Dynamist Blog

Jury Duty, Inflation, and Free Speech

This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on June 6. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.

Inflation in three signs, all on the Diddy Riese cookie shop in Westwood Village.

I’m on jury duty this week, which makes it difficult to plan my life. I don’t know until 7 p.m. the business day before whether I’ll have to show up. Not too bad for Monday, but it could get old fast. The good news is that L.A. has a “one day, one trial” system, so that when you do report you either get put on a trial or excused completely. The uncertainty reminds me of this article I wrote back in 2014 about the flexibility employers were demanding from part-time workers:

For many part-time workers in the post-crash economy, life has become like endless jury duty. Scheduling software now lets employers constantly optimize who’s working, better balancing labor costs and likely demand. The process demands enormous flexibility from part-time workers, sometimes requiring them to be on call all the time without knowing when they’ll work or how much they’ll earn….

Regardless of economic conditions, the deal between employers and workers has two components: money, including any benefits, and working conditions, including how well hours match worker preferences. The weak job market affects the total value of that package, not the mix between the two parts.

When an employer demands unpredictable work hours, it’s making the deal worse. It can get away with a worse deal because of the bad economy, but what about the mix? If unreliable schedules are so burdensome, why don’t workers switch to jobs with better schedules but lower pay? Why don’t competitors offer such options?

One reason, I argued, was the minimum wage, which limits the ability to offer less money in exchange for fixed schedules.

Now, of course, the economic environment is very different. We’ve gone from a labor surplus to a labor shortage. Everywhere you look, there are signs advertising for new employees. Stores and restaurants are limiting their hours because of staffing shortages. Hotels no longer offer daily maid service (a relief to those of us who sometimes want to work in the room). Service at the local sandwich shop is slower and more likely to screw up your order. Like smaller packages at the same price—aka “shrinkflation”—this diminished quality is a hidden form of inflation. You’re getting less for your money. It’s the flip side of the unmeasured quality improvements that, I’ve often argued, made inflation even lower than official statistics suggested (see this, this, and this).

So here’s the question I don’t know the answer to: Are employers giving part-time workers more predictable schedules? Are they offering more full-time jobs? At lower wages, what do job offers look like these days? I’ve seen countless reports on working from home versus coming to the office, but how is the current labor market affecting people who work in restaurants, bars, stores, and old folks’ homes?

FIRE Expands Beyond the Campus

I’ve been on the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, better known as FIRE, for more than 20 years—as long as it has had a board. It’s a great organization, principled, nonpartisan, and well-managed. Today it announced a major strategic shift and a name change, to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Although FIRE will continue its much-needed work on behalf of freedom of speech, expression, and inquiry on college campuses, it will also work to educate the public on the principles and importance of free speech. As Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s president put it:

“Our defense of freedom of speech and inquiry on campus will remain core to what we do and will grow in the coming years,” said Lukianoff. “But we have come to realize that defending the First Amendment and a culture of free speech off-campus is essential to protecting those values on-campus, just as much as fighting for those values on-campus is essential for preserving them off-campus.”

“We need to remind older Americans that freedom of speech is still a value worth fighting for, and we need to teach younger Americans that everything from scientific progress, to artistic expression, to social justice, peace, and living authentic lives requires the staunch protection of freedom of speech for all.”

For more information and lots of links, check out FIRE’s press release. Politico covered the move here. (The article is too ACLU-obsessed for my taste.)

The move beyond campus is a challenging one, but it’s also a logical extension of the work FIRE has already been doing through its podcast, books, and other educational outreach. Greg’s open letter to Elon Musk about free expression on social media is a good example of the way FIRE can bring its deep knowledge and nuanced approach to bear on speech issues beyond the campus.

From my YouTube Channel

The story of how Muslims first came to Uyghur territory gets a brief mention in The Fabric of Civilization, without any of the current context. I expanded it into this video.

Please subscribe to my YouTube channel and if there are topics you’d like to see future videos on, let me know in the comments. (For now, I’m limiting myself to videos related to The Fabric of Civilization.)

Question Time

This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on May 29. To see other posts and subscribe, go here.

My author photo for The Future and Its Enemies, proving that Nick Gillespie did not originate the leather jacket.

Who am I and how do I work? To answer that question, please do not go to my terrible Wikipedia page. Read the following interview, first conducted by Charlie Euchner in 2018. Charlie is a New York-based writer and writing teacher, who offers online advice and courses at TheElementsofWriting.com and TheWritingPartner.com. He has some other good interviews on his site, including this recent one with shopping expert Paco Underhill, who learned the craft of careful observation from William “Holly” Whyte. Underhill is one of the many familiar names I ran into when reading Whyte’s biography.

Virginia Postrel on Big Ideas, Overlooked Issues, Style, and Hard Reporting

By Charlie Euchner

Virginia Postrel has forged one of the more intriguing careers in journalism and letters. Once the editor of Reason magazine, she gave the ideals of libertarianism an inventive, modern twist in her book The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (1998).
That book, an instant classic, argues that politics is not a battle between right and left, red and blue, or even corporate and government orientation. It is really a battle between dynamism and stasism. Dynamists are optimistic, open, inventive, eager to embrace the tumult that has become the way of the world. Stasists are more pessimistic, fearful of tumult, and willing to go to great lengths to bridle the forces of change.
How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare … that “we’re scared of the future” and [decry] technology as “a killing thing”? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise?
The dynamism-stasism battle cuts across all other divides in modern life. Democrats and Republicans each contain lots of stasists, from crony capitalists to public-sector unionists to evangelicals fearful of modern inquiry and freedoms. Almost by definition, stasists are declinists and can only prevail by thwarting progress. Dynamists, on the other hand, can be found (not always) in Silicon Valley, bustling cities, science, new media, the arts, and the battle for human rights.
Postrel could have spent her whole career elaborating on the dynamism/stasism theme … but that would not be very dynamist, would it? So she has, dynamically, explored other topics. In The Substance of Style: : How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (2003), Postrel argues that style is about superficial surface appearances; it is integral to the social, cultural, and economic value of things. Likewise, in The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion (2013), Postrel argues that glamour reveals something essential about the ways people present themselves to the world. Talk about the weaving together of form and function: Her latest book is called The Fabric of the World: How Textiles Made Civilization.
Now a columnist for Bloomberg and a regular commenter on social media, Postrel lives in Los Angeles.

Charlie Euchner: I always appreciate a writer who offers a powerful new lens for exploring complex issues. So I admire writers like A.O. Hirschman (Exit, Voice, and Loyalty), James Carse (Finite and Infinite Games), Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken), E.E. Schattschneider (The Semisovereign People), and Eric Berne (The Games People Play).

That’s what you did in The Future and Its Enemies, with your distinction between dynamists and stasists. You obviously strive for making things as simple as possible, while respecting the complexity of your subjects. Do you have a process for honing your subjects and ideas to their essence. How do you do it?

Virginia Postrel: What I call intellectual infrastructure often comes about unintentionally, as I collect examples that interest me without trying to fit them into a particular pattern. At some point, I start to see commonalities and dichotomies and a pattern emerges. I then test and refine it. Sometimes this is a gradual process and sometimes I have an epiphany and everything just clicks into place.
The stasis-dynamism dichotomy in The Future and Its Enemies evolved from earlier work I’d done on green ideology, where I was struck by the idealization of stasis. That led me to think about its alternative, as well as to see other manifestations of stasis as an ideal. When I was working on The Power of Glamour, on the other hand, I had an a-ha moment when I realized the parallels between glamour and humor. That epiphany made it possible to actually define what type of phenomenon glamour is.

CE: How did you come to write The Substance of Style and The Power of Glamour? Both deal with finding the value in topics that people often dismiss. Why did these topics (and for that matter, your current work on fabric) call out to you?

VP: I’m attracted to topics that are important but overlooked. I’m easily bored and put a high premium on new material and original thought. If everybody already knows something, why bother to repeat it?
In the case of The Substance of Style, I began to notice the rising importance of aesthetics as a source of economic value while I was researching The Future and Its Enemies. The idea for the book started with the trend, but then it forced me to think about why aesthetics is valuable to people, which led me to delve into aesthetics as a source both of pleasure and of meanings beyond the status competition that has always been the go-to explanation for economists and many other social scientists.
I never would have expected to write about glamour, since I tend to be interested in the kinds of details glamour hides. But Joe Rosa, who was a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, asked me to write the introductory essay for a catalog accompanying an exhibition on glamour in architecture, industrial design, and fashion. Once I took that on, I realized how pervasive, interesting, and poorly understood glamour is. Several years later I embarked on a book to understand it.

CE: Writing about abstract or complex subjects can be hard, even for the most skilled writers. Your work is strong on every level–sentence, paragraph, section, and whole piece. What secrets do you have for that? How do you “block” the issues at different levels of writing to stay clear and on track, saying the right thing at the right time?

When I was a young writer at Inc. magazine, my editor used to write “weak and vague” in the margins of our articles. It drove our small team crazy, because everything was clear to us and, of course, “weak and vague” is itself a vague critique that didn’t tell us what to do, only what the problem was. Responding to that criticism over and over again forced me to learn about how to be specific. My training there and earlier at The Wall Street Journal taught me that general statements need specific examples, not only as support but to give the audience something to picture.
Even people who like patterns and abstractions are still sensory, story-telling creatures who find arguments easier to follow if you give them specifics that hold their attention. Thinking of examples can also force you to clarify your thinking: Does your pattern really work? What are the exceptions and complexities? Are there examples that contradict it?
As editor of Reason in the 1990s and a New York Times economics columnist in the 2000s, I often had to explain—or help other people explain—complicated technical material. My rule of thumb was: the more complicated the material, the simpler the sentences. Subject-verb-object. If this, then that. Break it into small pieces. The harder it is to understand, the easier it should be to read.
I create categories to organize my own thinking, as well as to give readers intellectual infrastructure they can apply elsewhere. I put a lot of thought into how I structure my books, which is tricky because I’m not a narrative writer. That can require some difficult tradeoffs. The Power of Glamour had to build a theory before it could apply it, which meant that some of the most interesting chapters—on history—come later in the book.
For The Fabric of Civilization, I quickly realized that the obvious structures—chronology and type of fiber—wouldn’t work. A chronological account would be a library, not a book, and separating cotton from silk from wool from synthetics wouldn’t highlight interesting parallel themes. So I’m using a combination of stages of production and themes. The first chapter, for instance, is about fiber and also about how humans alter nature. (There’s no such thing as a “natural fiber.”) The second is on spinning and work, the third on weaving and code, and so on. This structure allows me to span different textiles, different time periods, and different places, while also highlighting important themes in human history and culture.

CE: When you were developing as a writer, did you model yourself off another writer? And as a critical thinker/analyst, were there writers or thinkers who also modeled the way to break down problems and construct responses?

VP: I didn’t consciously model myself on another writer, although I was certainly influenced by The Wall Street Journal’s style. I read its features growing up and it was the first place I worked in journalism. But unlike the WSJ or most other journalistic writing, I’m prone to piling up series and using appositives. I like to multiple versions of the same thing, a tendency I credit to the influence of the Hebrew Bible via my mother reciting Psalms—and explaining the metaphors and structures—to me when I was very young.
Although my writing doesn’t resemble his, I got good advice from the legal scholar Richard Epstein when I embarked on my first book. He warned me against trying to research everything in advance. “Divide the book into three parts,” he said. “Then divide the first part into three parts. Then start on the first of those three parts.”

CE: In an age filled with so much propaganda and misinformation, arguing as blood sport, what do you think is the best approach for writers on current issues? It seems to me that you have taken a one-two punch. First, you concentrate on your own projects and refuse to get distracted. Second, while you speak out, you consciously refuse to get involved in the cycle of outrage and response. Is that right? How can you describe the writer’s role in society in such a crazy time?

VP: Know thyself. Know what you care about and what you bring to the public discussion. My strengths don’t lie in quick takes. And although I do reporting, I’m also not first and foremost a reporter. Other people are better at these things. I’m good at big-picture thinking, providing historical context, and noticing what’s being overlooked. In my short-term column writing I try to concentrate on those things.
Consciously and unconsciously, I’ve also arranged my life to accommodate what you could flatteringly call my integrity and unflatteringly call my diva qualities. I’m pretty stubborn about what I will and won’t do, and I won’t take a journalism job I can’t quit. Having no kids and a husband who’s much the same way makes that easier.
While I understand the market forces that push writers to feed outrage in order to get traffic, I also feel a civic responsibility to keep my cool, not to attribute motives to people that they wouldn’t themselves recognize, and to think about what might actually persuade people who disagree with me. I don’t always live up to those standards—we all get outraged sometimes—but the older I get and the more history I read, the easier it is to do.
It also helps that, unlike many, perhaps most, female writers, I have never felt either market pressure nor a personal desire to write about my personal experiences and emotions. What interests me is learning and writing about the world.

I appreciate Charlie’s interest in my work and his permission to reprint the interview.

Who exactly is that “historian”? And what on earth is a “Jew’s-box”?

A colleague who’s listening to the audio version of The Fabric of Civilization, recently asked me about the sources. It’s a common question. Listeners are sometimes downright irritated by the book’s description of sources in general terms, e.g., “a historian,” and I can’t blame them. The strategy of avoiding sea of names works fine for the written version, since you can flip back to the copious end notes. (The Substance of Style does something similar, while my other two books have names, names, names.) But if you’re using the audio version, you’re out of luck. Fortunately, there’s a solution. The references for The Fabric of Civilization are online here—a handy solution not just for audio book readers but for anyone who wants an easily searchable bibliography.

Several people have asked what Adam Smith meant by a “Jew’s-box” in the passage on “trinkets of dubious utility” quoted in my article on pocket globes and the related Substack discussion. It isn’t a religious artifact but a piece of capital equipment: the combination carrying and display case used by peddlers, many of whom were Jews. Here are some photos of a figure in the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Museum that illustrate what one would have looked like.

A good book on Jewish peddlers in America is Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way by NYU historian Hasia R. Diner.

If you have a question about my work, please put it it in the comments here!

Other Recommendations

In my post on dynamism, I should have linked to Jim Pethokoukis’ Up Wing manifesto. Through Memorial Day, Jim is offering a sale of 30% off—for a total of $49/year—on his “Faster, Please” Substack newsletter, which I highly recommend.

I’m currently listening to the fascinating, short book The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters by Megan Walsh. The audio book is fine, but I would recommend the print version instead, so you can see the names. Here’s an interview she did with Paul French, a writer, business consultant, and all-round very smart guy based in Shanghai. I met him on a visit back in 2010, when I was researching the many versions of Shanghai glamour.

Again, please pose questions in the comments on Substack. I also appreciate feedback on what you’d like to see more of in this newsletter.

Continuity and Change: The case of Maya trajes

This post went out to my Substack newsletter subscribers on May 24. It's an excerpt from chapter six of The Fabric of Civilization. Like my recent column on Princeton Reunions, it looks at continuity amid change (and vice versa).

It’s early evening, and the woman in red looks like she’s heading home after a day in the market of San Juan La Laguna, a town on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. She is wearing a traditional ensemble, or traje—except for the smartphone tucked into her tightly cinched faja, a wide, handwoven sash. Drawn by the contrast between old and new, I ask a Guatemalan friend to ask if I can take her photo. Something gets lost in translation. Happy to cooperate, she removes the phone and hides it behind her back. No, please tell her I want the phone in the picture. She proudly poses with it in her left hand. Still not part of the outfit. Oh well.

Although it includes the essential components that mark her as a Maya, the woman’s traje isn’t as traditional as it initially appears. Her top is not a handwoven cotton huipil but a factory-made blouse, probably polyester, adorned with machine embroidery and rhinestones—less expensive and more practical for everyday wear than the heavy cotton rectangles woven on a backstrap loom and sewn together. Her skirt, or corte, is the critical component of the outfit; the Guatemalan idiom “Lleva corte,” or “she wears a [traditional] skirt,” means a woman is indigenous. Yardage wrapped around the body and secured by the faja, hers looks like it came off a traditional floor loom—a technology introduced by the Spanish—but the red and navy plaid reflects fashion rather than custom. Her outfit is as up-to-date as her nail polish and cell phone. Yet it is still indisputably Maya.

In the well-established romantic narrative, material progress represents a devil’s bargain: shoes, running water, and vaccines at the cost of beauty, identity, and meaning; uniqueness replaced by homogenized global culture. Maya trajes illustrate a different—and likely more common—pattern. Left to their own devices, consumers rarely treat tradition and modernity as all-or-nothing choices. They find ways to maintain their inherited identities, including the material manifestations that signify belonging, while satisfying the desire for novelty and self-expression.

Contrary to the nostalgic vision of timeless peasant customs, Guatemalan textiles have always been dynamic. Many huipiles incorporate colorful designs in supplementary weft brocade, some geometric, others featuring stylized animals, plants, and people. The bright threads to make the designs initially came from Chinese silk floss—“There are five generations of Chinese in Guatemala,” notes textile collector Raymond Senuk—and, when World War II interrupted the supply, weavers adopted shiny mercerized cotton.

Picked out row by row with fingers or a pointed stick similar to a knitting needle, the patterns range from ancient Maya imagery to contemporary innovations. At a shop in Antigua that sells secondhand huipiles, I bought one featuring rows of donkeys, rabbits, scorpions, roosters, quetzals (the national bird), baskets, spiders, humans, and, clinching the sale, helicopters! When magazines began printing cross-stitch patterns in the nineteenth century, Maya weavers adapted the designs, inventing a new form of brocade, known as de marcador, in which the supplementary threads wrap around the warp so that both sides of the fabric are identical.

Ceremonial huipil from the 1950s

Without giving up backstrap weaving, indigenous people also embraced European floor looms, using them to produce fabric for skirts, aprons, and trousers. Probably inspired by Asian fabrics, they developed a new tradition of dyeing called jaspe. Better known elsewhere as ikat, jaspe is a complicated tie-dye technique in which undyed threads are tied to block out a pattern that appears when the cloth is woven. (You can identify ikat by the slightly blurred appearance of the figures.) In addition, today’s floor-loom cloth frequently incorporates metallic threads made of coated polyester film.

Examples of jaspe

Far from a dying art, says Senuk, “weaving is fine in Guatemala. But it’s changing, really dramatically. In the last twenty years, dramatic things have happened.” Until a few decades ago, you could easily identify a Maya woman’s village simply by looking at her clothes. Although each weaver created her own patterns, they worked within well-defined rules of construction, background colors, and decorative designs. A huipil from San Juan La Laguna would feature twenty-four embroidered squares, arranged as four rows of six, below a yoke decorated with zigzags, all on a red striped background comprising two woven pieces. The accompanying corte would be black and white.

In the northern highlands village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, by contrast, a huipil would be sewn from three panels, woven with alternating red and white stripes. The center section would have geometric patterns brocaded in supplementary weft, with a yoke adorned with store-bought rickrack. The stripes could be larger or smaller and the brocade designs could vary, sometimes spreading to the other panels. But to a knowledgeable observer the blouse would clearly declare that its wearer hailed from Todos Santos. Every village had its own distinctive combination of elements.

Women in this village traditionally wear blue.

By the 1990s, things began to change, as women started to buy and sell clothes in local markets rather than making everything themselves. “I would see a woman in the market that I would know was from San Antonio Aguas Calientes and she would be wearing a huipil from the Alta Verapaz, from Cobán, and I would say, ‘Porque?’” recalls Senuk. “And she would say, ‘Because I like it.’” Picking and choosing from other villages’ trajes evolved into new “pan-Maya” fashions that weren’t specific to any particular place.

Around the turn of the century, Maya women invented the novel style that captured my attention on the street in San Juan La Laguna: the monochrome outfit, with huipil, sash, and skirt—and sometimes apron, hair band, and shoes—all in coordinated colors. “What you did was you now got a base color—say, turquoise,” explains Senuk. “You now went and got a turquoise huipil that was machine embroidered with related colors. The skirt was an ikat skirt but with turquoise bands in it. And the belt was a Totonicapán-style woven belt but turquoise. Now you were either turquoise, pink, café, purple—and all these things were possible choices. And they had no village significance at all.” Monochrome fashion makes it easy to produce a striking outfit that is simultaneously Maya and Instagrammable: #chicasdecorte.

Continuity and Change, with Garish Costumes

This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on May 23. To see all the entries and subscribe, visit it here.

Contrary to the promises in earlier newsletters, I can’t provide new pictures of the Postrels in our garish Princeton Reunions gear. The best I can do are a couple of shots from ten years ago.

Photo by David Bernstein ‘82, unearthed from Facebook

The Postrels in the 2012 P-rade

We didn’t make it to our 40th Reunion because my favorite classmate suffered a minor but extremely painful tear in his calf muscle while innocently throwing a blanket onto the bed. Flying cross-country for several days of intense standing and walking (not to mention dancing) wasn’t going to happen.

So instead of going to Reunions, I used the occasion to think about how their peculiar rituals connect past, present, and future, embodying both continuity and change. The result was my latest column for Bloomberg Opinion.

Princeton’s rituals enact the conviction that the Princeton of today descends from the Princeton of yesterday, that the many eras of Princeton belong to one another, and that, whatever their differences and flaws, they are all beloved and good. We are here because they were here first, and they take pride and pleasure in their successors. It’s the kind of myth easily discarded yet desperately needed in our divided culture.

Among the many problems posed by current purity crusades on campuses (including an appalling one that gets a brief mention toward the end of my column) is the threat they pose to the social convention that treats all alumni as part of the family. If you’re purging tenured faculty for getting on the wrong side of political controversies, what are you saying to alums who take the same positions?

There’s an ungated version of the article here, courtesy of my Washington Post subscription, but it doesn’t include links or the great photo that accompanies the original Bloomberg Opinion version.

Thanks to my classmate Joyce Robbins, however, I can share this photo of Joe Schein ’37, the oldest returning alum at 107. Schein, a retired psychiatrist, was one of 11 Jewish students in his class, and this February Daily Princetonian article about early Jewish life on campus—contrary to myth, it didn’t start with Einstein—quotes him extensively.

Something about Princeton gets me thinking about how institutions maintain their identities as they evolve over time. One fall, at least a decade ago, I was in Princeton on a research trip. Walking through campus, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the statue of John Witherspoon, which faces the university’s magnificent neo-Gothic chapel, and a sign advertising an upcoming Diwali service. Witherspoon, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, was an important early president of the College of New Jersey and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Although he was progressive for his day (he even encouraged students to read the infidel David Hume), he would likely have been shocked by the Medievalist Catholic style of the chapel, never mind celebrating a Hindu festival! None of these things belonged together—and yet they absolutely did.

Speaking of universities

Since August, I’ve been a Visiting Fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University in Orange, California. One of the institute’s signatures is the Humanomics program, which offers classes combining economics and the humanities. I taught one this year called “Consumerism and Its Discontents” and am working on a syllabus for a fall first-year seminar called “Ambition and the Meanings of Success,” in both cases teaching with an economist colleague. To explain the program to prospective students, I also produced this video.

“Consumerism and Its Discontents,” which had been previously taught in 2018, assigns my 2003 book The Substance of Style. “When I was in college,I once wrote a paper saying that my professor’s book was wrong. I told all the students, “He graded me fairly, and if you write a paper saying my book is wrong, I’ll do the same thing.” We aren’t in the business of indoctrination. We want our students to think.

I’m delighted to be part of this excellent program. Drawing students from all classes and a wide variety of majors, the courses offer a rare combination of intellectual engagement, respectful conversation, and mind-expanding works. Plus lots of feedback, from two professors.

What I’ve been “reading”

Driving between L.A. and Orange gives me plenty of time for listening to audio books, which I also enjoy while walking, cooking, and weaving. For some reason, I’m drawn to massive histories as audio experiences. I’m currently on the third volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain. I’ve added the printed versions to my collection so I can check passages of interest (and perhaps eventually read the hard copies myself). I did the same with Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment, which I first saw in a bookshop on a July visit to Princeton. I would have bought it then, but it was much too big to carry home.

If you’re looking for a non-massive history book, The Fabric of Civilization is also available as an audio book. (That’s the Amazon/Audible link, but it’s on all platforms.)

Defending Dynamism and Getting Stuff Done

This entry went out to my Substack newsletter list on May 16. To subscribe, click here.

Last Wednesday, Ross Douthat devoted his NYT column to applying the stasis/dynamism model I developed in The Future and Its Enemies to understanding Elon Musk:

A term like “conservative” doesn’t fit the Tesla tycoon; even “libertarian,” while closer to the mark, associates Musk with a lot of ideas that I don’t think he particularly cares about. A better label comes from Virginia Postrel, in her 1998 book “The Future and Its Enemies”: Musk is what she calls a “dynamist,” meaning someone whose primary commitments are to exploration and discovery, someone who believes that the best society is one that’s always inventing, transforming, doing something new.

I might quibble with some of his presentation—dynamism includes an important role for criticism and competition, since not every new idea is a good idea—but it’s a good analysis both of Musk and of why dynamists who considered themselves liberals (in the left-of-center American sense) might feel politically homeless these days. And I do say in the book that learning, as opposed to stability and control, is the central dynamist value, something that I am even more convinced of today than when I was writing in the late 1990s.

Ever since Trump bent history’s arc his way, however, that confidence has diminished or collapsed. Now liberals increasingly regard the internet as the zone of monsters and misinformation, awash in illiberalism, easily manipulated by demagogues, a breeding ground for insurrectionists. And if digital technology has become particularly suspect, via the transitive property so has the larger idea of innovating your way out of social or environmental problems — empowering the part of the environmental movement that wants to tame capitalism to save the planet, for instance, at the expense of the part that imagines taming climate change with fleets of Teslas and nuclear power plants.
Meanwhile, the values underlying dynamism — above all, the special pedestal given to free thinking and free speech — are also more suspect within liberalism today. In their place is a new regulatory spirit around culture as well as economics, a how-much-is-too-much attitude toward the circulation of potentially dangerous ideas, a belief in institutions of scientific and intellectual authority but not necessarily institutions devoted to wide-open inquiry. [Emphasis added.]
Just as a dynamist might, at the extreme of the orientation, prefer a monarchy that protects innovation over a democracy that discourages it, some of today’s progressives are making the same move in reverse: If democracy is endangered by technological change and unfettered free speech, then so much the worse for free speech. The important thing is to save democratic self-government, even if you have to temporarily take the “liberties” out of the American Civil Liberties Union or put away your John Stuart Mill.

For more background on my perspective, here’s a good Q&A from 2017. (I was less articulate in the updated conversation with Jim Pethokoukis earlier this month.)The good news is that the dynamist coalition that I imagined 25 years ago is starting to emerge, even if it’s far from a political force.

Writing in The Atlantic last week, Derek Thompson asked a provocative and not at all hypothetical question, “What if we invented a technology to save the planet—and the world refused to use it?” His column was a powerful follow-up to an earlier argument for what he calls an “abundance agenda.”

Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change—but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right—but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care—but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA‪ that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.
In the past few months, I’ve become obsessed with a policy agenda that is focused on solving our national problem of scarcity. This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth.

I’m looking forward to the Breakthrough Institute’s “Breakthrough Dialogue 2022: Progress Problems” conference next month, where I’ll be on a panel discussing Klein’s “supply-side progressivism” idea and, I hope, finding ways to counter the regulatory mindset that sees every new venture as something to be squashed or controlled.

One of the striking splits today, which I failed to anticipate in TFAIE, is between those concerned with climate change as a problem needing dynamist approaches to find solutions and those like Bill McKibben who use it as an excuse to promote stasis. BTI’s Alex Trembath, who is definitely in the dynamist camp, published an excellent article in March on “cost-disease environmentalism,” his term for what happens when subsidies to promote, say, green infrastructure confront regulations that hamper all infrastructure.

Subsidizing demand for low-carbon technology comes with serious risks if policymakers don’t attend to the supply side by dismantling the regulatory bottlenecks that make it hard to build anything in this country. For decades, clean-energy deployment has been undergirded by federal tax credits, state-level renewable-portfolio standards, and other subsidies. Democrats’ climate agenda broadly extends and expands this subsidy regime. Yet the projects these subsidies support encounter regulatory hurdles imposed by the same governments that provide the subsidies.
Public enemy number one has to be the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Passed in 1970 as part of a wave of environmental regulatory reform, NEPA created regulatory standards and hurdles for infrastructure projects, industrial facilities, and more. NEPA’s practical effect has been the proliferation of environmental impact statements (EISs) for projects that could “significantly affect” the environment, including everything from denser housing supply in cities and high-speed electric rail to large-scale renewable-energy projects and, infamously, bike lanes. The constraints on breaking ground, let alone completing, projects like these are notorious. As Niskanen’s Hammond and Brink Lindsey have noted, the average EIS today runs over 600 pages in length and takes 4.5 years to complete.

A similar phenomenon explains why the liveliest, and most politically effective, cross-partisan dynamist coalitions today are centered on increasing the supply of housing (one of my favorite topics). You don’t have to be a libertarian to see the value in the literal meaning of laissez- faire: allow doing.

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