First post back in the States and as a PhD student, this one's been in the drafts for like three months. Plan was to maintain this reading log by dedicating a day a week to keeping up with my subscriptions and trying to cut into the hundreds of tabs of reads I've accumulated since my June exams. Hasn't worked out that way as I've just passed another exam season and those tabs have been keeping my laptop fan busy since.

Historicizing the Southern Border

The most notorious gangs the children are fleeing are the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and the Barrio 18. Luiselli writes that both gangs were actually formed in the United States, in Los Angeles, in the 1980s. MS-13 was started by El Salvadoreans in exile from the violent military governments backed by the Carter and Reagan administrations. A wave of deportations in the 1990s returned some of the gang members to El Salvador, creating what Luiselli calls 'a transnational army'. The history that led to the wave of children arriving at the border is an 'absurd, circular nightmare'. She bristles at a question-and-answer style article in the New York Times, which gives the questions in the voice of someone with obtuse nationalist views. It seems to her 'like something from an openly racist 19th-century magazine or a reactionary anti-immigration serial'.

The trafficking of arms from the United States is rarely discussed as a cause of the violence people are fleeing; the drug war, she argues, is also hemispheric: it 'begins in the Great Lakes of the northern United States and ends in the mountains of Celaque in southern Honduras'. Consumers and producers of prohibited drugs bear responsibility in each country along the route, as do the dysfunctional laws that push the trade into a violent underground. The migrant children, she writes, are more accurately described as refugees of a hemispheric war.

HBO’s “Chernobyl”

Belatedly reading some of the writing commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing is particularly interesting after having just watched HBO's "Chernobyl" miniseries:

Each of the components of our hardware was designed to certain reliability specifications, and by far the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of 0.99996, which means that you have four failures in 100,000 operations. I've been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo flight would have about [1000] separate identifiable failures. In fact, we had more like 150 failures per flight, substantially better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have.

I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that's setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman: 'If anything goes wrong here, it's not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.' And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that's the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off.

It may be superficial to compare these very different implementations of industrial policy, but in my defense, the show brought out the bad takes in everyone. Depending on the viewer, the show is simultaneously a rebuke of the progressive politics democratic socialists want or actually an indictment of Donald Trump .

I learned a lot from the show not knowing much about the event going in, but didn't think it was framed particularly well. To read about it after watching the series, I came away thinking how underemphasized the aftermath of the disaster was. The motivation behind revisiting this particular disaster ostensibly must have been to highlight the political failures belying it which persist today. Also temptingly available, maybe too obviously, is to nod to the mismanagement of modern environmental crises. Regardless, a missed opportunity not to draw from the international failure to responsibly respond to and learn from Chernobyl.

Kate Brown is interested in the aftermath of Chernobyl, not the disaster itself… Her villains include not only the lying, negligent Soviet authorities, but also the Western governments and international agencies that, in her account, have worked for decades to downplay or actually conceal the human and ecological cost of nuclear war, nuclear tests, and nuclear accidents. Rather than attributing Chernobyl to authoritarianism, she points to similarities in the willingness of Soviets and capitalists to sacrifice the health of workers, the public, and the environment to production goals and geopolitical rivalries.

Chernobyl provided an opportunity to gather a vast body of knowledge about the effects of radiation exposure, but politics trumped science. In the 1990s, when studies of Chernobyl should have been in full swing, Americans and Europeans were suing their governments for exposing them to radioactivity through nuclear tests and accidents—hardly a situation in which Western governments would wish to publicize the many harms of long-term exposure… International agencies and diplomats worked to minimize reports of Chernobyl's damage. Despite calls from scientists from many countries, there has never been a large-scale, long-term study of its aftermath. In 2011, when an earthquake caused an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, there was still no firmly established understanding of the effects of chronic exposure to lower levels of radiation, or of the ways in which radioactive fallout continues to circulate years after a disaster.

For example, as with climate change, there was an opportunity here to parallel the extreme inequity of impacts that arose from the Chernobyl disaster and emphasize how man-made institutions and priorities focused them on the least powerful:

Radioactive fallout was distributed far beyond the Exclusion Zone, which was, after all, just a circle on a map. Clouds absorbed radiation and then moved with the wind. Red Army pilots were dispatched to seed clouds with silver iodide so that radioactive rain would fall over provincial Belarus rather than urban Russia. Belarusian villagers fell ill, as did the pilots.

The show of course does emphasize the harms of lax environmental regulation and failures of quality control, but "poor disaster response is hardly unique to authoritarian regimes" even when restricted to the context of Chernobyl:

This misguided thriftiness was not a uniquely Soviet or authoritarian practice. Chernobyl fallout had contaminated much of Europe. When Italy rejected 300,000 tons of radioactive Greek wheat, Greece refused to take it back; the European Economic Community eventually agreed to buy the wheat, which was blended with clean grain and sent to Africa and East Germany in aid shipments.

Marc Maron on cultural constraints of modern comedy

The context is Todd Phillips, who directed him in the movie Joker, lamenting the limitations of comedy writing amid “this woke culture”

There’s plenty of people being funny right now, not only being funny but being really fucking funny. There are still lines to be rode if you want to ride a line, you can still take chances. The only thing that is off the table, culturally at this juncture, and not entirely, is shamelessly punching down for the sheer joy of hurting people, the sheer excitement and laughter that some people get from causing people pain, from making people uncomfortable, from making people feel excluded, that excitement. As I’ve said before, it’s no excuse if you’re too intimated to try and do comedy which is deep or provocative or even controversial without hurting people then you’re not good at what you do or maybe you’re just insensitive.

I believe they don’t think they are hurting people, I believe they think they are just pushing the envelope just to see if they can do it. If you want to quit doing comedy like Todd said he did then fine, just quit, but to sit there and complain that it’s got too difficult then what are you? Are you just not good enough? You can’t rise to the occasion or you can’t figure your way around a new perspective? Maybe it’s time to quit.

Bottom line is, no one is telling you you can’t say things or do things; it’s just going to be received a certain way by certain people and you’re going to have to shoulder that and if you are isolated, or marginalized, or pushed into a corner because of your point of view or what you have to say but you still have a crew of people who enjoy it, then there you go. Those are your people.

Patricia Lockwood’s takedown of John Updike

The best reading experience I’ve had this year. No excerpts, just read it even if, like me, you know nothing about Updike. OK, here’s one excerpt, but note it’s all relentlessly this good:

After Rabbit, Run, the books cease to be interesting primarily for their art but become essential recordings of American life. They continue to be speedily readable – the present tense works on Updike the way boutique transfusions of young blood work on billionaires – and perfectly replicate the experience of eating a hot dog in quasi-wartime on a lush crew-cut lawn that has been invisibly poisoned by industry, while men argue politics in the background and a Nice Ass lurks somewhere on the horizon, like the presence of God.

This type of comedy could not have existed 10 years ago, not because it's benefiting from the wave of progressivism, but because it's unapologetically of its time: there was no historical context yet for capital-N-capital-A Nice Ass to make sense. The literary example I've discussed here before is Sally Rooney's use. Comedy's always been adapt or die, Mr. Phillips who wrote and directed two too many Hangover sequels.

Economics After Neoliberalism

There's not a whole lot here that wasn't freely available on the original online forum . The premise is also too open-ended that with the diversity of perspectives offered, the book lacks an organizing argument or idea that the contributing essays and responses can be said to be replying to. Some responses are too narrow to find interesting. A coherent structure, including a much stronger overview or timeline of the supposed faults of the discipline, would improve the work significantly. Despite its title, there's very little in the way of prescriptions for what a post-neoliberal economics would look like. Overall, Democracy Journal probably executed the same premise better here .

American unionization post-FDR

Dug up sources for two interesting empirical results cited:

"The children of union parents earn more when they grow up, and so do children merely raised in a neighborhood with many union families
— Source: Center for American Progress

“A 2018 study found that right-to-work laws, by impairing union activities, reduce turnout in Presidential elections by two percentage points."
— Source: A recently revised NBER working paper

Stratified randomization

Don’t really have anything original or insightful to say on the laureates and their work. The post-Nobel discourse on Twitter, the news media, and the peripheral blogosphere though was pretty repulsive. At its worst, it featured some mean-spirited punching down and tone-policing from firmly established economists against their less well-placed counterparts or critics from developing countries. Some of the former lamented the inaccessibility of a subfield increasingly dominated by expensive field projects. The latter took issue with the unchecked exercises of power and disregarded history of flagrant abuse implicitly being celebrated by the award.

From the language of the randomistas, you’d think RCTs were facing an existential threat and not occupying up to half of all work published in top development journals. Apparently, being awarded academia’s biggest rubber stamp is exactly the wrong time to interrogate its dangers. Sure, there was some disregard by critics of the value of some landmark experiments and some of it was pretty stupid, but overall it was a particularly egregious demonstration of institutional academia’s tendencies towards self-preservation and to restrict discussion among themselves.

I've become quite familiar with how academia works over the last few years, probably better than most graduate students at this stage of their careers. It makes the stomach turn to think of the academic incentive system, rife as it is with systematic biases of representation, determining how those with power come to 'create knowledge' about those without, often without an interest in their well-being. It should not be a radical opinion that well-resourced Western academics may need checks on their career-dependent conduct which affects poor people to whom they are essentially entirely unaccountable.

The self-reflection that is permitted is typically resolved by an expressed desire for more developing-country voices in elite academia. It’s an easy aspiration to agree with, almost to the point of being self-evident. So it’s weird what people say when they do make explicit why this is desirable or what better representation would entail.

To hear economists explain it, underrepresentation is primarily lamentable because of the absence of ‘local knowledge ’. Bringing in people actually from the developing world would allow us to refine the extant search for answers to the same questions. Maybe there’s some neat policy quirk they know of that can aid in identification. Or maybe they have connections that can make new data available. Essentially, representation would be so useful and in particular, useful for continuing what we’re already doing but better, a Pareto improvement! Beyond that, I’m sure “the moral conviction that we should seek to do the most good we can for the most people" is a sufficiently well-defined guiding light. What, would you rather follow the path paved with bad intentions?

Focusing on the instrumental value of ’the locals’ requires no acknowledgement or criticism of how we’ve been doing things. If anything, the participation of people who look different but who otherwise mostly do the same would only further justify the status quo. And so, the ’local value’ frame is self-exonerating on top of being useful.

Why this frame is problematic should be immediately obvouis but to spell out another reason, it implies area familiarity as a requisite justification for inclusion of ’the locals’. Then, local knowledge being their reason for being here, locals should restrict themselves to studying their home country as it’s their comparative advantage. Westerners are allowed to not know things and to study settings they are unfamiliar with. It follows mechanically from Ricardo.

Examples abound of academic thought leaders who exercised the power of academia to further marginalize the excluded. This was not the result of absent local knowledge nor is it a relic of a backwards past that academia's since evolved from. Pessimism about the caution and humility of academics in the absence of substantive and not just descriptive representation is the only reasonable response. These concerns are not only ignored but actively suppressed by those with the most power inclined to determine among themselves who is wronging whom. They are sore winners.