Jill Lepore’s one-volume history of the U.S.

“Think of the American republic as a railroad train,” writes Bruce Ackerman in the first volume of his constitutional history of the U.S., “with the judges of the middle Republic sitting in the caboose, looking backward.” Time passes, the political and judicial landscape changes, judges come and go. But all the while the judges are facing backward, not in charge of the train’s direction but trying to make sense of how everything they’ve seen fits together. This notion of judges engaging in “retrospective synthesis” didn’t seem all that helpful to me when studying constitutional law — But how should the judges decide?? — but Ackerman was writing a history, and I found myself thinking of his metaphor recently as explaining part of what historians do.

Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and New Yorker writer, has taken on an ambitious act of retrospective synthesis with her new one-volume history of the U.S. I strongly recommend it. “Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but,” Lepore writes. “This book is neither kind.” Instead, it is a synthesis, a telling that puts ideals and atrocities on equal footing and which returns continually to the question: By what right are we ruled?

It is also “meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” And there is no doubt that any American who reads the book will come away better prepared for civic life. But while history is an important input into civic participation, Lepore’s account also emphasizes why we cannot proceed based on retrospection alone. Americans, James Madison wrote, “have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity” — and that was a good thing. Lepore also quotes him as warning against fealty toward the wisdom of the founders. (I can’t for the life of me find the quote, but having finished the book just a couple of weeks ago I am confident it’s in there.)

The past can inform, inspire, and chasten. But civics is about the passengers on the train, not just the view from the caboose. It is up to us to choose a destination.

A limited version of objectivity worth defending

Objectivity was a major topic at the Nieman Foundation’s 80th anniversary event this weekend, especially during a panel on the line between activism and journalism. Nieman Reports has a new(ish) article on that subject, too. “Impartiality”, “fairness”, and “accuracy” were all terms that came up as possible replacements for “objectivity.” The article and the event together raised a lot of interesting questions, most of which I won’t even try to address.

I want to focus more narrowly, offering a limited defense of a certain kind of objectivity. Here’s a great quote from Harvard’s Yochai Benkler, from the Nieman Reports piece:

“Professional journalism needs to shift away from the way in which it performs objectivity. The critical move needs to be from objectivity as neutrality to objectivity as truth-seeking. That’s how you avoid false equivalencies. In a propaganda-rich system, to be neutral is to be complicit.”

“Truth” can mean many things, so I’ll narrow it even further: from objectivity as neutrality to objectivity as empirical truth-seeking.

The first advantage of objectivity as the search for empirical truth is that it flat out doesn’t apply to some key journalistic questions to which “objectivity” was offered as an answer. What stories should a newspaper cover? That just plainly isn’t an empirical question; there is no “objective” answer in the sense of objectivity as empirical truth-seeking.

A newspaper that tries to remain “neutral” in what it chooses to cover might opt to defer to other institutions like political parties to set the agenda. Claiming that this strategy is “objective” is nonsensical and harmful. That doesn’t mean “neutrality” can’t ever be defensible. A trade publication might look to trends and attention within the industry it covers to decide what it should report on. Claiming that this is being “objective” is deeply misguided, but adopting this neutral posture might make sense for the business.

Civic journalism can do better. Decisions like what to cover depend on values, and the best journalistic institutions won’t simply punt on questions of values in order to maintain some appearance of neutrality.

But those publications can still aim for “objectivity” in the sense of empirical truth-seeking, and I’m partial to that term over either “fairness” or “accuracy”. Fairness is an important value, especially for journalism, but it doesn’t proceed from the search for empirical truth. Accuracy doesn’t have that problem and so is closer, but the word can be misconstrued so as to let journalists off the hook. If you write about a thorny empirical topic like climate change or fiscal policy and you faithfully report everyone’s opinions you’ve in one sense accurately described the debate. But you may not be helping readers understand the truth.

Objectivity remains, in my view, the best word for conveying a commitment to the search for empirical truth — particularly in areas where that truth is more complicated than straightforward matters of fact. Objectivity is not an appropriate answer to many of journalism’s toughest questions but understood narrowly it can still be useful.

UPDATE: More from Benkler in a Q&A with Boston Review. This was interesting, on why objectivity-as-neutrality works less well than it once did:

Journalistic core practices have never been perfect but, broadly speaking, they have worked reasonably well. That is largely because, until recently, both political parties in the United States and the major actors—corporations, unions, nonprofits—more or less complied with a set of elite norms about how much you could attack basic foundational facts, how much you could fabricate. This meant that the model of journalistic objectivity and balance—being neutral and reporting on both sides—was not systematically biased in favor of one major party or the other. It reflected, more or less, the elite consensus range of views. Trust in media largely oscillated with the party in power: critical coverage meant that if your party was in power, your trust in journalism declined, and then rebounded when the other party took power.

Romer and Nordhaus

There are many tie-ins between the two: both are “doers,” there are similarities in how they made their case within and beyond their field, and both worked on externalities — with Nordhaus most famous for his work on negative environmental externalities and Romer most famous for his description of positive externalities in the form of ideas. (Nordhaus, it must be noted, has done seminal work on positive externalities, too.)

To me, though, the most obvious connection between them is with an eye toward the future: among the biggest challenges society faces is encouraging innovation and economic growth without destroying the environment, most notably through climate change. Romer and Nordhaus have done more than almost anyone to address that challenge.

In honor of their work, here are a few things related to it:


The chart is from Our World in Data, but based on Nordhaus’ work. On the environmental side, his book Climate Casino is worth a read.

As for Romer, here’s his plain English overview of economic growth. Here’s a video by Marginal Revolution University on his work. And the excellent book Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, by David Warsh, tracks Romer’s essential contribution to economics, with lots of great historical context.

‘The most common and durable source of factions’

Of the many causes of faction, there is one that James Madison called out in particular:

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.

Emphasis mine.

I was reminded of that line by James MacGregor Burns’ Fire and Light.

Notes on internet organization and production

This post has been updated as I’ve thought more about these distinctions.

My point in writing this post is both to note that there are internet-based models of organization and production other than the much-discussed “platforms,” and to distinguish a few different kinds of platforms. All of this is based just on my own reading and thinking. I’m sure others have better, more formal, and more considered definitions.

Different kinds of platforms

Participatory platforms: They offer users the ability to create something, to communicate, or similar — often in a fairly open-ended way. And they place few if any limits on those users’ activity or on who can join. Think Twitter or Tumblr. The scale and variety of users’ activity and the connections between users create something the platform owners could never have created on their own (for good or ill).

APIs: Application programming interfaces let other programmers communicate with your system, to access data or functions, or to do a variety of other things. They therefore let others build things using your product, data, or service. One version I’m counting within my loose version of APIs is operating systems which offer APIs so that people can build software “on top of” the OS. So think of Android and Windows as falling within this category, but also Facebook or Twitter at some points letting others build apps on top of their platforms or access pieces of their data. This is what people are getting at when they use the metaphor of a “platform” to generalize the idea of letting others “build on top” of whatever you offer.

Two-sided markets: These platforms match buyers and sellers. Think eBay, Uber, Airbnb.

Big companies like Google, Facebook, or Amazon fit multiple categories; they are platforms in multiple senses. Other platforms are platforms only in a single sense.

Non-platform models

Sometimes, reading the business press, you’d think platforms were the only way the internet changed organization. But there are other models made possible by digital technology and the internet:

Peer production: Users come together to collaborate, typically towards a project that will be a commons — like Wikipedia or Linux. The collaboration is complex and may require elaborate rules and norms to govern interactions.

Crowdsourcing: Users offer distinct inputs — votes, predictions, code — that are collected by a central entity. Sometimes they’re aggregated (as in prediction tournaments) and sometimes the top entrant is rewarded (as in contests on Kaggle or TopCoder).

Data loops: A product gathers data which is used to improve the product, creating a positive feedback cycle. Netflix’s recommendation algorithm is one example, and here is a piece on this model.

Aggregators: They sit on top of a mountain of content and help their users find things. Participatory platforms often have to build aggregators — like the Facebook news feed — but aggregators needn’t be participatory platforms. Google is an aggregator, but unlike Facebook the content it navigates is not it’s own.

(I’ve only tried here to include models where the nature of organization and production is changed. Of course there are lots of ways to use the internet and digital technology to make existing production more efficient.)

The problem with thinking of platforms as the end-all be-all of the internet is — other than the confusion that comes from the multiple types — that it distracts from the real concept at the internet’s heart: networks. These are all networked models of organization and production, made possible by ubiquitous connections and the constant flow of information between them.