridization of Left and Right themes, which I have elsewhere called an “unholy alliance.” (As a quick aside, in a recent piece, Slavoj Zizek, who sadly is a contributor to Compact, used this very term in a recent essay, writing, “We live in an era of unholy alliances, a combination of ideological elements which violate the standard opposition of Left and Right.”)

As I point out in that piece, the attempt to find such a Left-Right synthesis is an old and dishonorable tradition."

You'd hope he'd have learned something by now—and this still makes me laugh. I reminded him that Sohrab Ahmari is a fan of Mike Davis.

...I devoured City of Quartz, and then I read everything else Davis had written up to that point, and I was left wanting more.
Ganz replied that he was too, which, after all was my point. I quoted T.J. Clark (see the link) and said as I always do that apocalyptic romance is where radicalism meets fascism, adding that if he read Davis as more than a passive writer of elegiac prose he would have at least when he was living in Bushwick spent some time at the end of a night in the back of a bodega with a last beer and a couple of tacos sitting with workers home from a late shift, or smoking a cigarette with a bakery worker on a break. But he's admitted that he has no social ties outside his scene. 

Ganz writes for dollars communing to his followers. Journalists write on Substack as a way to get things out and make some extra cash. They bring their own readers. I'm not quibbling. Milanovic just posts like an academic blogger, without a paywall. But this is what Substack was made for. Found via a "thank you!" from a writer recommended by Lorentzen.
A European monarch once awarded me a medal for extraordinary service, an oil baron unknowingly gave me millions of dollars to do some focus groups, and a Pulitzer Prize winner convinced me to buy a trailer park.

Oddly, the thread that ties these random random facts of my life together is a weird junior high school I went to that mashed 6th, 7th, and 8th graders together, didn’t have formal subjects, and emphasized writing as a tool to understand the world.

I didn’t realize how much I missed that experience until I started sifting the sands of Substack, unearthing writing that dissolved the boundaries that I thought existed between me and the world. 

My goal with my Substack is to help you feel more peaceful, more understood, and more human, by recommending my favorite Substack articles. I also hope that, perhaps once a year, something that I write will bring you bliss.

Pablum and happy talk, from and ex-congressional staffer now at the Pew Charitable Trusts. 


Van Bavel’s key idea is as follows.  In societies where non-market constraints are dominant (say, in feudal societies), liberating factor markets is a truly revolutionary change. Ability of peasants to own some land or to lease it, of workers to work for wages rather than to be subjected to various types of corvées, or of the merchants to borrow at a more or less competitive market  rather than to depend on usurious rates, is liberating at an individual level (gives person much greater freedom), secures property, and unleashes the forces of economic growth. The pace of activity quickens, growth accelerates (true, historically, from close to zero to some small number like 0.5% per year) and even inequality, economic and above all social, decreases. This is the period so well recognized and analyzed by Adam Smith. Van Bavel, in a nod to Braudel, shows that very similar “essors”  have existed in the pre-medieval Iraq (then the most developed part of the world), medieval Central and Northern Italy (Florence, Venice, Milan, Genoa..) and on the cusp between the late medieval Europe and early modern period in the Low Countries.

But the process, Bavel argues, contains the seeds of its destruction. Gradually factor markets cover more and more of the population: Bavel is excellent in providing numerical estimates on, for example, the percentage of wage-earners in Lombardy in the 14th century or showing that in Low Countries wage labor was, because of guilds, less prevalent in urban than in rural areas.  One factor market, though, that of capital and finance, gradually begins to dominate. Private and public debt become most attractive investments, big fortunes are made in finance, and those who originally asked for the level playing field and removal of feudal-like constraints, now use their wealth to conquer the political power and impose a serrata, thus making the rules destined to keep them forever on the top. What started as an exercise in political and economic freedom begins to look like an exercise in cementing the acquired power, politically and economically. The economic essor is gone, the economy begins to stagnate and, as happened to Iraq, Northern Italy and Low Countries, is overtaken by the competitors.*

As this short sketch shows, Bavel’s theory has many links, or can be juxtaposed, to several contemporary views of economic history. Bavel is dismissive of a unilinear view that regards the ever widening role of factor markets, including the financial, as leading to ever higher incomes and greater political freedom. His view, although not fully cyclical (on which I will say a bit  more at the very end of the review) is “endogenously curvilinear”: things which were good originally, when they hypertrophy, become a hindrance to further growth. It is thus a story of the rise and fall where, like in Greek tragedies, the very same factors that brought the protagonists grandeur, eventually hurl them into the abyss.

...It is not only the plausibility of the mechanism of decline that gives strength to Bavel’s thesis; it is also that he lists the manifestation of the decline, observable in all six cases. Financial investments yield much more than investments in the real sector, the economy begins to resemble a casino, the political power of the financiers becomes enormous. The richest among the financiers either directly or indirectly enter politics, they become patrons of arts,  sponsors of sports and education,  and we witness simultaneously (1) oligarchic politics, (2) slower growth and lower level of real investments, (3) higher inequality, (4) domination of finance and (5) artistic efflorescence.  What the ancient writers describe as “decadence” clearly sets it, but, as Bavel is at pains to note, it is not caused by moral defects of the ruling class but by the type of economy that is being created.  Extravagant bidding for assets whose quantity is fixed (land and art) is a further manifestation of such an economy: the bidding for fixed assets reflects lack of alternative profitable investments as well as the expectation that, as inequality increases, there would be some even crazier and richer investors who would pay even more for a work of art, thus enabling the realization of a capital gain. 

I'm torn between nodding and saying no fucking shit, but it's a good description of the economic origins of apocalyptic romance.  Materialism is the least romantic worldview imaginable, but that's why a passive romanticism attaches itself. And though it should be obvious, that includes Gerhard Richter. 

I'm not immune, but I'm not immune to anything I've ever written about. Nothing human is alien to me. That's the point right? The last thing I said to Ganz is that I'm torn between art and politics. Art usually wins, but that makes me a bit cranky.

I really hate Lorentzen. His world is petty and pathetic. This is just sad. But he's managed to remind me that I shouldn't have turned down the job with David Salle in 1986—I didn't want to move the the Hamptons and I'd decided to go back to school. Lorentzen is nostalgic for a decadence that I'm closer to than he can ever be. But I kept my distance at the time, and what's replaced it is worse. I have so many regrets. I missed my chance. I missed a lot of fun. Then again I'd never had had the patience. And Salle's work was never what he thought or pretended it was.

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