Friday, February 26, 2010


Late last summer I was in a brief Russian phase, and so I picked up Simon Sebag Montefiore’s two-volume biography of Stalin (Young Stalin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar).
This is thick description at its finest; Montefiore doesn’t provide a systematic overview of Bolshevism or Communist Russia, but that’s not what he’s aiming for. Rather, he has produced a fascinating, intimate picture of Stalin and his nearest (in his case, one can only rarely speak of his dearest).
A few things that stick with me a few months later:
- the “wild east” of the Caucasus, which produced the Georgian Joseph Djugashvili, who went by the names Soso, Koba, and eventually Stalin. The Caucasus region was barely under the Tsar’s control, and the lawlessness and violence there (in Stalin’s hometown of Gori, organized brawls between all of the town’s inhabitants was a regular pastime) undoubtedly shaped young Stalin.
- Montefiore provides the most compelling explanation I’ve found for Stalin’s terrible paranoia that culminated in the Great Terror of the late 1930s (indeed, informed his entire life and rule). In addition to Stalin’s personal insecurities and need to dominate, it was the Tsarist regime itself which fostered this paranoia. The regime’s ochrana secret service, established after Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by radicals, was everywhere and had penetrated the radical circles in which Stalin grew up – but the ochrana itself had been penetrated by radical agents. Some of these agents for both sides were, in fact, double and even triple agents. No one could ever fully be trusted. Stalin’s paranoia grew out of these real conditions at the end of the Tsarist regime. Of course, the scale of paranoid violence under the two regimes was orders of magnitude different: the ochrana was responsible for four to five thousand deaths, Stalin for something like 20 million.
- the author shows convincingly that Stalin’s power derived not just from the terror he exerted, but also from his charm. He could be an attractive man – witty, exuberant, on occasion showing sincere concern for at least some of his circle. This side of Stalin makes his inhumanity, which hardly gets short shrift here, all the scarier.
- one strand throughout are the parallels between the Bolsheviks and religious movements. Montefiore decribes them as a “military order of knights.”
- since the focus is on Stalin and his “court,” the millions of deaths of ordinary Russians, Ukrainians, and others only appear on the margins. Nonetheless, the focused study of this smaller circle still provides plenty of chilling moments. Though not as dramatic as the period of the show trials in the 1930s, for me perhaps the most vivid, visceral illustration of the terror Stalin inspired occurred in the last years of his life. The dictator had begun to focus his suspicions on an alleged Jewish plot against him. “Shrewd people began to divorce their Jewish spouses,” Montefiore notes laconically(SCRT, 498). This single, short sentence conveys the terror of the dictator’s moods rippling out in expanding circles.
- there’s a terrible, tragic irony in the Bolsheviks’ motivation, given their avowed philosophy. Marxism had preached, of course, that the oppressed would overthrow the elite. The Russian situation ended up being nearly the opposite. Lenin (a nobleman) and many of the other top Bolsheviks were elites who expressed hatred of their own, backward countrymen. In other cases, like Stalin’s, the pattern was at least somewhat closer to what Marx had predicted: they came from minority groups (Caucasians, Jews) who hated the dominant Russians. Once the Bolsheviks came to power, they made war on their own country, and the main victims would end up being Russian and Ukrainian peasants, hardly the elite.
- finally, Montefiore’s prose is enjoyable to read. Frequently, there are real gems, especially when it comes to colorful put-downs. When Stalin’s paladins regularly break into song at their late night banquets, they form a “murderous boy band.” The same group, on an especially inebriated night, resemble a “Neanderthal stag party.” Khrushchev is a “meteoric bumpkin.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Health care and two kinds of collective action problem

There appears to be a paradox in the great health care debate. Central arguments of each side, while on the surface quite different and pointing to different solutions, in fact resemble each other at a more abstract level: they both revolve around collective action problems. Both arguments, as far as I can tell, are valid and important. To my knowledge (and I can only claim to know a tiny fraction of the contributions to the debate), no reform proposal addresses both points in the same reform proposal.
The Democrats point to what Paul Krugman recently dubbed the “insurance death spiral” ( The basic problem revolves around the collective action problem known as adverse selection. If generally healthy people – using their “insider knowledge” of their own conditions, hence the term adverse selection - can opt out of insurance schemes including less healthy people (or out of insurance altogether), this will leave the less healthy to sustain the insurance pool. Because they are less healthy, their healthcare costs will go up compared to earlier, which will, in turn, drive out even more relatively healthy people. And so on. (It’s sort of like a Gresham’s law of insurance: bad risks drive out good.) Conversely (but with a similar outcome), an insurance company may “cherry pick” only the healthy people, leaving the unhealthy to somebody else, either an unfortunate pool of unhealthy people or the government. In both cases, adverse selection leads to overly narrow insurance pools, in which the unhealthy have been segregated, driving their costs through the roof. Thus, Krugman and others point to the need to mandate universal coverage (i.e. every individual must be insured) and to prevent insurance companies from “cherry-picking.” Otherwise, this insurance death spiral will lead to the system of insurance unraveling.
It’s worth considering how the health insurance system – as it’s now practiced (see below) – differs from other kinds of insurance. In the case of auto insurance, coverage is mandated for individuals; companies, however, can deny coverage (I think) and can charge differential rates based on the person’s track record and characteristics (sex, age, etc.). Would there be the potential for more adverse selection in the case of auto insurance than health insurance – i.e. could good drivers know they are more secure relative to bad drivers than generally healthy people can relative to unhealthy people, and thus opt out of insurance? Is remaining safe on the road more in drivers’ own hands than remaining healthy is? Probably not. Hence, even if good drivers could choose to forego insurance, fewer would do so than Krugman and the Democrats rightly fear happens with health insurance. And even so, we still mandate coverage. This suggests that mandating universal coverage in health care makes sense.
Here’s where the other side of the equation comes in. We need to look at what health insurance, as it’s currently set up, actually covers. The comparison with auto insurance is revealing. It shows that our current health insurance system doesn’t really deserve the name insurance. This is where the Republicans’ arguments have traction.
As argued in a brilliant piece by David Goldhill in the September 2009 issue of the Atlantic Monthly (, we’ve gotten used to health insurance covering nearly all our medical costs (perhaps five sixths), not just catastrophic, unforeseeable ones. We go to the doctor for a cold or for a pregnancy – insurance picks up major portions of the expense. This is completely different than the way auto insurance works. It would be as if auto insurance covered not just collisions, but five sixths of our expenses for gas and oil changes as well. Under such circumstances, when we don’t pay for most of our own expenses, the results are all too predictable: people consume far more than they would if they had to pay out of pocket. Feel a small cold coming on, see the doctor and pay the $10 co-pay. If you had to personally fork over $200, how many of you would choose to suffer through it? What we have in the health field is not insurance; it’s a kind of cost-socializing scheme. The collective action term here is moral hazard – people behave differently when they know they won’t have to bear the full costs.
Goldhill and others therefore recommend restoring a true system of health insurance. I.e. insurance should only cover truly catastrophic occurrences. For other illnesses, people should pay out of pocket or rely on subsidized health savings accounts (I refer people to Goldhill’s article for the details of how this would – or might - work).
So the one side points to the collective action problem of adverse selection (insurance death spiral), while the other focuses on the collective action problem of moral hazard (socialized payments).
It’s striking that two such similarly structured arguments just pass each other in the night, seemingly oblivious of the other. How can this be? Surely, Goldhill and the Republicans must be aware of adverse selection? And Krugman and the Democrats must know about moral hazard? If so, I haven’t seen anybody from either side address the other’s valid arguments. Why not?
I suspect rather different explanations in each case. My hunch is that the Republicans would say that if one created a genuine insurance system, adverse selection problems would largely disappear. After all, much of the responsibility would have been placed back on individuals. Where insurance kicks in, in catastrophic cases, they might argue, there’s less danger of adverse selection, since catastrophes occur more randomly than do smaller-scale health problems (this might not in fact be the case) – and so everybody would have an interest in being insured and nobody, or at least fewer people, would seek to segregate themselves in more favorable risk pools. Regardless, Goldhill and the others advocate mandating insurance coverage (i.e. real insurance). Adverse selection problem solved. But questions remain: technical ones about how the health savings accounts and subsidies would work, ethical ones about rationing care (for sub-catastrophic problems) based on wealth, and – perhaps most vexing of all – political ones about how to get there from here. It seems to me that the interests invested in the current cost-socializing system will be mighty hard to dislodge and overcome.
In the case of the Democrats, the blindness vis-à-vis the moral hazard problem seems rooted in an ethical commitment and wishful thinking. The commitment is to universal and equal access to all kinds of medical care (not just catastrophic). The wishful thinking seems to involve (I say seems to because I’ve never seen the Democrats address the moral hazard problem head on) the assumption that by broadening the risk pool and making it healthier on average, costs can be contained. But I see no reason to think that moral hazard will somehow make a detour around a broad risk pool. Healthcare costs will continue to escalate much faster than the economy grows.
So, we seem to be caught between one proposal that is politically unachievable, and perhaps uncharitable, but financially workable, and another that is achievable in the short term, and ethically broad-minded, but unsustainable in the long run.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On Autism and Internet Dating

A few months ago I read a short work of fiction, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The story, which begins with a neighbor’s dog who’s been murdered, is told from the first-person perspective of an autistic teenage boy. The author, Mark Haddon, does a marvelous job of (apparently) capturing something of the inner world of an autistic person, while still keeping the story interesting. The boy’s awkwardness and inability to navigate the normal social cues and expectations highlights all that we “normals” take for granted as we make our way through the world. At the same time, and especially once the account moves beyond the murdered dog and becomes a story of the boy’s dysfunctional family and his parents’ struggles to relate to him and to each other (and perhaps his own struggle, in his own way, to relate to them), we feel, curiously, a growing closeness to this always-distant boy.
I probably would not have written here about The Curious Incident if I hadn’t subsequently read another book that, while apparently about a quite different subject, turned out to be surprisingly relevant. When I attended a conference in Vienna recently, I told my hostess, an old friend from Heidelberg days, about some of my experiences with internet dating. She immediately bought me a book that’s been all the rage in Austria and will, I hope, someday be translated into English: Gut gegen Nordwind (Good Against North Wind) by Daniel Glattauer. It’s the story of a man and woman who, while not engaged in internet dating per se, encounter each other by chance online – and subsequently fall in love through dozens, even hundreds, of emails back and forth, without meeting. The novel consists of the collection of their emails, nothing more – no authorial descriptions or commentary. It brilliantly captures, I think, the allure – and ultimately the danger – of romance by words alone. In the novel, each person projects on to the other all sorts of hopes that run much less risk of being dashed as long as the couple never meets; each person “is there” electronically for the other, at much less cost than a real presence would demand. The romance feeds on itself, as real romance does, too – but here without almost any of the usual checks. In the dramatic ending, the fantasy dissolves – without the two ever having met.
So, an autistic boy, lost among the turbulence of human interaction, just barely registering his parents’ need to connect with him, and two internet-lovers kissing with words, only words, building their mirage of intimacy. From opposite directions, surprisingly, the two novels show us some of the obstacles to bridging the divide from “I” to “I.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The "One Percent Doctrine" and Environmental Faith

Tom Friedman's piece today in the Times on the environment ( is one of the flimsiest pieces by a major
columnist that I can remember ever reading. He applies Cheney's "one percent doctrine" (which is similar to the environmentalists' "precautionary principle") to the risk of environmental armageddon. But this doctrine is both intellectually incoherent and practically irrelevant. It is intellectually incoherent because it cannot be applied consistently in a world with many potential disaster scenarios. In addition to the global-warming risk, there's also the asteroid-hitting-the-earth risk, the terrorists-with-nuclear-weapons risk (Cheney's original scenario), the super-duper-pandemic risk, etc. Since each of these risks, on the "one percent doctrine," would deserve all of our attention, we cannot address all of them simultaneously. That is, even within the one-percent mentality, we'd have to begin prioritizing, making choices and trade-offs. But why then should we only make these trade-offs between responses to disaster scenarios? Why not also choose between them and other, much more cotidien, things we value? Why treat the unlikely but cataclysmic event as somehow fundamentally different, something that cannot be integrated into all the other calculations we make?
And in fact, this is how we behave all the time. We get into our cars in order to buy a cup of coffee, even though there's some chance we will be killed on the way to the coffee shop. We are constantly risking death, if slightly, in order to pursue the things we value. Any creature that adopted the "precautionary principle" would sit at home - no, not even there, since there is some chance the building might collapse. That creature would neither be able to act, nor not act, since it would nowhere discover perfect safety.
Friedman's approach reminds me somehow of Pascal's wager - quasi-religious faith masquerading as rational deliberation (as Hans Albert has pointed out, Pascal's wager itself doesn't add up: there may be a God, in fact, but it may turn out that He dislikes, and even damns, people who believe in him because they've calculated it's in their best interest to do so). As my friend James points out, it's striking how descriptions of the environmental risk always describe the situation as if it were five to midnight. It must be near midnight, since otherwise there would be no need to act. But it can never be five *past* midnight, since then acting would be pointless and we might as well party like it was 2099. Many religious movements - for example the early Jesus movement - have exhibited precisely this combination of traits: the looming apocalypse, with the time (just barely) to take action.
None of this is to deny - at least this is my current sense - that human action is contributing to global warming. But what our response to this news should be is another matter entirely.

From Bauhaus to Our House

For my recent peregrinations into the city, I picked up Tom Wolfe’s slender volume on modern architecture. Wolfe writes wittily and acerbically about the long dominance of the “International Style,” which banned any kind of decoration and non-functional elements from its geometric, identical-looking buildings (think almost any Manhattan skyscraper built from the 1940s to the 1980s). This movement originated in Weimar Germany and, through sycophantic American architects and especially the immigration to America of such men as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe in the 1930s, took hold in the United States. Wolfe asks how so many corporations, foundations, universities, and private individuals have been convinced to pay for buildings whose designs they themselves often find sterile and unappealing.
Wolfe’s explanation – if correct (I know far too little about this particular field to be sure if it is on the mark, but it certainly has the ring of truth) – sheds light on three broader issues. First, the Bauhaus “compound” was one of the early breakaways from the official art academies, part of the liberation of Europe’s bourgeoisie from state tutelage. Yet, according to Wolfe, the breakaways hardly contributed to a true liberation. Rather, they merely established their own, internally generated orthopraxy, placing any apostates under anathema. That is, they became a new “clerisy,” a priestly class dictating taste. Remarkably, this class, perhaps through its generally united front and elite prestige, convinced its customers to “take it [their unappealing designs] like a man.”
Second, the Bauhaus clerisy (and no doubt others) made rejection of everything “bourgeois” the touchstone of their style – hence the banishment of all useless decorative elements. The fact that all of the Bauhaus architects themselves were eminently bourgeois hardly gave them pause, let alone derailed their project. Indeed, this instance of bourgeois self-hatred would seem to be typical of a vast, still under-explored and, to my mind, tremendously important phenomenon stretching from at least the 19th well into the 20th (and probably 21st) centuries. Didn’t bourgeois self-hatred contribute significantly to the popularity of Marxism, which found its most devoted following not among actual workers, but among the bourgeoisie, the great exploiting class, itself?
Finally, the “International Style” took hold in America because American intellectuals continued long into the 20th century to be in thrall to European trend-setters, a manifestation of what Wolfe calls the “colonial complex.”
All told, then, this is an interesting exploration of elite formation, elite self-delusion, and elite enthrallment.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Capitalist and Communist Fictions

When I was a scruffy grad student at Harvard earlier this decade, Marc Zuckerberg was a gawky undergrad at the same school. As I put the finishing touches on my recondite treatise on the German workforce, young Zuckerberg (whom I never encountered) was creating Facebook, which just booked its 350 millionth user. What an accomplishment, to have thought up such a transformative social medium! The user-milestone has gotten me thinking about just what Zuckerberg wrought. Has he really created value? Before suggesting that any positive answer, at least the standard, obvious one, likely involves what we might call a “capitalist fiction,” let me set the stage by recalling what Gunnar Myrdal termed the “communist fiction.”
This had nothing to do with Marx, Lenin or Stalin, but rather with how we thought about, compared, and aggregated measures of individual well-being. After having “solved” the problem of value by means of subjective utility, neo-classical economics wrestled with the problem of interpersonal comparisons: if subjective taste or utility truly is the measure of value, how could one ever construct an aggregated, collective measure of an entire society’s well-being? How should one compare and add together, say, my enjoyment of a chocolate ice cream cone to your preference for a peach? Weren’t these really fundamentally subjective, and hence incommensurable, valuations? Thoughtful, philosophically-curious and informed economists around1900, above all those in the Austrian School around Carl Menger, wrestled with this problem. Later economists, less given to doubt and less broadly educated, “solved” the problem by means of measuring well-being in terms of the dollars (yen, pounds, etc) we are willing to pay for something. These units of currency are standardized and hence commensurable. One can build on them measures of national well-being such as GDP. This is what Myrdal termed – and criticized as – the “communist fiction.” In fact, he suggested, we can’t really measure collective well-being.
In addition to this communist fiction, it seems to me that we also face what might be called a “capitalist fiction.” This relates not to the problem of comparison and aggregation, but to that of personal, inter-temporal choice. How much value has Facebook created? The simple answer is to measure Zuckerberg’s and his share-holders’ wealth, and say his creation has generated this much additional value. (The number must run into the billions.) But for the individual users of FB, how much has it added to her well-being? Again, we could refer to the communist fiction and respond that we simply can’t come up with an aggregate number. But even for the individual user him or herself, can we really say? Like so many of these social media, FB is or can be addictive. How does one assess the value of an addiction? Addictions typically involve discrepancies in individual inter-temporal preferences. In simpler terms, that means that one and the same individual may well enjoy using Facebook, when he is actually logged on, but afterward he may regret all the time he spent on trivia, time which could have been better used on some other activity. His own preferences vary depending on when you ask him about them. So, how should we even begin to assess FB’s contribution to the individual user’s well-being? How – when (from which temporal vantage point) – should one begin to estimate the “value” of heroine to an addict?
If you add this “capitalistic fiction” to the “communist fiction,” there may well be less to celebrate in Zuckerberg’s announcement of his 350 millionth user. Of course, I doubt this is disturbing the party he’s throwing for himself. At least at that one time, that one (very, very wealthy) pioneer will most likely not be suffering much from either fiction.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The half-baked Church

Teaching the first half of a world history course for the first time this semester has provided numerous opportunities for me to learn. I’ve had to develop at least a rudimentary understanding of the non-European civilizations and to think much more about global patterns, commonalities, and differences. At the same time, as I’ve discovered over the last couple of days while preparing my lectures on the European middle ages, I’ve gotten a chance to think more about questions with which I thought I was already somewhat familiar.
Many scholars, in trying to explain Europe’s sui generis path, have pointed to the division of power between secular and religious authorities going back to the middle ages and even to the origins of Christianity and the Roman empire. This division may have been the mother of all divisions of power. One way to think about the sources of this ur-division is to say that western Christianity, the Catholic Church, was half-baked in its origins. A common feature in other civilizations was that religious and secular power were fused, they were held in the same hand. This was the case with the Muslim Caliphs as well as the Chinese emperors. It would become the case with the Roman/Byzantine emperors in the eastern, surviving half of the Roman empire, as they developed caesaro-papism. Western Christianity developed differently because of the nature of the empire within which it grew, because of the Church’s experiences in the first centuries of its existence, and especially because the western half of the empire collapsed, preventing a likely drift into caesaro-papism. The eastern Church was fully baked, one might say, while the western was only half-baked.
For the first 250 or so years of organized Christian churches, they were persecuted by Roman authorities, and hence developed a healthy suspicion of political power. Constantine’s conversion and edict of toleration in 313, of course, brought the Church great patronage and benefits, but it was only in 395, with the declaration of Christianity as the only tolerated religion within the empire, that Christianity became fully allied with, and thus potentially subservient to, the state. By this point, however, the western empire only had another 80 years to live. That is, the western Church tasted the fruits of an alliance with power for only a relatively short time.
But its incubation within the Roman empire for 400 years, first – and for the longest time - as persecuted, then as tolerated and promoted, and finally as the only officially backed religion, did form crucial features of the Church: in its bishoprics, it imitated the structures of Roman urban life; in its hierarchy, that of the Empire; in its legalism, the Roman tradition going back to the Twelve Tables. The basic structures of much of Church life were partly formed – half baked - by the Roman empire, including some of the remnants of the Republic, without the Church becoming too wedded to power – without it being fully baked by power.
Of course, the caesaro-papist tradition didn’t remain fully absent in the west, at least on a small, decentralized scale: during the “Dark Ages” between 500 and 1000, secular rulers often treated priests and bishops, who were often family members or directly dependent on the secular power-holders for their positions, as their vassals. Yet, at the latest by the Investiture Struggle (circa 1100-1300), when reforming Popes claimed not just equality with and independence from the secular authorities but, in fact, dominance over them, the caesaro-papist option was foreclosed. (Whether a papal-caesarist option was ever viable is another matter.) The two authorities, worldly and heavenly, were to be permanently divided, providing perhaps the most basic model to the West of the division of power. What I’m suggesting here is that this was not merely the overcoming of secular meddling by any old religion. Its success required a Church, a Church that could muster enormous intellectual and organizational resources. Without that half-baking in its early centuries, that is, if the Church had not developed at least incipient structures and legal traditions with which to counter Henry IV’s armies and claims, it seems hard to imagine how it could have stood up to worldly authorities. Thus, it seems to me that for its success – and perhaps for that of the West – it was crucial not only that the Church avoid a complete caesaro-papist baking, but also that it undergo a half-baking, one whose impact would only be felt a thousand years later.
(For a scholarly, quite masterful, treatment of related questions, I recommend John Hall’s Powers and Liberties.)