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“Education is the key to unlock a golden door of freedom”*…

Historian (and author) Ada Palmer on what she convincingly argues is an unappreciated aspect of American cultural and political history…

Many shocking, new ideas shaped the American Experiment and related 18th century democratic ventures; as an historian of the period, I often notice that one of the most fundamental of them, and most shocking to a world which had so long assumed the opposite, often goes unmentioned — indeed sometimes denied — in today’s discussions of democracy: the belief that all people are educable.  I think it’s urgent that we bring that principle back into the spotlight if we want to defend democracy from one of its common failure modes: pseudo-populist oligarchy.

Within “all men are created equal” lies the sub-principle that all people, or specifically all enfranchised citizens of a state (which often at the time meant white male adults, though some made it broader, or narrower) that all such people are, if given appropriate educational resources, capable of learning, exercising sound judgment, and acting on said judgment, thus that they all people are equally rational and capable of competent self-governance.  This thesis does not assume that all people when adults are equally prepared to participate in government, but that all people when born have the capacity to absorb education if given access to it.  Rare intellectual disabilities might make the education process challenging for certain individuals, but (the thesis argues) even then the right support and resources make education possible, and such situations are not the default human state.  This is the thesis that all people are fundamentally educable. 

Many in the 18th c. who thought democracy was absurd rejected it because they disagreed with this thesis, believing that the majority of people (even of white men) were not educable, i.e. that even with educational resources most people were born incapable of being guided by Reason and making sound political judgments. Those who believed this predicted that government by the people would collapse into absurdity, since it would be led by a parliament of fools…

[Palmer runs through pre-modern and Enlightenment thinking on the subject– most of which dismissed democracy as impractical on grounds that went to the incapacity of the many to understand and make intelligent decisions…]

It took a lot to get even a small radical fringe by 1750 to entertain the notion that all people–or even just all men–were created equally educable.  A long survey of the causes would get unwieldy, but they include (among other things) contact with indigenous cultures in the Americas and other regions which had functional governments without European-style systems, revolutions in medicine and the understanding of the sense organs which undermined old hierarchy-enforcing ideas about how cognition and sensation functioned, second-order consequences of the rags-to-riches path opened by Renaissance courts employing scholars from any background so long as they had good Latin, and Protestantism’s second-order implication that, if people didn’t need priests as intermediaries between their prayers and God, perhaps they didn’t need aristocrats as intermediaries between them and power.  But by 1750 that fringe existed, and had enough momentum to implement its experiment in the new United States, which most people who were considered sensible at the time thought would quickly degenerate into chaos, because they didn’t think most people were capable of understanding the world enough to vote sensibly, draft legislation, or serve in a congress, and that the tiny wise minority would be drowned out by the majority wanting to vote for dining on the king’s tab and killing all the lawyers…

Democracy can function, says Thomas Paine (to pick a spokesman for the US founders), because human beings are fundamentally educable, and if given a good teacher, a good reading list, and some newspapers, all human beings, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, will become capable of wise judgment and self-rule. One’s civic duty is not to identify the wise minority and put them in power, but to disseminate the tools of education so the majority can become wise. This thesis is opposed to aristocracy, to oligarchy, to timocracy, even to most forms of meritocracy, since education isn’t supposed to prepare people to be sorted out by the exam but to demonstrate that human beings are so excellent that everyone can pass it…

… Today’s America has seen decades of the intentional conservative-led starving and squeezing of public education, efforts to increase the disparity in education quality between public education and private or charter school education, conservative-led homeschool movements which aim to expose people to a narrow range of ideology, and also the devastation of newspapers, journalism, and a vast misinformation campaign. All this adds up to preventing many who are educable from becoming educated. Thomas Paine, and those I’m using him to represent, would recognize this as a sabotage of their system, one they would say might indeed enable Cade-style populism, which (as in Henry VI) is easy for ambitious elites to then harness to their own ends.  Thus, Paine would say: of course the democracy isn’t working well if such an essential precondition is being sabotaged.

In sum, we need to talk more about the vital tie between democracy and the conviction that all people are created educable.  It helps make clear how strategic the strangulation of educational resources is, and that one of the less loud but most dangerous threats to our confidence in democracy is the project to make it seem like most people can’t make sensible political judgments, reducing people’s confidence in democracy as a system by seeming to prove true conservative principle that there will always be a few who should rule and many who can’t.  When I see conservative thinking start to show up in acquaintances (or Silicon Valley leaders) who consider themselves progressive but also consider themselves smart, it often begins with them feeling that most people are stupid and the world would be better off if the smart were in charge.  One can often get such people to pause and reflect by bringing up the question of whether they think all people are fundamentally educable, and whether the solution isn’t to put the reins of power into genius hands but to put the Encyclopedia in everyone else’s.  Information is key.  Those peasants who shared commons maintained them sustainably for centuries because (as we now recognize) they were educated in the ways that mattered, they learned from families and communities to understand what they were doing, using local knowledge of commons, grazing etc. as they made choices.  If one’s democratic state is the commons, people will likewise maintain it well, but not if they’re intentionally deprived of access to basic knowledge of how it works and what can harm or heal it, and drowned instead in deliberate falsehoods.

We all know we need to support education & good journalism, and combat misinformation, but revisiting the principle that all people are created educable is a good way to remember that these are not merely invaluable social goods, like sanitation or public parks.  They were conceived from the start as essential components of modern democracy, in direct opposition to the many-centuries-old conservative principle that some are best to rule and others to be ruled.  Enlightenment-style democracy cannot function without the conviction that all people are created educable.  If we forget that, if we doubt it, if we let it shake our confidence in the experiment which didn’t turn into Jack Cade for more than two centuries (bets were not on America surviving for so long in 1776!), we risk opening the gates to the old failure mode of oligarchy rising when democracy wavers…

In support of the engine of the American Experiment: “All People Are Created Educable, a Vital Oft-Forgotten Tenet of Modern Democracy,” from @Ada_Palmer.

* George Washington Carver


As we enable education, we might recall that it was on this date in 1818 (15 years after the Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase) that the “Convention respecting fisheries, boundary and the restoration of slaves” (also known as the London Convention, Anglo-American Convention of 1818, Convention of 1818, or most widely and most simply as the Treaty of 1818) was signed by The U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Primarily aimed at settling border disputes, the treaty set the Canada–United States border on the 49th parallel for most of its length. The British ceded all of Rupert’s Land south of the 49th parallel and east of the Continental Divide, including all of the Red River Colony south of that latitude, while the United States ceded the northernmost edge of the Missouri Territory north of the 49th parallel.

The treaty also allowed for joint occupation and settlement of the Oregon Country, known to the British and in Canadian history as the Columbia District of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and including the southern portion of its sister district New Caledonia.


“I profess in the sincerity of my heart that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country”*…

Scott Alexander” (also here) throws his hat into the Presidential ring…

The American people deserve a choice. They deserve a candidate who will reject the failed policies of the past and embrace the failed policies of the future. It is my honor to announce I am throwing my hat into both the Democratic and Republican primaries (to double my chances), with the following platform…

There follow eleven bold ideas, for example:

Ensure Naval Supremacy And Reduce Wealth Inequality By Bringing Back The Liturgy

The liturgy was a custom of ancient Athens. When the state needed something (usually a new warship) it would ask for volunteers among its richest citizens. Usually one would step up to gain glory or avoid scorn; if nobody did, the courts were allowed to choose the richest person who hadn’t helped out recently. The liturgist would fund the warship and command it as captain for two years, after which his debt to the state was considered discharged and he was given a golden crown. Historians treat the liturgy as a gray area between voluntary service and compulsory taxation; most rich Athenians were eager to serve and gain the relevant honor, but they also knew that if they didn’t, they could be compelled to perform the same service with less benefit to their personal reputation.

Defense analysts warn that America’s naval dominance is declining:

Only 25 per cent of America’s 114 commissioned surface combatants (cruisers, destroyers, and littoral combat ships) are less than a decade old. By comparison more than 80 per cent of China’s 141 destroyers, frigates, and corvettes have been commissioned in the past decade. In the same time period, the United States commissioned 30 surface combatants . . . The nearly 600-ship Navy of the late 1980s deployed only 15 per cent of the fleet on average. Today, with fewer than 300 ships, the US Navy deploys more than 35 per cent to service its global missions, contributing to a material death spiral.

So America is short on warships. But it is very long on rich people with big egos. An aircraft carrier would cost the richest American billionaires about the same fraction of their wealth as a trireme cost the richest Athenian aristocrats. So I say: bring back the liturgy!

The American rich already enjoy spending their money on exciting vehicles – yachts for the normies, rockets for the more ambitious, Titanic submersibles for the suicidal. Why not redirect this impulse towards public service? Imagine the fear it would strike into the hearts of the Chinese when the USS Musk enters Ludicrous Mode in the waters off the Taiwan Strait, with Elon himself at the wheel. And does anyone doubt that Elon – usually careful to avoid taxes – would jump at the chance to do this?

Legalize Lying About Your College On Resumes

Colleges trap Americans in a cycle of burdensome loans and act to reinforce class privilege. I have previously advocated making college degree a protected characteristic which it is illegal to ask people about on job applications. But this would be hard to enforce, and people would come up with other ways to communicate their education level.

So let’s think different: let’s make it legal to lie about your college on resumes (it is already not technically illegal to lie on a resume, but companies can ask for slightly different forms of corroboration which it is illegal to lie on). Everyone can just say “Harvard,” and nobody will have any unfair advantage over anyone else.

More modest proposals: “My Presidential Platform,” from @slatestarcodex.

* Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick


As we savor the sad salience of satire, we might recall that on this date in 1935, Huey Long, Louisiana Senator and past-Governor (and inspiration for Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men), was shot in the Louisiana state capitol building; he died 30 hours later. Called a demagogue by critics, the populist leader (“every man a king”) was a larger-than-life figure who boasted that he bought legislators “like sacks of potatoes, shuffled them like a deck of cards.”

Long in the State house, flanked by the armed guards with whom he travelled


And on this date in 1974, President Gerald Ford offered his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, “a full, free, and absolute pardon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in” during Nixon’s Presidency.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 8, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The real war will never get in the books”*…

Still, historians try. And as Anton Jäger argues in his consideration of Charles S. Maier‘s The Project-State and Its Rivals- A New History of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, that’s a challenging, frustrating, but ultimately very useful thing…

“We thought we knew the story of the twentieth century,” Charles Maier notes in an announcement for his new book The Project State and Its Rivals. Both haunting and tantalizing, the sentence’s past tense speaks to a profoundly contemporary mood. As the twenty-first century progresses, confident visions about the previous century conceived from the vantage point of the 1990s—the “age of extremes” resolved by a set of liberal settlements—no longer seem safe and secure. In 2023, the European extreme Right is establishing itself as a force of government, populism is going global, and inter-imperial tensions have ushered in a new arms race. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland is currently polling above 20 percent, while Modi is set to win another term in India with an approval rating near 80 percent. To the desperation of liberals nostalgic for the 1990s, the “end of the end of history” has arrived.

As Maier surmises, there might be a connection between this sense of surprise and the comfortable judgments we tend to make about humani­ty’s last hundred years. “If the twentieth century meant the triumph of liberalism,” he asks, “why have the era’s darker impulses—ethnic nationalism, racist violence, and populist authoritarianism—revived?” The question provides the working hypothesis for Maier’s new mono­graph, a self-described “rethinking of the long twentieth century,” which aims to “explain the fraying of our own civic culture” while also “allowing hope for its recovery.” Provocatively, Maier’s focus is on “both democracies and dictatorships that sought not just to retain power but to transform their societies,” next to “new forms of imperial domination,” “global networks of finance,” and “international associations” that both challenged and shaped the state. The ambition is nothing less than a new general theory of the twentieth century, one that would allow us to deal with an unmastered past, but also to gain proper self-understanding in a new and confusing century.

Readers would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable candidate for the task than Charles S. Maier. At eighty-four, Maier—still teaching European and international history at Harvard—remains a scholar with panoramic disciplinary reach. His 1975 debut, Recasting Bourgeois Europe: Stabilization in France, Germany, and Italy in the Decade after World War I, swiftly established itself a masterpiece of comparative political history. Based on a prior Harvard dissertation complemented with a decade of additional archival research, it examined the fraught resolution of the crises of liberalism after 1918, and what factors deter­mined the potential emergence and stymieing of authoritarian regimes. After works on Germany’s collective memory of the Holocaust and an elite-driven account of the fall of East Germany, he waded into histori­cal political science with Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood in 2014, followed by Once within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging since 1500 in 2016. Clearly a product of a buoyant Cold War academe, Maier has always been locked in an uneasy pas-à-deux with Marxism: attentive to the class content of political life, but never taken to monolithic views of business interests and overly abstract notions of capital. His work on political economy looked closely at the class coalitions that gave way to divergent corporatist settlements in the 1920s and ’30s, and how these national blocs interlocked with differing international arrangements—a Marxist historiography despite itself. He also took the force of ideas seriously, weaving a tapestry of conceptual, political, and economic history, which explains the unique force of his writing. Yet unlike cultural historians, Maier has retained an interest in causality through the construction of comparative counterfactuals—what Britain and Germany shared in 1918, for instance, or why English Tories did not need a Duce and why the American South was different from the Mezzogiorno—a sensibility that also informed his consistently transnational approach to the twentieth century.

The Project State and Its Rivals exudes a similarly boundless ambition. As the book’s announcements make clear, Maier is on the lookout for a unifying category to cohere our historical experience of the twentieth century—or, more specifically, the forms of statehood that emerged in the interwar period, and that still present such vexing challenges to our intellectual imagination…

A critical account of Maier’s hypothesis, eminently worth reading in full: “The Rise and Fall of the Project State: Rethinking the Twentieth Century,” from @AntonJaegermm in @AmericanAffrs. Via Adam Tooze/@adam_tooze.

* Walt Whitman


As we keep searching, we might pause to contrast the rigorously serious with the frivolously venal: it was on this date in 1835 that the New York Sun began a series of six articles detailing the discovery of civilized life on the moon; circulation soared.  Now known as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles attributed the “discovery” to Sir John Herschel, the greatest living astronomer of the day.  Herschel was initially amused, wryly noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting.  But ultimately he tired of having to answer questioners who believed the story.  The series was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, while the paper did admit (on September 16, 1835) that the whole thing was a “satire,” it never issued a retraction (and didn’t suffer a drop in sales).

The “ruby amphitheater” on the Moon, per the New York Sun (source)

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status”*…

… which is one of the reasons that they’re hard to update. Kevin Baker describes a 1998 visit to the IRS Atlanta Service Center and ponders its lessons…

… the first thing you’d notice would be the wires. They ran everywhere, and the building obviously hadn’t been constructed with them in mind. As you walked down a corridor, passing carts full of paper returns and rows of “tingle tables,” you would tread over those wires on a raised metal gangway. Each work area had an off-ramp, where both the wires and people would disembark…

… The desks were covered with dot matrix paper, cartons of files, and Sperry terminals glowing a dull monochromatic glow. These computers were linked to a mainframe in another room. Magnetic tapes from that mainframe, and from mainframes all over the country, would be airlifted to National Airport in Washington DC. From there, they’d be put on trucks to a West Virginia town of about 14,000 people called Martinsburg. There, they’d be loaded into a machine, the first version of which was known colloquially—and not entirely affectionately—as the “Martinsburg Monster.” This computer amounted to something like a national nerve center for the IRS. On it programs called the Individual Master File and the Business Master File processed the country’s tax records. These programs also organized much of the work. If there were a problem at Martinsburg, work across the IRS’s offices spanning the continent could and frequently did shut down.

Despite decades of attempts to kill it, The IRS’s Individual Master File, an almost sixty-year old accumulation of government Assembly Language, lives on. Part of this strange persistence can be pegged squarely on Congress’s well-documented history of starving the IRS for funding. But another part of it is that the Individual Master File has become so completely entangled in the life of the agency that modernizing it resembles delicate surgery more than a straightforward software upgrade. Job descriptions, work processes, collective bargaining agreements, administrative law, and technical infrastructure all coalesce together and interface with it, so that a seemingly technical task requires considerable sociological, historical, legal, and political knowledge.

In 2023, as it was in the 1980s, the IRS is a cyborg bureaucracy, an entangled mass of law, hardware, software, and clerical labor. It was among the first government agencies to embrace automatic data processing and large-scale digital computing. And it used these technologies to organize work, to make decisions, and to understand itself. In important ways, the lines between the digital shadow of the agency—its artificial bureaucracy—and its physical presence became difficult if not impossible to disentangle….

Baker is launching a new Substack, devoted to exploring precisely this kind tangle– and what it might portend…

This series, called Artificial Bureaucracy, is a long-term project looking at the history of government computing in the fifty-year period between 1945-1995. I think this is a timely subject. In the past several years, promoters and critics of artificial intelligence alike have talked up the possibility that decision-making and even governance itself may soon be handed over to sophisticated AI systems. What draws together both the dreams of boosters and the nightmares of critics is a deterministic orientation towards the future of technology, a conception of technology as autonomous and somehow beyond the possibility of control.

These visions mostly ignore the fact that the computerization of governance is a project at least seventy years in the making, and that project has never been determined, in the first instance or the last, primarily by “technological” factors. Like everything in government, the hardware and software systems that make up its artificial bureaucracy were and are subject to negotiation, conflict, administrative inertia, and the individual agency of its users.

Looking at government computing can also tell us something about AI. The historian of computing, Michael Mahoney has argued that studying the history of software is the process of learning how groups of people came to put their worlds in a machine. If this is right—and I think it is—our conceptions of “artificial intelligence” have an unwarranted individualistic bias; the proper way to understand machine intelligence isn’t by analogy to individual human knowledge and decision-making, but to methods of bureaucratic knowledge and action. If it is about anything, the story of AI is the story of bureaucracy. And if the future of governance is AI, then it makes sense to know something about its past…

Is bureaucracy the future of AI? Check it out the first post in Artificial Bureaucracy, from @kevinbaker@mastodon.social.

* Laurence J. Peter


As we size up systems, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. A key component of Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic program, the Act created both the Social Security program and insurance against unemployment

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill (source)

“I’m playing both sides, so that I always come out on top”*…

A new database shows 1,500 US lobbyists working for fossil-fuel firms while representing green groups and other with similarly contradictory concerns…

More than 1,500 lobbyists in the US are working on behalf of fossil-fuel companies while at the same time representing hundreds of liberal-run cities, universities, technology companies and environmental groups that say they are tackling the climate crisis, the Guardian can reveal.

Lobbyists for oil, gas and coal interests are also employed by a vast sweep of institutions, ranging from the city governments of Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia; tech giants such as Apple and Google; more than 150 universities; some of the country’s leading environmental groups – and even ski resorts seeing their snow melted by global heating.

The breadth of fossil fuel lobbyists’ work for other clients is captured in a new database of their lobbying interests which was published online on Wednesday.

It shows the reach of state-level fossil fuel lobbyists into almost every aspect of American life, spanning local governments, large corporations, cultural institutions such as museums and film festivals, and advocacy groups, grouping together clients with starkly contradictory aims…

Read on for chilling examples: “‘Double agents’: fossil-fuel lobbyists work for US groups trying to fight climate crisis,” from @olliemilman in @GuardianUS.

* “Mac,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia


As we contemplate conflicts (and note that last Monday’s, then Tuesday’s “hottest day ever” records are sure to continue to be broken), we might spare a thought for Jacob Bjerknes; he died on this date in 1975. Son of Vilhelm Bjerknes, one of the pioneers of modern weather forecasting, Jacob is remembered for his seminal paper on the dynamics of the polar front, the mechanism for north-south heat transport, and for his contributions to the understanding of the weather phenomenon El Niño.


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