“In Greek literature, mothers only ever kill sons, never daughters. Infanticide is therefore a political act through which an enraged mother deprives her spouse of the arrogant tranquillity of a father whose sons would perpetuate his name and lineage.”

'Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet'

Malthus anyway thought that your view of the world shouldn’t be assessed according to whether or not it made you feel good: ‘The first business of philosophy is to account for things as they are.’ If you want to have any chance of making things better in the future, you have to face the facts about the past and the present – and what those facts tell us about the enduring nature of things. Optimism without realism is just a pleasant delusion: it’s rarely productive and it often leads to unintended bad consequences.

Malthus endorsed Bacon’s dictum: ‘Necessity has been with great truth called the mother of invention.’ And since a limited sustaining environment is part of our necessary condition, it was everlasting scarcity that spurred human ingenuity to do what it could – temporarily and within natural limits – to improve our lot. Malthus’s was a challenge-response theory of human progress. ‘As he really is’, man is ‘inert, sluggish, and averse from labour’; ‘The savage would slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinchings of cold.’ Remove the ‘wants of the body’ and it’s more likely that the mass of people ‘would be sunk to the level of the brutes, from a deficiency of excitements, than that they would be raised to the rank of philosophers’. Societies that inhabit the most abundant lands ‘will not be found the most remarkable for acuteness of intellect’; need has ‘not unfrequently given wings to the imagination’.

God intended no gain without pain: ‘The Supreme Being has ordained that the earth shall not produce food in great quantities till much preparatory labour and ingenuity has been exercised upon its surface.’ If the laws relating food to population had been other than what they were, humankind would have remained in a state of savagery. It was divinely designed that the work of producing food, and still more food, for a hungry population was necessary ‘to rouse man into action, and form his mind to reason’. There was divinely ordained evil in the world (Malthus called it ‘partial evil’) and mass hunger and misery were indeed evil, but it is an evil that ‘produces a great overbalance of good’: ‘Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it.’ 

“Magic Johnson liked to tell a story to explain his success. That he used to shovel snow from his driveway every winter morning, to work on his jump shot. That the difference between him and the rest of us was hard work. It always annoyed me to have him pass off his natural advantages as some kind of dedication. I spent every day after school, come rain or Texas shine, in my backyard shooting hoops. But the truth is, he probably did work harder. LeBron has probably worked harder at his job than anyone I have ever met. Even in Germany in the second division the better players played harder, tried harder than I could—they knew how to try.”

Just Undo It: The LeBron James Profile That Nike Killed

After college I spent a year playing minor-league pro basketball in Bavaria, and even at our level the social hierarchy was strict. Inequality on court played itself out in lots of ways off it. Better players talked more on the bus and in the locker room, won the arguments, made the jokes that people laughed at. For some reason, benchwarmers like me let them have their way. 

It turned out LeBron was good at playing journalists. He spoke fluently and looked courteous and interested, and said things so obviously true they didn’t mean much. You didn’t need to remember what he said. You could work it out from the question. Are you surprised that the Barcelona club beat Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in a preseason match? It’s two teams trying to win; the score starts at zero-zero every game. Etc. At the same time, he gave a strong impression of being the most reasonable man in the room. Maybe this is a natural side effect of celebrity. The fever around them makes people silly and intrusive. The habit of dealing with this silliness gives celebrities a patient tolerant air. LeBron seemed extremely patient and tolerant, but as soon as his publicist called time, he disappeared.

Then he stood up abruptly for the interview, and sat down where he was asked to sit, and gave me his attention. His attention was impressive. You felt, this is a famous man. Out of nervousness, or shyness, or some deeper, more shameful reason, I found my accent softening, turning more Southern. I grew up in Texas but usually sound like an East Coaster (my father’s a New York Jew), or worse, a transatlantic type. Maybe I wanted to make myself understood, but it also occurred to me that I was making some other, less pleasant appeal. What I mean is, it came to me very naturally to defer to him. 

Edward Snowden interview

When he last read Nineteen Eighty-Four

Actually quite some time ago. Contrary to popular belief I don’t think we are exactly in the Nineteen Eighty-Four universe. The danger is that we can see how [Orwell’s] technologies that are [in] Nineteen Eighty-Four now seem unimaginative and quaint. They talked about things like microphones implanted in bushes and cameras in TVs that look back at us. Nowadays we’ve got webcams that go with us everywhere. We buy cell phones that are the equivalent of a network microphone that we carry around in our pockets with us voluntarily as we go from place to place and move about our lives.

On NSA culture, sharing sexually compromising material

Many of the people searching through the haystacks were young, enlisted guys and … 18 to 22 years old. They’ve suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility where they now have access to all your private records. In the course of their daily work they stumble across something that is completely unrelated to their work, for example an intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation but they’re extremely attractive. So what do they do? They turn around in their chair and they show a co-worker. And their co-worker says: “Oh, hey, that’s great. Send that to Bill down the way.” And then Bill sends it to George, George sends it to Tom and sooner or later this person’s whole life has been seen by all of these other people. Anything goes, more or less. You’re in a vaulted space. Everybody has sort of similar clearances, everybody knows everybody. It’s a small world.

It’s never reported, nobody ever knows about it, because the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak. Now while people may say that it’s an innocent harm, this person doesn’t even know that their image was viewed, it represents a fundamental principle, which is that we don’t have to see individual instances of abuse. The mere seizure of that communication by itself was an abuse. The fact that your private images, records of your private lives, records of your intimate moments have been taken from your private communication stream, from the intended recipient, and given to the government without any specific authorisation, without any specific need, is itself a violation of your rights. Why is that in the government database?

I’d say probably every two months you see something like that happen. It’s routine enough, depending on the company you keep, it could be more or less frequent. But these are seen as the fringe benefits of surveillance positions.

Why the NSA auditing is inadequate

A 29-year-old walked in and out of the NSA with all of their private records. What does that say about their auditing? They didn’t even know.

The people that are staffing these intelligence agencies are ordinary people, like you and me. They’re not moustache-twirling villains that are going, “ah ha ha that’s great”, they’re going: “You’re right. That crosses a line but you really shouldn’t say something about that because it’s going to end your career.”

We all have mortgages. We all have families. And when you’re working for a national security system that has these official secrets acts, that means even if you go to a chosen representative of Congress, a representative chosen by a reporter as opposed to a representative chosen by the intelligence community responsible for the wrongdoing to begin with, you can be prosecuted for it. 

'Laughter in Ancient Rome'

The history of laughter is as fraught with problems as the history of sex, and for many of the same reasons. Laughter can be set off by physical stimuli like tickling or nitrous oxide. But it is also generated by sights, sounds, and catchphrases, which vary from age to age and culture to culture. Elizabethans joked about cuckoldry and venereal disease. Roman audiences laughed at crucifixion jokes, bald men, and dwarves. The epigrams of the early imperial poet Martial circle back again and again to sniggering innuendos about bad breath and oral sex (“the old wearisome indecency,” sighed A.E. Housman, “ever fresh and entertaining to Martial and his public”). The rules for what is laughable are not always consistent or predictable even within a particular society; twenty-first-century Americans who would never dream of mocking physical handicaps can joke casually about prison rape.

“After the political catastrophes of the mid-20th century, Western European elites (except in Britain) concluded that popular sovereignty should be treated with deep distrust. After all, how could one have any faith in the people when the people had brought fascists to power or collaborated with fascist occupiers? There were profound reservations even about the idea of parliamentary sovereignty. Hadn’t legitimate representative assemblies handed power over to Hitler in 1933 and to Marshal Pétain in 1940? As a result, parliaments in postwar Europe were systematically weakened, while non-elected institutions – constitutional courts are the prime example – were given more power.”

'Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy'

The word ‘party’ – as in ‘political party’ – is in bad odour across the West, though for different reasons in different places. In the United States, everyone from the president down seems to lament the polarisation of politics and the rise of partisanship. But then hostility to parties is nothing new in American history; ‘if I could not go to heaven but with a party,’ Jefferson wrote, ‘I would not go there at all.’ Europeans tend to be less in thrall to the ideals of the one indivisible nation. They worry about the opposite problem: that the parties are all the same. So there’s a problem when parties have distinct ideologies, and there’s a problem when they don’t. What, then, do we really want from them?

The evidence Mair marshals to demonstrate the decline of parties is overwhelming. Although turnout isn’t progressively lower in every successive election, record troughs occur more often and in more and more places. Surveys confirm that the number of people who identify with a particular party is falling, while party membership is dwindling dramatically. 

Mair’s most original argument is that the decline of parties, of party government, and hence of party democracy as a whole can’t be blamed on either the people or the politicians. It’s been a matter of mutual withdrawal, with politicians and citizens sharing equally what Mair calls an ‘anti-political sentiment’.

Am I really a bad democrat for thinking that party meetings take up too many evenings? Isn’t individualism – belonging to a party of one, as Thoreau put it – a greater democratic virtue than party loyalty? Some activists may lament the passing of an age when ‘party democracy’ meant thrusting leaflets at indifferent passers-by. But don’t most of us actually prefer to stay at home and watch House of Cards, while the governing class gets on with governing? Political scientists have a new concept with which to dignify such apparent apathy: ‘audience democracy’. The idea is that we should keep an eye on things as best we can, and check the governing classes when they become too wayward. There is a compelling case for thinking that something has gone badly wrong when we see ourselves as being ruled by unaccountable, supposedly apolitical experts, but the only prospect of rescue is afforded by populists who promise to hand power back to the people. The former give us identical policies everywhere and no politics; the latter, you might say, give us politics and no policies.

The Tech Industry vs San Francisco

“We have our own version of what I call the Tea Party left,” Michael Yarne, a former land-use lawyer and a principal at the development firm Build Inc., complained to me late one afternoon. “And I say this as a very blue Democrat.” Previously, Yarne worked as a development adviser to the Mayor’s Office, but the job drove him nuts. San Francisco has one of the country’s most arcane planning codes. There are more than sixty zoning divisions, and all construction is subject to discretionary review, so projects that might get swiftly under way in other cities can struggle through bureaucracy for years. 

“If you’re in a region that is adding jobs, you need parts of that region to be pro-growth to allow the housing supply to increase commensurate with the jobs,” Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of spur, a pro-growth urban-policy think tank, told me. Building advocates like Yarne and Metcalf, who are friends, blame San Francisco’s public process for slowing down construction and driving up housing prices. 

Zhang Lei has Lunch with the FT

It is a glorious spring Sunday, the day before commencement at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Among the many alumni returning to the campus is billionaire Chinese financier Zhang Lei, 41, who is a familiar figure here. In 2010 he announced a gift of the propitious amount of $8,888,888 to Yale School of Management, the largest donation made to the business school from one of its graduates.

I ask how he came to be a student at Yale. Born in 1972 in Zhumadian, a village in Henan province, central China, Zhang doesn’t come from a wealthy background. He scored the highest marks in the province on his college entrance exams and so won a scholarship to Renmin University in Beijing, where he studied finance.

He wanted to go on to graduate school abroad but didn’t have the money. “The reason I just applied to graduate schools in the US was simple – they were the only ones I knew that gave scholarships,” he explains in lightly accented US English.

He tells me that at one point, desperate for an internship, he had an interview with one of the management consultancies in Boston. It was an ill-fated encounter. “They asked me about a case study about how many gas stations should a certain company ideally have within a certain region. I asked, ‘Why do people need gas stations?’

“When you think about it, it is not a foolish question. What is the function and can it change? Is it, for example, a good place to do grocery shopping? Can it be replaced? Become obsolete, say, because of electric cars? But this person looked at me pityingly and said, ‘Perhaps you don’t have the intellect to be a consultant.’ ”