Neither the Beginning Nor the End

Art by medli20

The pandemic did not truly begin in 2020; it began sometime in November and December of 2019. When the clock strikes midnight tonight and digital calendars tick over from December 31, 2020 to January 1, 2021, we will still be in the middle of by far the largest wave of COVID-19 spread in the US since it reached our shores. In December alone, over 70,000 people have died of this disease. In November we had just over 37,000, in October we had just under 24,000. Over and over again we have learned how quickly things can blow up, and yet we never did really learn this. I doubt that people will begin acting as though they have learned this on January 1, 2021 any more than they have the past three months, to say nothing of the past ten.

I am angry, in case that is not obvious. I’m angry at the complete failure of our leadership and at the people for whom nearly 350,000 bodies and many more sick is not enough evidence that this is serious. But I am also angry at the many, many, many people who talk the talk and yet in their own lives continued to see people outside of their household and travel as though it were just any other year.

This anger held me back from writing a typical year in review post, because true anger is no basis for writing. A good polemic is a wonderful thing, but it is a style, a genre, to be written with an eye to the craft of it. It may tap into a genuine anger on some level, but it does not need to; at any rate writing in anger is about as advisable as texting in anger, or calling in anger, or leaving a voicemail in anger. It always pays to cool off and consider what you want to say, rather than merely lashing out at the nearest target.

Anger has carried me away from my opening point, which was that 2020 is simply a number, a number which contains neither the entire history of the significant events which occurred in its 366 days, nor their endings. But we break time into numbers for the same reason we break anything into numbers; to make it more manageable, and as a byproduct we end up giving ourselves occasion to reflect and look back. I think the kinds of things that we experienced this year are precisely what we need to take a good, long look at rather than moving on.

My anger, like most anger, contains within it a core of guilt. I acted like a fool at the beginning of the pandemic. Even as I wised up, I put people at risk, people I love. I know this and am wary of the knowledge.

In January and February I was essentially oblivious. Catherine was coming to the end of the second trimester of her pregnancy with our second son. I was in the midst of launching the key project that I manage at the job which I had only started the previous June. I was aware of news items about the coronavirus like something in the corner of my eye; in as much as I had thoughts about it, I thought it was something like SARS or the 2013 Ebola outbreak, neither of which resulted in community spread in America and neither of which resulted in many deaths, all told.

Like many Americans, March was a month where the sense of danger seemed to increase rapidly from one day to the next. I flew to Chicago on March 2nd for work. The day that I was to fly—mere hours—I was informed that the most senior person who was meant to be at that meeting had cancelled her flight from Germany because of concerns over the coronavirus. I wavered on whether I should do the same, but decided to simply be diligent in washing my hands during the trip. I did not wear a mask, I did not even consider the possibility. Everyone else came as well. We all made jokes about it the entire time, but there was a distinctly uncomfortable air to these jokes. At one point, during the two or three days we all sat in a small conference room together, someone sneezed and the person sitting next to her practically jumped out of his skin.

The week after that things moved very rapidly. Catherine had an appointment with her OB that Monday, and she asked her whether she ought to switch to working from home. Catherine said “there just aren’t many cases in New York yet,” and her OB, a woman whose default is to tell people not to worry about the many things pregnant women and their spouses worry about, said “stay home if you can. There are many, many more cases than they have been able to document yet.” That marked the moment that we really began to realize we needed to be really taking this thing seriously. Each of us began working from home.

Days later Catherine learned, through a webinar for pregnant women, that major New York City hospitals were considering banning mothers from bringing anyone with them, even partners. We wavered on what to do for what subjectively felt like an eternity but I believe was really only a day. Ultimately we packed up and drove down to northern Virginia, to stay with my parents.

Which meant that we put them at risk. Potentially, we put Virginia and DC at risk by going from New York to the DC metropolitan area, especially after I had so recently flown to and from Chicago. Once there we did not go out except for walks in the quiet suburban streets where my parents live, at a great distance from anyone else. But of course, even then, we were putting my parents at risk. Very shortly after we arrived, I was contacted by a member of my team at work because she had come down with COVID. Ultimately, her husband and young son caught it too, and all three of them experienced severe symptoms, though thankfully they did not require hospitalization.

It was plain, dumb luck that I did not catch it, and give it to my parents and wife and son and brother. Or that Catherine didn’t give it to us, all those weeks we were both commuting by subway and going into enclosed office spaces.

As we worked and my parents babysat Elliot, I began to fixate on the question of how I had failed so thoroughly to see the situation unfolding in front of us. I followed several people who had been sounding the alarm early. Angry with the COVID skepticism that was already being pumped up by the Trumpist wing of the conservative ecosystem, I began to write a hit piece about conservative media’s role in all of this. As I performed the research to back it up, and tested the thesis against several people whose judgment I trusted, however, I quickly abandoned the idea in favor of a broader survey of how the media in general had performed the first three months of the year.

I worked very hard on that research, constructing a timeline of events into which I put links and summaries of news coverage and social media posts. I thought very hard about how to judge something like media performance, and I am proud of the result. Intellectually, and as a writer, I do think that I grew, this year. That is something that is important to me, though perhaps not so very important in the scheme of my obligations and of everything that has gone down this year. But it is important to me. And it is something that I had, for myself.

Max came to us quite quickly, especially compared to his brother. The policy of INOVA Fairfax on that day, April 27th, was to allow mothers one guest, who could stay the whole time but not leave and come back. They also required the mother to take a COVID test before being allowed back into the labor and delivery area. Poor Catherine received one of those early, brain-tickler tests, and said it compared unfavorably with the contractions. Getting someone to administer the test, and then the results, took perhaps two hours (though it felt longer). Though they weren’t saying that labor was imminent, the body language of the nurses all but screamed “this baby is coming any minute!” to me. It was, indeed, very shortly after her negative result came back that Max made his appearance in a dramatic fashion.

Max was our little miracle in the midst of everything. And Elliot has been a wonderful brother. One cannot fault a three-year-old if they are jealous of their parents’ attention when there is suddenly a new member of the household, but he has adored his brother from the start. The biggest problem we had with Elliot was the difficulty he had understanding how fragile babies are; he wanted to hug and grab and play with his little brother right from the start.

We returned to New York two weeks after Max was born. We had stayed with my parents for two months, following the news from New York very closely the entire time. I was terrified to return, but it turned out that New York would be the safest place in the country for the rest of the year.

And of course, all told, we spent much more time with the baby and with Elliot than we would have. That came with all the pain and frustrations and challenges of parenting a three year old, especially as we traded off who would spend time with him and who focus on work, an arrangement that looks much better on paper than in practice, and it doesn’t look great on paper. But of course it comes with untold joys, impossible to tell apart from the frustration in a manner inexplicable to those who have not lived it. As Elliot becomes more independent, he also becomes more anxious to tell us so. He asserts himself in numerous ways, many of them quite small but accumulating, others quite bold and confrontational. It’s incredible but also rather inconvenient, it’s frustrating and heartwarming and heartbreaking. It’s life; his, ours, his rapidly growing brother’s, all bundled together in a great big mess.

That would have been true any year. But we were much more on top of one another this year than we would have been. And in many ways that has been wonderful. Hard, but wonderful.

There is in some ways too much and too little to recount from this point in the story on. Too much, between the crisis that swept the nation and the way our sick political culture twisted this crisis to fit into its pathetic, petty games and narratives, the way the most unfit president in our history, and his followers, have hammered relentlessly on our already battered political institutions. And too little, in that there is little remarkable in the details of how we coped. We were lucky; we had jobs, jobs which we could do from home, jobs which gave us a measure of parental leave after Max was born. We had off again, on again daycare and then Pre-K for Elliot. We haven’t had to face unemployment, or front line work that put us at risk, or the true isolation of those who live alone. It has been hard, but we have also been keenly aware that there are many others for whom it has been immeasurably harder.

I do not count myself as having a particularly naive or idealistic notion of the caliber of our leadership, but even so this year has been truly dispiriting. I was frankly open to forgiving the many failings in March and April; it’s not shocking that officials, who are only human beings after all, were caught flat footed when faced with something they had never known before. But when it came time for public schools to open here in New York, it was clear they had spent the months since the first wave doing absolutely nothing to logistically prepare for this. And when the positivity rate began its inexorable ascent, the mayor essentially admitted that he had no plan for this entirely predictable state of affairs; plan A was for schools to stay open if positivity was low, and there was no plan B. Nor was our city alone in this predicament. And of course now we’re all seeing that just about as much planning has gone into the distribution of the vaccine. The global scientific community has performed wonders this year, but our governors have failed to govern and our leaders have lacked even a glimmer of leadership.

These fine figures will remain with us in 2021. It is true that we will throw out Trump, after a few more weeks of caterwauling on his part and toadying by the Republican members of Congress. That is not nothing. But Biden is very much a product of our leadership class; he is perhaps the canonical product of it. If that is a drastic improvement from Donald Trump, it is still not much comfort after a year of witnessing the measure of this class’s abilities.

I am finishing this an hour and a half before we bid farewell to 2020. Tomorrow we throw out its calendars, we will soon stop catching ourselves putting the wrong year when write down the current date.

Nothing more meaningful than that will have ended, save for an as yet undetermined number of American lives which perished on December 31, 2020.

Words, Words, Words

I began to write a typical end of the year post, only because this was hardly a typical year (even discounting our family growing!) I did not much enjoy what I was writing. What I really wanted to do was just a fun post about what I’ve read and written and what we’ve done at Liberal Currents and such. I’ll likely write that other, heavier post, too. Another time.

The project

As of this writing, I have read 57 books in 2020. I’ll likely finish another, Joseph Heath’s The Machinery of Government, before the year is done. That book, like so many I read this year, are part of my constitutionalism project. The output of this project has been a rather openly moving target, but I have had a paper in the works for a couple of months now. The first draft is done, but I did some further research in order to tighten it up, and I have been procrastinating putting in the actual work revising it. I’m hoping to sit down and do it sometime over the holidays.

What I have ended up making this paper about, perhaps unsurprisingly given it was the motivating interest all along, is the nature of law as it is actually practiced. The paper is divided into a section fleshing out the basic framework, and then the rest of it is dedicated to the application: the Voting Rights Act, how it was passed, how it was implemented, what role the courts have played in that implementation. In my original formulation of the institutional question, I broke it down as follows:

  • What actors
  • under what circumstances
  • performing what actions
  • achieve what effects

With the follow-up question:

  • What the likely effect would be if no other actor made an attempt at nullification
  • What actions from what actors could potentially nullify the effect of the action
  • What actions from what actors would strengthen or complement the effect of the action

I later revised this to be:

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

With the new followup:

  • 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?

Once I began the work of formulating this to actually use it in an analysis of the VRA, I changed it yet again, to a more sweeping set of questions:

  • Who are the actors?
  • What actions did they take, and what actions could they have taken?
  • What social or institutional tools were used to take these actions? What tools could have been used instead?
  • What intersubjective effects did their actions have, with what scope?
  • How much uncertainty was there about the effects of the actions at the outset?

I think the nature of the conceptual problems I’m wrestling with should be easier to see by looking at how I have changed this over time. Hopefully it will be clear for those reading the paper as well, in both the theoretical background provided and the practical application.

The circle I tend to run in is this: “a government of laws rather than of men” seems, on its face, impossible, since it is in fact men who write, enact, and adjudicate law. The caricature version of legal realism is that the law is whatever a judge in a particular case says it is, but this is precisely where things begin to unravel: why does what that judge say matters? Isn’t it because we endow judges with certain authority by law?

I’ve wrestled with this quite a lot over the past year, and read a fair amount of books—starting around October of last year—and am happy with how far I have traveled in so short a time. There, of course, continues to be a vast amount that I do not know. I have only begun to scratch the surface of the biggest gorilla in law, the executive branch. Judges and legislatures occupy an enormous amount of the discussion about government and law, but its day to day character is determined by the permanent bureaucracy more than anything else. The success of the VRA, for example, had much to do with the character of the Civil Rights Division in the DOJ, where they had been tangling with the Jim Crow states for over a decade and across multiple Civil Rights acts before the VRA came along and gave them new weapons to use at a moment the courts were also sympathetic to their cause. But here we see where the legislature and the courts do matter, and of course ultimately it was the Roberts Court that dismantled the main instruments provided by the VRA in Shelby v Holder.

Projects of this kind are always something of an adventure; when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s quite hard to predict how exactly the path is going to unfold ahead of you. At the outset I did not think I would bother with the Electoral College, which seemed a relatively small concern given all the other features of our complex system of government, and given how hard it is to amend the Constitution. But I received a review copy of Alexander Keyssar’s Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? and I took it as an opportunity to read his previous work, The Right to Vote. Both are excellent, excellent books, just very high caliber scholarship and historical imagination. And I realized, to my great embarrassment, that I had not even really understood the Electoral College before I read Keyssar’s new book. I thought that the least I could do for our readers was to use my review as an occasion to provide the most boiled down, nuts and bolts explanation of this possible, so that even if they do not read Keyssar’s book (which they should, in fact you should read both) they would come away with a better understanding of how our system works.

I found this approach suited me, so I did it again for Alex Hertel-Fernandez’s State Capture, which primarily discussed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) but also talked about the State Policy Network (SPN) and Americans for Prosperity (AFP). Books like Keyssar’s and Hertel-Fernandez’s discuss all the characteristics of their subject matter from various angles, so in my review I try to bring that all together to give a single, comprehensive description. I was once again satisfied with the results, and in both cases the exercise of writing the review helped me grasp the subject matter much more strongly myself.

These nuts and bolts exercises really are the bread and butter of this project. Part of what’s slowed me down with the paper is I’m attempting to describe, in nuts and bolts, something orders of magnitude more complex than what I described in those book reviews. The Electoral College, while a Rube Goldbergian nightmare, is at the end of the day a single decision procedure. ALEC is a novel but niche interest group. The story of the VRA involves the conditions under which a bill may become a statute, the specific actions taken by the DOJ lawyers, the methods by which state officials attempted to defang it, the role of suits brought by activists and state AGs, court decisions, multiple Congressional renewal fights, and so on. A nuts and bolts explanation of why the VRA succeeded in actually crushing Jim Crow where all previous attempts had utterly failed must touch on basically every aspect of the American system of government, federal and local. It’s very hard!

Complaining aside, it’s been tremendously rewarding. And somewhat unexpectedly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, it has helped me to think much more clearly about liberalism. The discipline of thinking through the details as carefully as I can has helped even in more theoretical matters, such as my discussion of the various distinctions that get unhelpfully lumped under the heading of “free speech.” It also paid off in my investigation of how our media ecosystem performed in the first few months of the pandemic.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the role of unelected judges and judicial review in a democracy, and ended up confident enough in my views to write on the matter. I have a draft of a piece about liberal democracy as a whole, which I intend to publish after Biden is inaugurated, that further develops a thread I introduce in the piece on judges; the idea that governance is done by professionals, and that professional politician is therefore not a pejorative and we ought to better support our elected officials with large staffs and other resources to do their jobs properly. ALEC can only exist at all because state legislatures are chronically underfunded, and so it can offer staff and researchers and pre-written bills to its members.

I have read a lot of books in this project, as I mentioned. Here are some that I would recommend to anyone curious about these kinds of questions:

I did some comparative reading, though not as much as I’d like. Patterns of Democracy is a big survey; I also read a bit about the German and the Israeli systems. I intend to read about the French one, one of the few proportional parliamentary systems with an elected president. As far as I am concerned, this project has only just begun. I will hopefully make some progress on the paper over the next few weeks, and finish Heath’s book, and press on.

A new love

When I started reading the Library of America collection of James Baldwin essays in January, I did not expect to fall in love. I had read “The White Man’s Guilt” not even a year before, and it was like a lightning bolt. He unearthed something so clearly, and in such beautiful prose, which I had long felt. Rather than feeling attacked or criticized, I felt understood. It was, perhaps surprisingly, a pleasant feeling. I wanted to return to the well. I also simply wanted to read good writing. My plan was to pick up the massive tome—which includes five other previously published collections in full, such as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, along with another few hundred pages of essays beyond that—and put it down, and pick it up again, over the course of the year.

Perhaps it was everything that happened this year. Perhaps it was simply that I fell so completely for Baldwin’s writing. But as the year went on, I simply devoured the book. I finished it, and went on to novels; I read If Beale Street Could Talk, and went right on to Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and Go Tell it On the Mountain, and Giovanni’s Room, and I recently finished a short story collection. I have a couple more books by him I intend to get to before I start reading about him; there’s no shortage of biographies on the market at the moment.

His writing is very beautiful, but more importantly, it is very bold. He makes me feel like a terrible coward by comparison. But I feel admiration rather than envy. I feel, through the autobiographical nature of his writing (both fiction and nonfiction), that I have come to know him in a way. I ache with the desire to have a conversation with him. Since I cannot, I continue to read.

I have tried to take the craft of writing a little more seriously. When Jason suggested writing something about Mohamed Bouazizi for what would have been his birthday, I decided I would try to think about it as a piece of writing rather than as a simple analysis. While my project helped me think things through even here—Bouazizi’s self-immolation led to a national democratic revolution but changed nothing about the municipal problems that drove him to his death—it was really James Baldwin who was my primary inspiration in writing the piece, even though I won’t pretend it is either in a similar style or within screaming distance of his caliber.

“Discovering” Baldwin has been a real pleasure, a relief from the difficulties of this particular year.

Liberal Currents

We launched a Patreon for Liberal Currents about a month before everything went to hell. We have had quite the year as a result. I turns out that if you offer to pay people, many will come out of the woodwork to pitch you! And I’m quite pleased with the range of work we have published. Over 66 in total, so I certainly won’t link to them all! Here’s a sampling:

I apologize to those who I did not mention here; there are too many good ones to choose from! I’m very excited by how well things have gone for Liberal Currents. Right now, other than our budget for authors, our chief constraint is editorial capacity. While we’re now a paying publication, our editorial side is still an entirely volunteer effort. This was a particularly difficult year for all of us to find the time for it. I want to give a special shout out to Adrian Rutt who did a tremendous amount of editing this year. Without him, Paul, and Jason, Liberal Currents would simply not be possible. I’m grateful to them all.

If you like anything I’ve linked to above I hope you’ll consider supporting us yourself! Or, if you are a writer, reaching out to pitch us a piece! You can do so at writers at liberalcurrents dot com.

Novels

It wasn’t all political science and James Baldwin and liberalism for me this year, reading wise. Martha Wells kindly saw fit to publish the first full novel (as opposed to novella) in her Murderbot Diaries series this year, and I ate it up. If you have not read this series, please get yourself a copy of All Systems Red yesterday; it is a delight to read. I’ve pre-ordered the next book in the series, but missed Wells’ storytelling so much that I went and read all of an earlier, fantasy series of hers, which consumed me for a while. Wells has such a skill for surprising you with an incredibly imaginative world that is slowly revealed through the lens of very enjoyable characters.

I also read Alex White’s Salvagers series and enjoyed it tremendously. A really rollicking fun ride. I listened to White’s podcast novel, The Gearheart, back when I listened to podcast novels. His writing has improved by leaps and bounds since then, but I can see how he got here from there. I stumbled upon Every Mountain Made Low shortly after, and enjoyed it as well; it appears to be a one-shot but that’s fine, not everything has to be a series.

I read Arkady Markine’s A Memory Called Empire and immediately pre-ordered to next book. One of many things I enjoyed about this book is that the space empire is a decadent poetry and literature obsessed civilization, rather than an ice cold, progressive technocracy. More historically accurate!

At the prompting of friends, I started Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty with the first book, The Grace of Kings. It’s quite a tour de force. A very sophisticated book with a lot of attractive characters, cut more closely from history than I had realized while reading it. I plan to read the next one after Baldwin’s Another Country.

That’s more or less what I wanted to talk about in this post. There’s a lot I decided I did not want to talk about, as I mentioned.

Next time, perhaps.

As I wrote this, my wife informed me that the mother and brother of a close friends of hers, a nurse and a resident doctor respectively, have received the vaccine. The end of the year is upon, and maybe the end of the pandemic is closer than I feel, at this moment, it possibly can be.

But I’ll leave it at that, for now.

Applying the Foundation

It’s been almost four months since my last project update.

I use these updates to think out loud, to act as a sort of public record mainly for myself, as well as to solicit advice and gauge interest. From the start I’ve said that the primary goal of this project was “to build a basic foundation” of knowledge that could be applied opportunistically to a variety of different things, so zigs and zags were part of the plan from the get go. Still I feel a bit embarrassed reading my previous update and seeing that the paper I’ve worked on bears very little resemblance to the planned paper described there.

On the other hand, I do have a viable draft of a paper which applies what I have learned. It’s rough, but just getting a first draft is always the hardest part.

Last week in particular ended up being very productive on the writing front. I wrapped up the first draft of the aforementioned paper, and I also knocked out a piece for Liberal Currents.

I have had a laundry list of structural reforms I think are a good idea for months now. I’ve tinkered with it along the way but I more or less have a package, as alluded to in my last update. The problem is that turning this into a written piece that is anything but polisci daydreaming verging on utopianism (Sam Hammond described the precise genre of writing as being “very LARPy”). The more I read, the more I also feel that the specific reforms aren’t the most important thing. There’s systemic effects I want to aim for, but the potential range of reforms that could pull it off is vast. In the American case, operating under the assumption that the Senate is impossible to abolish (because it would require unanimous ratification from the states) and Americans are too wedded to their history to consider anything but a presidential system, I would want:

  • The House of Representatives to have primacy over the president, the Senate, and the courts, but also to have institutional competence at writing good law.
  • The Senate to serve purely as a quality filter against bills coming out of the House responding to very short term political calculations, but a filter that the House could unilaterally override with enough support.
  • The President is elected by truly majoritarian means (no Electoral College) but is also more or less removed from the legislative process, and the House has accountability mechanisms with real teeth.
  • The Courts are independent but when their decisions run strongly counter to the elected branches, Congress has the energy and competence to simply update statutes (in response to court interpretations of statutes) or the Constitution (in the case of judicial review).

This last one I struggled with a great deal. In many ways the original motivating questions that instigated this project centered around what, exactly, the role of the judiciary should be, as well as constitutional law in general. When one takes seriously the sheer sloppiness and inconsistency of human institutions—before one even begins to add bad faith and cynical actions into the mix—it becomes easy to question the very idea of rule of law. I did not want to shrink from asking hard questions about rule of law, but also worried about the consequences of throwing out the idea entirely, if that’s where I ended up after further inquiry.

Both the paper and the article address this gnawing dread of mine, in I think a productive way.

The paper is one part theory and one part application. The theory is the one thing that has remained fairly consistent, though I keep refining it bit by bit, and the paper is by far the best version yet. The questions, which I have formulated in a couple of different ways, are now:

  • Who are the actors?
  • What actions did they take, and what actions could they have taken?
  • What social or institutional tools were used to take these actions? What tools could have been used instead?
  • What intersubjective effects did their actions have, with what scope?
  • How much uncertainty was there about the effects of the actions at the outset?

I also flesh out three theoretical types of actors; with the stand-up comedian and the judge standing at opposite ends of a spectrum of institutionalized action, and the entrepreneur taking elements of both to become a distinct type of its own.

All of that was quite easy to write at this point, though I scrutinized it quite closely and invited (and received) criticism of it which helped substantially. But my original application section was a non-starter. I wanted to apply it to Congress as an institution; fleshing out its operation, showing how certain types of congressional action fall into one of the three types of actors I formulated, and so forth. Then moving forward to a discussion of reform. I attempted this section many times but ultimately threw it out.

Instead, I returned to law. I decided to look at law as it operates in practice, but not through one institution but across the (small-c) constitutional system. I picked the Voting Rights Act, because it is a subject of particular fascination for me. James Baldwin expressed skepticism about the success of the Johnson Administration’s civil rights statutes because, as he put it, there was a whole amendment (the 15th) already. What difference could a statute make? This was mere months before VRA passed. It’s a good question!

So the application section of my paper begins with the 15th amendment and a brief history of its enforcement or lack thereof. I dive into some of the conditions that made VRA possible, as well as some of the individuals who had an outsized influence on creating those conditions. Throughout I walk through the institutional mechanics of how these things are passed and how enforcement is empowered and used.

As I said, the draft is rough. I need to tighten the application section more, and stitch the theoretical framework in more seamlessly throughout. But I’m quite pleased with where I am.

The Liberal Currents article is ostensibly about the judiciary but is really about the role of independent institutions within a democratic order, and more indirectly about the role of democratic mechanisms in the first place. Coming out against elected judges, for judicial review, and for an easier amendment process so that the elected branches can respond to judicial decisions by simply updating legal (including constitutional) texts, is not all that conceptually pathbreaking. That last one is perhaps novel to many, as it was to me when Adam Rust first put it to me that way on statutory law. But what really focused it for me was something that appears a bit secondary in the piece:

In terms of elected officials, then, our goal should be to foster strong formal party organizations made up of professional politicians who seek to enact good laws and govern well. “Good” and “well” are not neutral, technocratic terms, but—whatever the specific values and visions inform them—they do require administrative and technocratic competence to execute. Professional politicians do not have those competences personally, and we should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, but they can have access to those competences in the form of well-resourced staff for their office, committees, and branch—like the old Office of Technology Assessment in Congress. Yet even if the typical professional politician lacks the administrative and technocratic competence to execute good laws and govern well, this is even more the case for the typical voter, who has no staff at all. This is why ballot initiatives and similar tools are a bad idea, and the legislative and constitutional history of states like California testifies to this fact.

The role of professional politicians is to be the point of accountability for citizens. They do not need to be mirrors for the preferences of citizens; indeed I would argue they should not be, and that selling good ideas to a potentially skeptical public is an important duty. But under a regime of effectively universal enfranchisement—that is, universal enfranchisement without voter suppression tactics—elections exist to ensure that professional politicians must take the interests and values of citizens into account. If this electoral mechanism is somehow weakened, as in the case of the six year Senator terms, or the franchise is restricted, then segments of the population will be left with few tools to stop the government from steamrolling their interests and their values.

There’s a tension between lifetime appointed judges and democratically elected representatives, on the one hand, but also between democratically elected representatives and directly democratic ballot initiatives, on the other. I want to weaken the formal power of the first, empower the second, and do away with the third entirely. But from the standpoint of either independence or democracy that seems a tall order. Isn’t this a case where one need to pick one or the other in some sense?

I don’t think so. I think that elections are an accountability mechanism, not a governance tool. To govern well, we need professional politicians with large, well paid staffs who can expect to have a career providing their expertise to politicians from within the institutions those politicians are elected to. Politicians are not subject matter experts on everything governance must touch upon; most are not subject matter experts in any of them. Their main skill is coalition building, both among the electorate and among other professional politicians.

The average voter is neither a subject matter expert nor do they have access to well paid staffs that are. They should not, therefore, be writing statutes or (heaven forbid, as in the California case) constitutional amendments, nor choosing them directly. They should have the means to punish politicians that allow the government (the machinery of which extends tremendously beyond those operated directly by politicians) to steamroll their interests and their values, and to reward those who they feel have properly looked after them. It’s up to politicians, and their staff, to square the value pluralism of the electorate with good governance and good law.

There’s a nascent theory of when to be more or less independent of electoral mechanisms in the piece, but of course there’s only so much ground I can cover in ~1800 words. Nevertheless, between the paper and the piece, I’m feeling much more comfortable with my sense of what rule of law means in practice, and what job it is we ought to be expecting judges to do.

On the horizon is a review of Reorganizing Government, a phenomenal book that was practically designed for a project like mine. I am also in the middle of State Capture, which I intend to review as well. The latter covers the mechanics of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in some detail, something I had been looking for as a good angle on interest group politics in practice. After State Capture I will move on to Joseph Heath’s new book on the place of the administrative state within a liberal democracy.

Right now I’m becoming increasingly comfortable applying the foundation of knowledge I have built to pieces with fairly focused topics, as I continue to invest in that foundation further. The biggest failure mode I encounter in writing is when I attempt to go off into laundry-list (“LARPy”) wonk land. It is much better to get at the heart of the matter and discuss a few good options rather than attempt to cover everything, and in doing so, convey nothing. What pleased me about the recent Liberal Currents article is that I managed to gesture at a number of things (like proportional voting) but keep it in the realm of passing comments without getting bogged down. This is the line I will need to get better at walking.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I hope you all are surviving 2020 as well as you can.

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.