Craft, Community, and Healthy Ambition

I wrote for The Umlaut for a little less than two years, January 2013 – October 2014. My perspective on many of the topics I wrote about then has changed so much that I rarely revisit any of the posts there. One that I do find myself going back to again and again is a May 2013 piece called The Option Value of Satisfying Work. The argument of that piece is straightforward: you will almost never be able to do what you love in order to support yourself financially. So do what you love because you love it, and put it online so that there is a chance, however small, that your work will be discovered.

[T]he perfect balance is committing to only those crafts that you can perform with satisfaction even if you have to do so in utter obscurity. Then, put your work out in public as part of the process itself — if you’re making homebrew beer or an Arduino hack, make a video or write about the process as a means to think harder about the details of it. If you’re a writer, think of putting it online as simply having the work backed up in one more place.

In this way, you open yourself up to the spectrum of possibilities, ranging from utter obscurity at one end to global fame at the other. Far more likely is something closer to the obscurity end but much more satisfying — that you will draw the attention of a relative few who share your interests.

The last remark about drawing the attention of other enthusiasts was parenthetical, an aside. But I’ve come to think that it is the point.

Romantic notions of the lone artistic genius aside, it is hard to become good at something and harder still to find satisfaction in it without a community. But if you fix your gaze upon the Prize, the slim chance that this craft will turn into your livelihood (or the much slimmer chance that it will bring you fame or fortune), satisfaction and community are likely to elude you. Odds are, you will also miss your chance to develop skills of the first rate.

Community is not simply a nice word for mutual exploitation. A friend who you associate with primarily because they are useful to you is no friend at all; or rather, you are no friend to them, and your friendship is a sham.

And yet, there is no shame in being ambitious. There is no shame in wanting good work to be acknowledged. It is not healthy to obsess over what is not likely to come to pass, but it isn’t bad to wish there was a way to make your living doing what you love.

Over the years, I’ve connected with many young people who yearn to be successful public intellectuals in some capacity. I see it as my role in that situation to disenchant them, to make the odds of achieving such a station clear. But disenchanting does not mean discouraging. A chapter of my long-abandoned book encouraged people to be imaginative when considering their options but clear-eyed about the trade-offs; are you willing to make some serious sacrifices in order to make a real go at the career you want? Or does it make more sense to assume you will never get that career, and try to get jobs which leave you with enough freedom the rest of the time to do what you love?

But on the whole, the healthiest expression of ambition is internal to a community. To work to make friends and find peers who you are not afraid to make mistakes in front of, but whose respect and praise you value. To strive to become skilled enough at the craft you love to earn their respect, and continue earning it with each new creation. To be able to keep on growing, rather than hitting a comfortable plateau and staying there. Such growth is not possible in the first place without finding a community of this kind.

My communities

I love to write. I have always loved to write. For a long time, writing was the point, the main thing in itself. That is part of why engaging in the craft itself is the main focus of that Umlaut post from seven years ago.

After The Umlaut began to wind down, as such communities do, some friends and I launched a little group blog called Sweet Talk. The first post was in May of 2014. It lasted a little longer than The Umlaut, winding down at the end of 2016 (with some dribs and drabs being posted thereafter). Sweet Talk was loads of fun, and many of my dearest friends that I have today I first connected with during that time. I operated it on a fairly promiscuous basis; I invited people to write for us and if they said yes, I gave them carte blanche to post whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. It worked remarkably well for a remarkably long time, until, predictably, it did not.

Liberal Currents, launched in March of 2017 and still ongoing (as it will continue to be for the foreseeable future, thank you very much!) is an actual publication. We greenlight articles on a submission-by-submission basis; no one has an open invitation to publish whatever they want whenever they want. In theory I do, but in practice I never publish anything that our editors have serious reservations about, at least without a frank conversation and revisions.

Somewhere along the way, my writing has become a secondary priority to community-building. I learned some hard lessons from Sweet Talk, but I also wouldn’t change a thing about that experience. I’m also rather older now than when I began. The thing I enjoy most about Liberal Currents is the chance it provides to engage in a bit of mentorship; to be a voice that young writers will listen to and to help promote their work. Getting published by us also means access to our Discord, where several dozen writers and patrons can be found in conversation every day.

There’s a certain irony to all this, too, because I have never taken the quality of my writing more seriously than I do now. At The Umlaut I would run with half-baked ideas and see where they led me, usually applying something from cognitive science or a Nassim Taleb book or some other mediocre foundation. At Sweet Talk I was really engaging in a process of public learning; I don’t regret it, and in fact gained a great deal from it, but most of the 200 or so posts I wrote there are not worth much beyond the exercise of writing them. Towards the end I began to take each individual piece of writing more seriously. While I’m not proud of every one of the 34 articles and essays I have written at Liberal Currents, I have worked quite hard on each of them. To take a recent example, I read hundreds of articles and constructed a timeline of events in order to write my evaluation of the media ecosystem’s performance during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak. Less concretely, I tried very hard to make my article on Mohamed Bouazizi good from a writing perspective. I am proud of the result but I leave it to the reader to determine if that pride is merited.

But I do not think it is coincidental that I have worked harder at the quality of what I write even as community has become a larger priority. When you are out there writing on your own, it is very easy to become solipsistic and, to put it bluntly, blow smoke up your own ass. The first draft of my article on the media ecosystem was a hit piece on the conservative media’s response. But as I wrote it, I anticipated the criticisms of several people I respect who I know were likely to comment on it. And so I dug deeper and tried to provide more evidence. Only it became clear that my whole argument was simply wrong. So I threw out that draft and started performing a more serious survey of coverage across a lot of different outlets.

One of those people whose response I anticipated, Adam Elkus, once said that whether or not you are capable of becoming a lifelong learner, on the one hand, or stagnate and even see your horizons shrink, on the other, has everything to do with your friendships and your community. I still cultivate the “option value” of my work, leaving open the possibility of really taking off. But I spend much more time cultivating my community, and the rewards have been immeasurable.

Project Gameplan Update

Hello again.

Tomorrow I “go” back to work after six weeks of parental leave. I was, of course, tremendously lucky to have that, not to mention to have a job, and one that I can do from my apartment. Every few days in the nearly three months since the COVID-19 outbreak began in earnest in this country has felt like an eternity. And just when it seemed that things were settling down, at least temporarily, massive protests have been sparked by yet another police murder of a black man. Even here it feels as though the situation has moved at an insane pace; the narrative that appeared to be gelling a few days ago has been completely obliterated as protesters have gained such wide acceptance that even Mitch McConnell felt the need to chime in about the righteousness of their underlying outrage. When Mitt Romney is joining the protests and saying Black Lives Matter, some sort of corner has been turned.

Strange times indeed.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my last update with helpful advice or offers to introduce me to people. I think I have settled upon a plan of attack based on the conversations that came out of that.

The total package that I want to describe is too long, too detailed, and—I have no illusions about this—too unlikely for publications to take much interest in. So I’m going with a two-pronged approach.

I’m going to write a comprehensive paper that covers:

  • All of the reforms that I believe we should make
  • The framework in which to understand and evaluate them
  • Pragmatic considerations; why it’s useful to be ambitious thinking about what can be accomplished, which specific reforms should be prioritized in real world negotiations

Right now I plan to simply write it and put it up on SSRN, waiting until after it’s done to try and find a home for it. But if anyone knows of journals or think tanks that might be interested in publishing something like that, by all means clue me in!

In the meantime I will also pitch articles that focus on one or two of the reforms at a time, in a way that I don’t think is counterproductive. The biggest reason I want to treat the reforms as a package is that I firmly believe that to make a single change effective, one has to make other changes that effectively anticipate what the counter-response or undesired consequences of the initial change will be. In short, you want to have the right balance of changes. But I do think that some things, like party list proportional voting, can be pushed for with relatively minor additions and still be big net improvements. And publications are much more likely to go for those kinds of pieces than comprehensive constitutional reform packages.

Writing up the paper should also help in this regard. Since I want to discuss compromise solutions within it, those compromises themselves can become the basis of pieces for general audiences. The existence of the paper and, ideally, its publication, will also hopefully increase the chances of being able to speak more comprehensively to broader audiences.

That’s where things are right now! I will likely make fewer of these updates now that work is starting up again. As usual, thank you all for your interest and your support.

Freelancers and Staff Writers: I Need Your Advice

Things have gelled rather quickly since my last update. The form of the piece I want to write about institutional reform has taken a more definite shape in my mind; I have added four books to my list that I think I need in order to get the details down but am confident I can write what I want once I go through those (and probably sooner).

So I’m asking for help from those of you who know what you are doing: freelancers and writers of all sorts who have pitched pieces to big publications.

My goals are a little different from yours; I’m not trying to make a living off of this, at least not right now. If I could place this piece in The Atlantic without compensation, I would in a heartbeat. I want reach and prestige, in that order.

To that end, I have two questions for you:

  1. Where should I pitch this piece? The basic selling point is “We need systematic institutional change, here’s what it should be and how we should get it done.” It will be a lengthy piece that goes through some fine institutional details as well as political strategy. As mentioned, The Atlantic is probably the ideal but I’d love to hear about other options.
  2. How should I go about this? Emailing the generic pitch alias at a publication seems…like an almost guaranteed way to never hear from them. I’ve tried looking into which editors are subject-matter appropriate for a given pitch, but my toolset is fairly limited there.

Any tips are greatly appreciated!

Highlights from the Year So Far

This year has not…quite…gone as expected. Remarkable that on March 10th I was writing about constitutionalism without any tip of the hat to the unfolding events. Then again, fixating on an unrelated topic to avoid the matter at hand is a rather predictable tendency of mine. Especially if that unrelated topic involves a lot of reading and writing and arguing.

I’ve been getting that itch to write again, but I’ve just recently completed a rather large writing project and don’t have something else specific I’m working on. So I thought I’d go through some updates here.

Liberal Currents

At the beginning of February we launched a Patreon for Liberal Currents. The immediate goal was simply to get enough to begin paying authors, which we accomplished in the first week. I’ve been blown away by the support we received, especially with the level of support from each individual patron.

By this point last year I had not written a single piece on Liberal Currents, and would not until July. In 2020 I’ve written four so far, two of which I put a significant amount of work into, and the most recent involved more research than I have done for a single piece in many years.

Sometime in February, Jason Briggeman floated the idea of writing a piece about Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation had sparked a series of mass protests that spread and became The Arab Spring (to summarize simplistically). I was a bit unsure about the idea, as I didn’t know what there was to be said about Bouazizi specifically.

The idea was to put up the piece on what would have been Bouazizi’s birthday. I began digging into what was known about him and decided that I ought to use this as an opportunity to try and grow as a writer. I have a tendency to write highly analytical, argument-driven pieces, but I have a great admiration for writers like my friend Dave. Dave filled Sweet Talk with posts that were both beautiful and invited his readers to approach wisdom, without hitting them over the head with it. I have also been reading essays by James Baldwin, for whom the beauty of his prose was also coterminous with the wisdom contained therein. Notably, both of these men are novelists as much as nonfiction writers.

I would not utter my final result in the same sentence as a work produced by either of these talents, but I was quite pleased with it. Of course, by Bouazizi’s birthday, March 29th, everyone had something quite different on their minds than revising the personal story of the man who inadvertently began mass protests back in 2011. All the same, I hope you’ll consider reading it.

My most recent piece is more in line with how I typically write, but producing it was quite an endeavor. As the pandemic steamrolled everything else, I first sat down, in March, to write a hit piece about the conservative media. It was going to be a straight application of my narrative of the conservative media insurgency to those figures in that ecosystem who at that point were claiming that shutdowns were nothing more than a liberal attempt to tank the economy and hurt Donald Trump’s reelection chances. Only as I began to do the research for the piece, the reality did not appear nearly so one-sided. The mainstream and liberal press made many glaring mistakes as well as bad faith maneuvers in the early days of the outbreak.

As my family and I fled to my parents’ home in order to have access to a better hospital situation when our second son was born (as he was, safely and without complication, on April 27th), I tabled the piece. But the question of how the media had performed, and how one would even go about evaluating it, stuck with me. Some individuals who had been sounding the alarm early, like Matt Parlmer and Balaji S. Srinivasan, had blistering critiques of the media’s coverage as a whole. A locked account that I follow pushed back on this category of critiques, saying “I don’t know what people mean when they say the media failed in its coronavirus coverage. I followed the outbreak from the beginning and was only able to do so through the media.” Then there was the blog and social media aspect; a Medium post in early March had gone so wildly viral that it was a subject of conversation at my place of work, with members of my team specifically recommending it to me.

When I began to rethink the piece, Adam Rust and I talked about a collaboration. We would use the media performance during the Spanish Flu as a historical point of reference. He would write about that, and I would write about how the media performed today. So I went and gathered more and more sources, ultimately amassing something like 200 (the exact number is kinda arbitrary to pin down because some were tweets, some were essays, most were articles but some articles I used for constructing a timeline of events rather than for evaluating coverage).

The more I read, the harder a time I had formulating a one-liner version of my evaluation. So once I finished my research, I sat down and simply tried to write something out. The first draft, completed maybe an hour before we went to the hospital for the baby to be born, clocked in at 6,000 words. Rust was kind enough to provide feedback on this draft, but suggested that expanding it by writing an additional section on the Spanish Flu was probably ill-advised. Between his feedback and my father’s (who I probably would have solicited it from regardless given the topic but it was nice to be able to discuss it in person) I shaved the piece down to 5500 words and, more importantly, significantly restructured it.

For such a monster of a piece, it has been among the more successful at Liberal Currents this year. The Neoliberal Project folks liked it so much that they invited me onto their podcast.

I’ve been babbling on about my pieces, but we’ve published ten others so far this year. In addition, our pipeline is as robust as it has ever been—it turns out more people will write for you when you pay them for their work! Liberal Currents has grown in general, in its audience, its social media following, its contributor base, and as mentioned, its revenue. It’s all happening as an unprecedented disaster rocks the world, so it’s easy to lose sight of. But I’m extremely proud of everything we’ve accomplished since we launched three years ago.

The research project

As I mentioned at the outset, my research project is broken up into four reading lists. I made the conscious choice not to share those lists because I planned to be updating them as I went, while keeping them roughly the same length (with the exception of the fourth list, which is more of a place to dump things that would be nice to get to some day).

As an outsider to the fields I am reading up on, my initial lists were self-consciously tentative based on extremely limited knowledge of what I even needed to know. As I read more, and connected directly with more scholars for recommendations, I substituted the books I originally put on the list for better, more relevant, more authoritative texts.

However, at this point I have almost completed the first list, which I had set a (quite conservative) goal of completing by October. It is the only one of the lists I put a deadline on; essentially I wanted this list to give me the bare-bones basics of what I’d need to write the piece I hope to write in November.

It will be a stretch to finish the second list in time, but I think I can realistically get through half of it; hopefully more! Getting to the third list is extremely unlikely, and starting the fourth list by the end of the year is, I think it is safe to say, impossible.

At this point I can share the first list, though:

I can’t even begin to say how much I have learned, compared to how little I knew at the start, and I still know so much less than I need to. As you may have noticed, I began by writing reviews of each to help me absorb them a bit better, as well as some more gut-responses here. I intended to write a joint review of Congress’s Constitution and The Politics of War Powers and still may, but the pandemic intervened; my family left our home temporarily and the books stayed behind. I will undoubtedly write a great deal more and revisit many of these numerous times, but doing it one by one (or even two by two) was simply going to take too long.

I’d love to have the forthcoming Congress Overwhelmed on this list but it looks like the review copy won’t be coming soon enough. Hopefully it’ll make it in time for the second list.

Murderbot

The last few years I’d tried to balance nonfiction reading with novels, but my constitutionalism project has left little room for that this year. After reading The Last Policeman trilogy in December and January—a good series, though it probably could have been a single book rather than a trilogy—I didn’t read any other novels. But then Network Effects, the first full-length novel novel in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, came out, and it seemed an opportune moment to take a break from the research project.

I cannot recommend that series enough. As I mentioned, the latest one is the only novel-length part of the series; the first four are novellas. All Systems Red, the first in the series, can be obtained for two bucks and is a very quick read. If you like science fiction at all, or fun, campy series, (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example), you owe it to yourself to give this one a try. I’d love if it took off and we got a Netflix series out of it.

I can’t imagine I’ll be getting to too many more novels this year unfortunately, with the tight timeline I have for my research project. But it was definitely worth the detour for this particular one.

That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for those of you interested enough in what I’m working on to read through infodumps like this.

Constitutionalism Project: The Concise Version

I’ve written about this within a more personal post, and I’ve written something fairly highbrow theory-wise; this post is meant to be something to point to that’s a little more approachable.

The theory

Institutions are interlocking stages of action. There is no will of Congress or even of the executive branch; there are instead what you might think of as institutional perches upon which individual human being sit, and from which they may take action.

Language allows us to have words like “Congress” which we treat like really existing entities in order to regulate the power relations between individuals, by giving them roles within that entity, which then changes their relations to individuals outside of the entity. Members of Congress have powers available to them that ordinary citizens, who are not members of that institution, do not. The entity (“Congress”) is the stage in which members of Congress can take specific actions, exercising their powers in their institutional role which they cannot do, even though they are the same physical people, when they’re off the clock (or Congress is out of session).

To exercise social power is to be an individual in an institutional context who performs an action that achieves an effect which results from that specific tripartite combination (of individual + action in context).

But institutional context is vast and complex, full of millions of individuals who do not just passively bend to the intended effects of the actions taken on a particular institutional stage. Some of them occupy positions within institutions with quite expansive powers themselves, others are able to make use of much narrower powers in clever ways to undermine the effect of more powerful institutional actors.

The questions

When seeking to understand some specific set of institutions, the question I want to be able to answer intelligently is:

  • Given a specific actor
  • in a specific institutional context
  • taking a specific action
  • what is the likely effect?

But also the equal and opposite:

  • Given a specific actor in a specific institutional context has taken a specific action,
    • what actors
    • in what institutions
    • can nullify the effect of that action,
    • and what action(s) would they have to take in order to do so?

The constitution

In order to answer these questions, I need to have a sense of the overall character of our institutional context. How do the courts work—in practice? What are the role of congressional staffers and committees but also things like the CBO or, in the White House case, the OMB? The approach of taking the character of the institutional whole as your starting point is constitutionalism; this “whole” just is the constitution. It is the constitution as Edmund Burke understood it and it is the constitution as at least some of the Founding Fathers understood it.

However, I do not think that the constitution begins or ends with the traditional three branches. You also need to look at the agencies, and at “street-level bureaucrats” who have to implement under- or poorly-specified policies on the spot. How do prosecutors actually use their discretion? How do private actors—from landlords to corporate executives—interface with the law and lawmaking? How does the law community influence the way law is interpreted, and how do Supreme Court justices’ personal social circles influence the way they behave on the bench? How can municipal lawmakers subvert the influence of the Supreme Court?

All of these are parts of the social, political, and economic system known as our constitution.

My current project is an attempt to outline that constitution as best as I can.