14 January, 2018

Modern Universities Are An Exercise in Insanity

Chronicle Review Illustration by Scott Seymour (Source)

Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, wrote a true but trollish column for the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. He titled the piece "Higher Education is Drowning in BS."

His list of collegiate "BS" is correct. It's also predictable. One does not need to read the article to know exactly what it will argue. This is i2018. We have not only seen dozens of articles and journalistic accounts of the crisis Smith describes; entire books have been published to chronicle the sins of modern university life. The university system still has its defenders, but they are few and far between. Most folks who look at the state of American universities recognize that the system is broken. Few offer ideas on how to fix it. This conversation would improve greatly if less folks wrote long lists of their complaints about universities and more folks wrote long lists of ideas on how to improve them.

Smith says that  reform will require "visionary traditionalism and organizational radicalism." I agree with the sentiment. In that vein, let me offer a truly radical solution: take universities out of the liberal arts business all together. 

Let me be clear here:  I believe the humanities are essential. Essential to our civilization, even. No objections from me: the liberal arts are important. But not important enough to sell yourself into debt-slavery for. The liberal arts cannot be "saved,"  this "crisis of the humanities" cannot be resolved, as long as the cost of studying them requires mortgaging your future away. This is the issue all the other problems with humanities education revolves around. For most students, the gains of a liberal education cannot justify their costs. 

The cruel thing is these costs are not even necessary. 

Let's run the numbers so you can see what I mean. 

My alma mater was Brigham Young University-Hawaii. If you are a member of the LDS church attending the school, then in 2017 your tuition was $3,000 a semester. If you are not a member, it was $5,000 for one semester. The school has a special program where you can graduate in three years by taking three semesters each year, and that costs $8,000 and $16,000 a year for LDS and non-member students respectively.

You can see why I chose it.

To compare to another small private religious university, here is what tuition cost for students at St. Aquinas College for the two semesters they studied there in 2017: $29,000.

St. Aquinas brags that their students "obtain a private college education at an affordable price." Their costs are comparable to the evangelical Patrick Henry College, where tuition comes in at $28,000 for two semesters. This is much cheaper than religiously named, but no longer spiritually visioned, Trinity College. Tuition there is $53,000 a year.

Do the math here:

48,000 dollars are needed for non-members to graduate from BYU Hawaii ($24,000 for a member), $114,000 are needed to graduate from the cost-conscious religious schools, and $212,000 dollars are necessary to attend four years at the non-religious liberal arts school.

This is without including rent, food, or other charges of that sort.

There are a few questions that come to me as I review these numbers.

First, how is this possible? How can you possibly justify a $200,000+ college expense? How can you justify a $100,000+ college expense?

This is not necessary.

The average tenure track professor makes $40 an hour. If you were to employ her as a private tutor at the cost of $60 an hour, and had four hours with her a week, and did that for 14 weeks (that's the length of an average college course folks) that is about $3,400.

Were you to employ three such professor-tutors, that would be about $10,200, or a bit over $20,000 a year. In four years you would have racked up $80,000 in costs. But this is still $30,000 less than the total for the 'cost conscious' universities. It is a quarter of what you would pay for Trinity.

Remember: this $80,000 is for private tutoring, where individual attention would give you far and away a better and more thorough education than the 300-kids-in-a-lecture-hall style of classes that dominate undergraduate education today.

But it can get even cheaper. Let's say you take the general principle of group classes from the university. Say you can find four other people to take all of these other classes with you. Just four. Well that equals out to $680 per class, or $16,000 a person for four years of classes.

To be fair, add in $1,000-$2,000 for textbooks and a subscription to JSTOR, for a total of about 17,000 to 18,000 for four years.

Modern universities are insane.

For the vast majority of human history universities as we conceive of them did not exist. The modern university system did not produce the Mahabharata, The Aneaid, or The Tale of Genji. The modern university system did not produce Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Aquineas, or Alexis de Tocqueville. The universities John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison attended looked or functioned very little like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton do today. Men like Abraham Lincoln are evidence that a deep reading and appreciation for the liberal arts do not require formal education at all. 

Let's not kid ourselves: the humanities existed before the modern university department was conceived; they will exist long after the modern university department has been destroyed. 

I would like to see something along the lines of a "liberal education" preserved. But do the math. The important elements—the students, the books, the teachers—can be provided for at under $20,000 a year, and that is with paying the teachers $20 more an hour than they are currently earning. Any attempt to reform the current university system must take this fact as its foundation. 

I know where the objections to this logic will come. University education is really about signaling; universities provide lots of other goods you cannot get from being privately tutored, and so on and so forth. Fine. Those objections are all correct. But are any of those goods worth $180,000 more than the $18,000 education I have outline above? 

A liberal education could be affordable, if we wanted it to be.  But we don't much care, and are now reaping the consequences.

[EDIT 15 January 2018: Fixed a few grammar mistakes and a minor mathematical error].

01 January, 2018

Every Book I Read in 2017

Image Source
It is New Year's Day, and thus time for my annual list of every book I read in the preceding year. By listing a book as "read" it means I finished the last page of the book sometime in 2017, though some of these books I actually began before the year startedin the case of one book (the Menon "modern rendering" of the Mahabharata) I started all the way back in 2015!

As in past lists, I have bolded and provided a link to the Amazon page of the top ten books of the year. As before, only books that I have never read before can qualify for this distinction.

 I usually aim to read three or four books on a theme or topic at one time, and you can see that in the titles below (which reads more or less chronologically, listing books by the date I finish, not first start them). Early in the year there is a cluster of American history books that corresponded with a class in American history I was teaching. Then followed a series of books about midcentury totalitarianism, a cluster focused on the Icelandic sagas, then the Iliad, the Roman republic, English poetry, Chinese poetry, and a return to American history at the end of the year. If you compare this year's readings with past years' (here are the lists for 201320142015, and 2016), this last one stands out for being far more literary and America-focused. The return to American history is a happy one. Studying so closely the origins of America's democracy while living in authoritarian China has had a decisive effect on my world-view. The extensive readings in poetry and 'classic' literature is an experiment of a different sort. Back in 2013 I was accused of not having enough fiction on my lists. I do not think the same accusation could be made today.

On the other hand, the old mainstays of Chinese history, strategic theory, and economic history have had almost no coverage this year. I will have to change thisespecially in that last category. So many interesting things have been published in the field of economic history in just the last three years, and I have fallen badly behind the literature.

I cannot pick one book out as the best of the year, but if I had to pick out one book I think most important for others to read, it would be William Freehling's two volume Road to Disunion. I highlighted the first volume of this book back in 2013 as one of the top-ten reads of that year; the second volume is not quite as good, but would probably make it into the top-fifteen cut for this year. Together they provide an immensely satisfying social and political history of the American south from revolution to secession.

Why this book? The national fracas over the cause of the U.S. Civil War revealed just how ill-informed we are about why that war happened. "Slavery" is the easy, obvious answer. It is also utterly inadequate: slavery and disunionism had existed since the birth of the American republic, and slavers willing to sacrifice the Union for sake of slavery had been around just as long. So why did they succeed in only in 1860not 1789, or 1800, or 1820, or 1855? Some might answer that the South was more 'radical' in 1860 than decades earlier, but all that reflexive answer does is give you another question: just how did the South get that way? Radicalism does not just happen. In the South radicalism emerged because it was planned. Freehling's first volume tells the story of the plans that failed: of attempts to get southerners of different stripes and interests to identity with "the South," convince these converts that this magical "South" was under attack, and that the only defense of "Southern" institutions was secession. In a wonderful mix of cultural, social, and political history Freehling shows why each of these attempts fell apart. But the last group of secessionists were by far the most self-aware of the bunch. In the second book, Freehling charts the rise of a conniving group of tyrants who consciously used the history past defeats to craft a stronger, more sinister political strategy. This strategy was intended to radicalize the South and drive the Union into a crisis intentionally designed to make compromise impossible.

It is a remarkable book.  It is masterfully written. It is topical. But most important of all, its concepts can be generalized. No other book has helped me to better understand the mechanics of radicalization. All Americans should be aware of these mechanics. There are eerie parallels between the principles and strategies employed by the secessionists of antebellum days and certain political groups in America today. This book will help you see them.

I suppose a more detailed exposition on that theme deserves its own post. I will not say anything more on this one. But consider buying and reading both volumes.


Kate Arney, Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).

John C Wathley, The Illusion of God’s Presence: Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2016).

Paul H. Godwin & Alice L. Mille, China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2013).

Ian Easton, Able Archers: Taiwan Defense Strategy in the Age of Precision Strike (Washington DC: 2049 Institute, 2014).

William Freehling, Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Bernard Bailynn, The Peopling of British North America (New York: Vintage Books: 1988).

Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settlement of North America to 1800 (New York: Penguin, 2002).

Shi Ji, Graded Chinese Reader 1500 Words (Beijing: Singolingua, 2013).

Ramesh Menon, The Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2009).

Henrik Ibsen, Enemy of the People in Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen (x:x).

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Penguin Books, 1954).

Gordon S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).

Richard Carwadine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (New York: Vintage, 2007).

Juan Williams and Julian Bond, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).

Hermann Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (New York, Penguin, 1995).

Yuval Levin, Fractured Republic: Rethinking America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years, trans.  (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 200x)

Vaughan Lowe, International Law: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Louis Lowery, The Giver (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

Anthony Esolen, Out of Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Washington, DC: Regenery Publishing, 2017).

Bruce Bennet. Preparing North Korea for Unification. (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2017).

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, reprint (New York: Penguin, 2006).

Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The Diary of Anne Frank. (Dramatist Play Service, Inc, 1986).

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism: (New York: Hartoughn Mifflin, 1974).

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: 20 Lessons From the 20th Century (Tim Dungan Books, 2017).

Robert Cook, trans.  Njal's Saga, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Penguin Books, 1954).

William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (New York: Penguin, 2001).

Michael Sandel, Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

William Ian Miller, Eye For an Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Jackson Crawford, The Poetic Eda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2015).

Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Ace Books, 2017).

Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasia Defense Strategy (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017).

Aeschylus, The Oresteia, trans Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1984).

Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: War Trauma and the Undoing of Character. (New York City: Atheneum, 1994).

Homer, The Iliad: A New Prose Translation, trans. Robert Fagles, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1999).

J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, 2nd ed. (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Press, 1999).

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (October 2003)

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).

Tim Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (New York: Random House, 2007).

David Gwynn, The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Laurence Perrine, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, 7th ed. (New York: Harcourt Publishers, 1991).

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar in Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated (New York: Greenwhich House Publishing, 1984).
John Williams, Augustus, reissue ed. (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2014).

Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Amberson (New York: Tor, 2001).

Egil’s Saga, trans. Bernard Scudder, in The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Jane Smiley, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

Christopher Ricks, ed., The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Frances Cornford, Poems (London: W.H. Smith & Sons, 1910).

Frances Cornford, Spring Morning (London: Poetry Bookshop, 1923).

Frances Cornford, Autumn Midnight (London: Poetry Bookshop, 1923).

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, trans. Alan Clarke (New York: Harper, 1993).

Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Mareike Ohlberg, Simon Lang, Bertram Lang, Ideas and ideologies competing for China’s future. How online pluralism challenges official orthodoxy (ERICS Paper on China No. 5. October 2017).

Kunz Kavena, trans. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Jane Smiley, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear, new ed. (Amazon Publishing services, 2010).

John Milton, Paradise Lost in Paradise Lost and Regained (New York: Penguin, 2001).

Leland Ryken, Milton's Paradise Lost (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

Steven Peck, A Short Stay in Hell (Washington DC: Strange Violins Editions, 2009).

Steven Peck, Science: They Key to Theology (By Common Consent Press, 2017).

John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern in Delphi Complete Works of John Dryden (Illustrated) (Delphi Poets Series Book 29) (Delphi Classics, 2013).

Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (Washington DC: Project 2049 Institute, 2017).

Office of the USN Secretary, 2017 Strategic Readiness Review (Washington DC: USN, 2017).

Francis Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (Hanover: University of New England Press, 1995).

Bernard Baiylnn, The Barbarous Years: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (New York: Alfred A Knopft).

Leslie Stephens Hours in a Library, vol I (London: C.D. Warner, 1873)

Arnold Bennet, Literary Taste and How to Form it (London: Hodger and Stoughton, 1907).

John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, 1750-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Uighur Human Rights Project, Fifth Poison: The Harassment of Uyghurs Overseas (Washington DC: UHHP, 2017).

Lynne Cheney, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered (New York: Penguin, 2015).

Merril Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Samantha Hoffman, Programming China: The Communist Party’s Autonomic Approach to Managing State Security, Phd. thesis, University of Nottingham (2017).

Books that I read large portions of, but did not finish cover-to-cover:

Vassily Grossman, Life and Fate; David Young, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry; Keith Halyoake, Facing the Moon: Poems of Du Fu and Li Bai; He Mazi, ed. and commentator, 唐诗四百首[300 Tang Poems];  Wang Fuyin, 唐诗三百首详注,英译,浅析 [300 Tang Poems, With Annotations, English Translation, and Brief Analysis]; David Hawkes, A Primer in Du Fu; Tang Yueying and Li Xioming, eds.,  唐诗鉴赏辞典 (A Compendium of Treasured Tang Poems);  Archie Barnes, Chinese Through Poetry: An Introduction to the Language and Imagery of Traditional VersePaul Rouzer, A Primer in Literary Chinese; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848; Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: History of a Puritan Idea; The American Pageant, 12th ed; Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic; Terrly and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life's Great Questions; Michael Green, Not By Providence Alone: Grand Strategy in American Power in the Asia-Pacific ; Eri Hotta, Japan 1941; SCM Paine The Wars for Asia; Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War; Kevin Horsely, Unlimited Memory; 50 Classic American Short Stories.

04 December, 2017

Do Mil-Mil Exchanges With the Chinese Do More Harm than Good?

The PLAN destroyer Xi'an berths in Pearl Harbor to take part in the June 2016 RIMPAC exercises.
Original Source.
Near the beginning of Ian Easton’s excellent new book, which I shall be reviewing for another publication, is an interesting story. It is commonly claimed that increased contact (or “exchange”) between those under Party employ and those serving in Western governments will bring greater peace, harmony, and understanding to international relations. But things often do not work out that way:
I passed most days in isolation, clipping and evaluating Chinese military articles. It was interesting and meaningful work, but also a bit tedious. So when there was an opportunity to get away from my desk and socialize, I always jumped at it. As a result, I got to meet quite a few of China’s “barbarian handlers,” the English-speaking generals, intelligence officers, and state scholars Beijing uses to shape elite opinion around the world.

At the time, Chinese delegations visited Washington regularly for military-to-military dialogues, some of which CNA hosted. These were supposed to be trust-building exercises. However, as far as I could tell, not much trust was ever built. Quite the opposite. Those Chinese generals I met seemed to regard Americans with a coldness bordering on hatred. It was startling, but I wasn't there to make friends.

My mission was to learn more about how they saw the world. As an analyst, I viewed it as my job to figure out what made them tick. It was one thing to read what they wrote, quite another to meet them in person and hear what they had to say and watch how they acted.

The delegations were always vehement on Taiwan. It was more than apparent that China, or at least the cadres in the Chinese Communist Party, had an obsession. After watching one Chinese official after another argue full-throatily about his nation's “core interest” in subjugating Taiwan, I began to see why the island's government thought it prudent to hold yearly air raid drills.
One of these exchanges was particularly unpleasant. We threw a banquet-style dinner, and I found myself sitting at a table with three Chinese generals, who evidently spoke no English, and a friendly American naval officer, who spoke German, but not Chinese. Very little of substance was said during the course of the meal, and it was awkward. The American naval officer kept trying to make polite conversation with the Chinese generals, using me as the interpreter, but he was getting nowhere. They were rude and hostile.

Finally, in desperation, the officer said, “You know, I was in the Pentagon on 9/11, and lost friends that day. If nothing else, our two militaries can agree that terrorism is a common threat to us both. We can cooperate and work together to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.” I translated this for the Chinese.

In reply, a scrawny political officer, who the other two generals were visibly afraid of, said that the United States deserved to be attacked by terrorists on 9/11. Why? For the grave sin of interfering in other’s internal affairs. “That’s what you get,” he sneered.

I couldn’t believe what had just been said about the murder of three thousand innocent Americans and didn’t know what to tell the friendly naval officer. I paused for a long moment, thinking carefully about the words the general had used. Finally, I huddled in with the officer and whispered, “Sir, he just said...”

He was a power lifter, and the veins on his thick neck began to bulge out. Luckily for the Chinese, it was announced just then that the banquet was over. The general, no doubt sensing he had gone too far, abruptly stood up and scurried away. Before another word could be said, he joined others at the door and rushed out to board an awaiting bus. Few words were exchanged between us Americans as we got up and left the table. It felt like we had just extended an olive branch only to have seen it spit on.

I would never see Sino-American relations quite the same way after that. I was not the only one. I ran into that friendly officer several years later at a Naval War College conference, and he recalled the story. He then told me that other Chinese officers had acted even more disrespectfully at events he had attended more recently in Hawaii. He concluded soberly there was probably little "trust building" could achieve in the absence of shared values and goodwill. [1]

Easton’s story is hardly unique. To pick one example, I have found no group in the United States government more implacably hostile to the People’s Republic than PACOM officers forced to endure the PLA’s participation in RIMPAC. From a Chinese perspective it is almost a wonder that they go at all. I can only conclude that the intelligence they gather must be especially precious if it is valued above the incredible ill-will their presence there generates.

Shifting attitudes towards mainland Chinese among the people of Taiwan is the same story writ large. The surging tide of anti-mainland opinion began, surprisingly enough, with the surge in cross-strait activities that followed the 2008 opening up between the two countries. So often familiarly does not breed sympathy, but contempt. This is a fatal flaw in any peace program (e.g., those outlined by Lyle Goldstein) that hope to use ‘exchanges’ as stepping stones to a more durable peace.


[1] Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (Washington DC: Project 2049 Institute, 2017), 9-10.

27 October, 2017

Notes From All Over: Communists, Partisans, and P-Values

Notes From All Over: A collection of recently published articles, essays, reports, or blog posts of merit.


"This Is What A 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like"
Megha Rajagopalan. Buzzfeed (18 October 2017).

In the countryside, if you get even one call from abroad, they will know. It’s obvious,” said R., who agreed to meet me in the back of a trusted restaurant only after all the other patrons had gone home for the night. He was so nervous as he spoke that he couldn’t touch the lamb-stuffed pastries on his plate. 
In March, R. told me, he found out that his mother had disappeared into a political education center. His father was running the farm alone, and no one in the family could reach her. R. felt desperate. 
Two months later, he finally heard from his mother. In a clipped phone call, she told him how grateful she was to the Chinese Communist Party, and how good she felt about the government. 
“I know she didn’t want to say it. She would never talk like that,” R. said. “It felt like a police officer was standing next to her.”
Since that call, his parents’ phones have been turned off. He hasn’t heard from them since May.
"How China Shapes the World: An Introduction to United Front Work"
 Peter Mattis. Linkedin (22 September 2017).

"Should We Redefine Statistical Significance? A Brains Blog Roundtable"
John Schwenker. Brains Blog (2 October 2017).
What should be the scholarly response to the growing sense, among scientific researchers and the lay public alike, that scientific publications are not trustworthy — that is, that the report of a statistically significant finding in a reputable scientific journal does not in general warrant drawing any meaningful conclusions? 
A new paper in the journal Nature Human Behavior proposes a simple but radical solution: the default P-value threshold for statistical significance should be changed from 0.05 to 0.005 for claims of new discoveries. 
The paper has dozens of co-authors, many of them quite distinguished. Given both the importance of the topic and the attention that the paper has already generated, it seemed worth organizing a discussion of the paper here at Brains.....

"Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?"
Benoit Denizet-Lewis. New York Times Magazine (11 October 2017).

Selina Zito. New York Post (30 September 2017).

"Nothing Divides Voters Like Owning a Gun"
Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy. New York Times (5 October 2017).

If you want to know who an American citizen voted for, ask them this question: does knowing that people around are armed make you feel more or less safe? This issue is so divisive because both sides of the question are convinced that the other side is trying to make them less safe. 
Related: "The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Larger," Pew Research Center (5 October 2017)


There is a lot of analysis coming out of the big Beijing hoopala this week, but I have not had time to separate out the wheat from the chaff yet. Those will appear in next month's "Notes."

"The Resistible Rise of Xi Jinping"
"Special Correspondent." Foreign Policy (26 October 2017).

Related: Joseph Torigiani,"The Shadow of Deng Xiaoping on Chinese Elite Politics," War on the Rocks (20 January 2017).

"The Kowtow"
Michael Reddell. Croaking Cassandra (5 October 2017).

This is a good follow up on the New Zealand fracas discussed at the Stage last month.
Related: Jichang Lulu, "New Zealand: United Frontlings," Jichang Lulu (21 September 2017).

Ideas and Ideologies Competing for China's Political Future
 Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Mareike Ohlben, Simon Lang and Bertram Lang. MERICS report no. 5 (October 2017).

This deserves to be read carefully. There are many hidden nuggets inside it!

"Book Review: Taming the Dragon"
Jaideep Prabhu. Chatarunga (1 October 2017).

"How People Across Asia View China"
Laura Silver. Pew Research Center (16 October 2017).

South Korean public opinion has seen sharps swings against China since the last time these questions were polled in 2016. Then much smaller number of respondents believe that the People's Republic of China was a military threat to their nation, or that China's rise was bad for their country. Now a commanding majority affirms the first contention; a smaller, but still substantial, majority affirms the second.

Savant level insight is not needed to guess the source of this change.


"Europe Slams Its Gates: A Foreign Policy Investigative Report"
Foreign Policy (4 October 2017).

Especially interesting was Part I, Ty McCormick's "The Paradox of Prosperity":
....a false but largely ignored assumption upon which the EU’s entire plan to use development to fight migration is premised: Better jobs and more income, at least in the short and medium term, don’t typically relieve migratory pressures in desperately poor countries; they increase them, a fact that is well-documented by economists..... The notion that someday there might be a well-paying job for him right here in Mali — the kind of job envisioned by EU policymakers — struck him as unlikely. If one suddenly appeared, though, Traoré knew exactly what he would do: “I would save money and go to Europe.”
"This Tiny Country Feeds the World"
Frank Vivanio. national Geographic. Sep 2017.
The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country, with more than 1,300 inhabitants per square mile. It’s bereft of almost every resource long thought to be necessary for large-scale agriculture. Yet it’s the globe’s number two exporter of food as measured by value, second only to the United States, which has 270 times its landmass. How on Earth have the Dutch done it?

"Interview with Professor Sir Michael Howard"
Michael Howard. Institute of Historical Research (5 June 2008).

A fascinating set of observations from the late Michael Howard, ranging from the differences between British and American academia, the intellectual history of "war studies," and how the discipline of history changed from the days when he first began (in the 1930s) to the decade that he was interviewed in.

"Labour repression & the Indo-Japanese divergence"
"Pseudoerasmus." Pseudoerasmus. (2 October 2017).

This essay pops all sorts of historical myths, reaching far beyond what its title may suggest. Economic and comparative history at its best.

"World Economic History: Syllabus (Fall 2017)"
Anton Howes, Medium (27 September 2017)

Related: Antone Howes, "Why Study Economic History?," Medium (27 September 2017); Melanie Meng Xue, "Topics in Economic History: Chinese Economic History (Fall 2017)."

"From Wannabe Redcoat to Rebel: George Washington's Journey to Revolution"

Geoff Smock, Journal of the American Revolution (16 October 2017).


"The Costs of Suppression"
Stumbling and Mumbling (11 October 2017).

"Command of the Littorals—Insights from Mahan"
B.A. Friedman, Strategy Bridge (10 October 2017).

"Anatomy of a Moral Panic"
Maciej Cegłowski. Idle Words (21 September 2017).


"Why fake islands might be a real boon for science"
Emma Marris. Nature. (4 October 2017).

The sea steaders have already accomplished much more than I thought they ever would.

"New Evidence for How Birds Took to the Air"
Helen Briggs. BBC (10 October 2017).

Alternate title: "New Evidence for How Dinosaurs Took to the Air."

Science and Chinese Somatization."
Shayla Love. Undark (10 October 2017)


Moni Mohsin. Economist: 1848 (October/November 2017).

Moni Mohsin asks: what contemporary society most resembles the world of Jane Austen's novels? The answer, she says, is clear. Pakistan.

"At the End of the Quest, Victory"
W.H. Auden. New York Times (22 January 1956).

Literary giant W.H. Auden pens a remarkable review of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. 

Related: Daniel Nexon, "Tolkein's Map," Lawyers, Guns, and Money (20 October 2017).

This is easily the best Intelligence Squared debate I have ever seen.


"A Generic College Term Paper"
Jon Wu. McSweeneys. (October 2014).

10 October, 2017

The Decline of American Democracy (in one Infographic!)

No definition for the word "democracy" has ever made sense to me but this one: a society of self-governing men and women banded together in self-governing communities--in other words, free citizens that possess the autonomy and power to govern themselves.

I have friends that dwell in some of the earth's most despotic domains. They are often curious about the workings of America's republic. I tell them that the genius of American democracy is not to be found in Washington. To see democracy at work, I suggest, they should attend a meeting of an American school board. Nowhere are the duties and virtues of participatory democracy more powerfully expressed than in these small assemblies. What Americans know of self governance, they learned here.  The school boards are the measure of our republic.

We have not been measuring well of late:

Figure 3 in Educational Policy Institute, "The Landscape of Public Education: 

Much of what Frank Bryan had to say almost two decades ago about the declining participation in New England town meetings applies equally here: 

Citizens are not born. They are raised. The single most recurrent theme in the literature on the town meeting in the 19th Century—when town meetings were much stronger than they are now—was the notion that town meetings are schoolhouses of citizenship. It is not a coincidence that Vermont, the place where my work takes place, often leads in measures of civic capital and is also the state that has the strongest town meeting tradition. Meanwhile America's greatest enterprise—our glorious national Republic—is withering away. We ask our citizens to participate in the selection of our president only once every four years at the cost of less than an hour's time out of their lives. Despite our best efforts it is difficult to get even half of them to do so. It is time to resuscitate real democracy—that unique blending of conflict and decision at the human scale—in the heartland. I see thick, local democracies—real democracies—as pasture springs in the high hills of the American homeland. From these pasture springs of politics will flow the waters that refresh our national reservoirs of citizenship. We have long known that the nation's parts cannot survive without the nation's whole. It is time to recognize that at the most fundamental level the reverse is equally so. [1] (emphasis added).

See Also:

T. Greer, "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream," Scholar's Stage (1 July 2013).

T. Greer, "Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture," Scholar's Stage (16 September 2015).


[1] Frank M. Bryan, "An interview with Frank M. Bryan, author of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works," University of Chicago Press website (April 2003).

30 September, 2017

Conservative Fairy Tales & Liberal Allegories ?

An interesting video essay titled "How CGI Changed Animation" has been making its way across the internet this week. If you have not watched it yet, you really should. The essay's content reaches further than its title would suggest. It is really less about technology than it is about stories--specifically, how the archetypes in our children's stories have changed over the last thirty years. The essayist (Sage Hyden) describes these changes as a shift from "conservative fairy tales" to "liberal allegories." I do not agree with this characterization, but I do think this is a good starting off point for analyzing the stories we raise our children with.

The video places most of the traditional Disney films, ranging from those produced by Walt Disney himself to the Disney Renaissance musicals of the '90s, in the "conservative fairy tale" camp. Hyden does not use the word "conservative" in the familiar sense of "right wing," but rather to mark the  attitude these stories have towards social change. This attitude is subtle but recurring. Film after film suggests that society should be kept more or less as it is. The traditional Disney movie either equates a happy ending with the restoration of a disturbed social order (e.g., the closing scenes of Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, or Beauty and the Beast see the literal restoration of castles and towns to their former beauty), or with the succession of the next generation into a "circle of life" whose roles and rules stretch back through time immemorial (e.g., Bambi, Lion King).

Perhaps a better phrase for these films would be "Mencian fairy tales." Ancient China nerdery is strong among my readers, and most of you probably understand the reference. For those who don't, an explanation: Mencius is a famous philosopher who discoursed his way across the central Chinese plains back in ye olde ancient days. In the textual record he is depicted as the first great Confucian after Confucius himself.  One of his big ideas was that the most important way to ensure stability and happiness of a kingdom is cultivate virtue in its ruler:
Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. The King said: “My good man, since you did not think one thousand li too far to come and see me, may I presume that you have something with which I can profit my kingdom?” 
Mencius said: “Why must you speak of profit? What I have for you is humaneness and fairness, and that's all. If you always say ‘how can I profit my kingdom?’ your ministers will ask, ‘how can we profit our clans?’ The elites (shi)  and the common people will ask: ‘How can we profit ourselves?’ Superiors and inferiors will struggle against each other for profit, and the country will be in chaos.” 
“In a kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the murderer of the sovereign is usually from a clan of one thousand chariots. In a thousand-chariot kingdom, the murderer of the sovereign is usually from a clan of one hundred chariots. Now, to have a thousand in ten thousand, or one hundred in a thousand is not a small number. But if you put justice last and profit first, no one will be satisfied unless they can grab something.” 
“There has never been a humane man who neglected his parents, and there has never been a just man who put his prince last in his priorities. King, can we not limit our conversation to humaneness and justice? Why must we discuss profit?” [1]
Those are the opening words of the Mencius text, and the rest of the book follows the theme:  if the ruler is a benevolent man who lives up to his responsibilities and plays the role in the political order that ritual, custom, and righteousness dictate he should, then his kingdom ands it people will prosper. For Mencius, politics is ultimately personal. The rise and fall of kingdoms and countries is a matter of character. But this is hardly an idea unique to the Chinese tradition. When Hamlet struts onto the stage and declares that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark” he does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate, or that it the bureaucracy is overstaffed and inefficient, or that the Danish peasantry are being oppressed by the yoke of entrenched intersectional prejudices embedded in its structures of power. Hamlet means that the court of Denmark has nosedived into moral decline, and that the stench of the court’s moral depravity poisons all of the kingdom around it.

So it is with most of these Disney stories. A ruler’s character has a direct effect on his entire realm: In Beauty and the Beast, Beast’s pride and cruelty transforms his picturesque chateau into a ghoulish keep. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s selfishness threatens the entire ocean realm with the terrors of rule by witch-queen. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s sulking disobedience leads to a kingdom-wide curse. In The Lion King, Simba’s refusal to shoulder the responsibilities of rulership turns a verdant savannah into an ashen wasteland. In Frozen, Elsa’s fear freezes her people to the point of their starvation.

In the world of Disney fairy tales, character defects have catastrophic consequences. However, the consequences a Disney protagonist's decisions have on his or her subjects is never the focus of these tales. The Lion King is about the king, not his kingdom. In these stories, the kingdoms are used as a visual mirror for a ruler’s character (just as many artsy films use background color templates to suggest what their protagonists are feeling). The focus of Simba’s tale then is always on Simba's soul. The tension that drives its plot forward is not found in a quest to improve the animal kingdom, but in the difficulty Simba has accepting his role within this kingdom. This conflict is resolved when Simba decides to put the obligations he has inherited above his more selfish desires. This is a pattern that repeats across Disney's many Mencian fairy tales.

In the video essay, Sage Hyden notes that traditional Disney fairy tales revolve around issues of identity. But this is really only half the story. Key to the Mencian fairy tale is the recognition that every identity carries with it obligation. This is the message of what may be the most powerful scene in the entire Disney oeuvre:

Simba's path towards reclaiming the savannah begins with the recognition that who he is matters more than want he wants. This tension between desire and duty (in Disney films sometimes called “destiny”) is a recurring Disney fairy tale theme (see Mulan, Frozen, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Brave, Sleeping Beauty). Other Mencian fairy tales take a slightly different tack. In these films identity and destiny are still the main themes, but instead of fielding heroes and heroines who shirk their duties, they follow protagonists whose sense of identity—and by extension, sense of obligation—is torn between two different worlds (see Jungle Book, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Little Mermaid, Hercules, Fox and the Hound). In this case divided loyalty drives the story’s dramatic tension, and the resolution of the story often comes with the protagonist choosing to live in one world or the other.

If we were to condense all of the above into a short outline of the standard Mencian fairy tale story beats , it would go like this: The fairy tale's protagonist is a person who, usually by right of birth (but occasionally because of some innate power or by dint of extraordinary circumstance), carries the weight of an entire social order on her shoulders. The fate of her society depends on the strength of her moral character and her ability or willingness to play the singular role fate has given to her. Her commitment to this role will be tested by her fascination with the world outside of it. A love interest from across this divide will complicate the general picture. Seeing her commitment waver, a villain will take advantage of this attraction with the outside world to unseat our heroine from her rightful place and upturn the existing social order. What was once happy will become troubled; what was bright will be filled with darkness. Victory comes when the villain has been defeated and the world is restored to the joy and color it had of old. The heroine and her love interest then must make a decision as to which of their two worlds they will choose to rule in the future. While the heroine's actions clearly have dramatic consequences for the world at large, the focus of the story has been, from beginning to end, on the heroine’s journey or self discovery and moral development.

That is the basic story. There are variations. Many protagonists are male. Some heroes and heroins are from outside the system (e.g., Aladdin, Mulan, or Belle), though in such cases their love interest will be firmly inside it. The Jungle Book manages to fit this entire journey into its final scene. Frozen replaces a love interest with a sister, and Brave replaces romantic with maternal love. But in the end the decision the heroines of both these films make is essentially the same sort of decision made by their more romantic counterparts: love and duty carry the day, even if the love is of a familial sort. [3]

The story beats of Hyden's "liberal allegories" are very different. His video essay describes the liberal allegory with much more depth than it does the fairy tales,  so I will not take up too much space explaining it's features here. Like the Mencian fairy tale, the liberal allegory starts with the depiction of a happy, functioning social order. However, the workings of this world are always shown in far greater detail than the Mencian fairy tale. These worlds are built up as an integral part of the story, not painted in the background. The protagonist of this allegory is one of two types. He is either what the Hyden dubs “a master of the universe” or an "outcast." The first is a hero who knows how this world works. He has mastered its rules and conventions and is admired and liked by almost everyone around him. If this society has an MVP, he is that man. The second is a character who exists at the margins of the social order, defined by some character trait, skill, idea, or eccentricity that puts him at the bottom of society’s dregs. In either case, disaster soon ensues. This crisis will either force the ‘master of the universe’ character to confront the dystopian underbelly of his society, or it will give a chance for the ‘outcast’ character to show to everyone that his special brand of weirdness is exactly what his society needs to overcome the emergency before them. This sort of story can have a villain, but it does not really need one. The real enemy to be vanquished is a flaw within the social order. This flaw can take many shapes. It some allegories it is social conformity or a stifling class system; in others it is explicit prejudice, or even just hostility to innovation. No matter the error, the ending is the same.  The story concludes on a happy note. Society has been forever changed by the hero’s main actions. Order has not been restored so much as new, shinier version of society has been born.

The Hyden's framing makes you think that the biggest difference between these two types of stories is their attitude towards social change (“liberal” vs. “conservative”). I do not think this is true. It is quite possible to create a liberal fairy tale. Moana is very good example of this. Like Hyden's liberal allegories, Moana opens with a beautiful depiction of an idyllic utopia. It is not long before this ideal-but-conservative society encounters disaster. Neither its traditions nor its authority figures have the power to arrest its progress. The oddball impulses that the islanders' traditions were designed to squelch are (surprise!) the solution to surviving the crisis, and by story's end we are left with a new and improved social order that makes those oddball impulses central to all of society's workings. This all seems to fit the liberal model quite closely. However, there is also something in Moana of the fairy tale mold. Like the Mencian stories of Disney past, Moana's plot is intensely focused on the tension between desire and duty, the fate of its world hangs on the selfishness or selflessness of its heroes. and its story is primarily a tale of personal discovery. The background story of the starving village is liberally conceived, but for most of the tale it is just that--relegated to the background.

The most important difference between the fairy tale and the liberal allegory is that the fairy tale is not really about the social order at all. The societies they depict are simply a setting that makes the real story possible. The allegory tells the story of an entire community; the fairy tale, a story of one or two people. The allegory searches for social change; the fairy tale, moral growth. The allegory says that life's problems are embedded in the structures of the world outside you; the fairy tale replies that their source is embedded deep in the the soul inside you.

Both sorts of stories are unrealistic in important ways. Both give far too much power to their protagonists. The vast majority of individuals will never possess the clout needed to change an entire society, for good or ill. Neither pluckily striving against injustice nor careful cultivation of the soul will bring rain to the grasslands or peace to warring orders. Japanese animation--which so often casts its protagonists as powerless observers of forces too strong to contain or shape--provides a far more realistic depiction of human heroism. [4]  But I don't think we will move towards the Japanese approach anytime soon. It rubs too far against the American grain. We want our heroes to matter in the grand scheme of things. 

So, if we must choose between these two flawed models of social order, which shall we choose? I am for that which most likely to lead individual joy and individual peace: the stories that focus on individuals as individuals, and not as agents of social change. Perhaps the gravest problems we face today are evils found in structure, and are thus on society at large is blame best laid. But no child watching fairy tales has control over these things. Nor will they ever. What they do have control over is themselves. Learning how to balance desire and duty—and learning that we do have duties—will benefit the average child more than an abstract understanding that our worst social ills have been built into the structure of our societies. So few of them will ever be able to change the world. But they will be able to change themselves, and that makes all the difference. 


[1] Mengzi 1A:1.  A. Charles Mueller, trans. "Mencius (Selections)," (last updated 19 June 2017).

[2] Hamlet (1.4)

[3] Interestingly, the two oldest Disney fairy tales, Cinderella and Snow White, don’t seem to follow the pattern!

[4] An intelligent comment was left on youtube(!) in the video essay's thread. It articulates this point well:

 “While Miyazaki films often have messages that could be associated with left wing values in countries like the United States, they don't really follow the formula of liberal subversion of social dogma by an outcast/rebel that is found in most CGI movies cited as examples in this video. In fact, the conflict in Ghibli films often stems directly from social change destroying long existing balances, the "outsider" main character is usually either a "mediator" or "neutral observer" rather than a rebel, with an arc focused mostly on personal growth achieved by observing the parties involved in the conflict, and the resolution usually has either the balance being restored on a happy note or the balance forever destroyed on a sad note.”

Comment left by "abyssal113" (25 Sep 2017) on Sage Hyden, "How CGI Changed Animation," youtube video, 12:16 (posted 22 Sep 2017).