a theatrical exploration of Shakespearean sense

In Shakespeare’s time, controversy raged about the values of words, images, and actions. Is God’s word meant to be proclaimed in liturgy, or is God most effectively encountered in personal reading of scripture? Can images and physical gestures support communication with God? Authorities across the sixteenth century suppressed physical practices of worship, white-washed interiors of churches, and burned books, images, and persons in fierce struggles over sensuous forms.

Recent years have seen an upsurge in debate about whether Shakespeare wrote for theatrical performance or sought to author literary works. Many persons who attend Shakespeare’s plays leave exhausted from struggling after words that can be heard but not fully grasped, a vortex of language that touches down in many different places across a vast range of experience. When Shakespeare’s words are fixed on the page, they can be read slowly, savored, contemplated, and studied. That Shakespeare wrote for readers makes good sense to many modern theater-goers.

But words, whether in performance or written, fail to bound Shakespeare’s art. After Romeo and Juliet flirt in a dialogue that plays with the outlawed devotional practices of pilgrims and takes the literary form of a sonnet, Romeo kisses Juliet. Then Juliet calls forth laughter after what was surely a passionate kiss, “You kiss by th’book.” At the end of The Tempest, Prospero implores the play-goers, “release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands. / Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails….”

Shakespeare’s art is best expressed in events such as Shakespeare in Washington, a DC-wide festival that runs from January to June of 2007. The festival includes theater, music, dance, films, and art exhibits. It leads into the opening of the new Harmon Center for the Arts. Gesture in Shakespeare is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-gesture.

Synetic Theater, a company based in the Washington, DC area, has pioneered wordless performances of Shakespeare’s work. Synetic’s first such production, Hamlet…the rest is silence was a critical and popular success. It will be performed again at the Kennedy Center from March 31 to June 17, 2007 as part of Shakespeare in Washington. Synetic Theater is also contributing to this festival a new wordless production of Macbeth. Synetic’s Macbeth is at the Rosslyn Spectrum in Arlington, Virginia, from January 12 to February 25, 2007. Not only is Synetic’s Macbeth spectacularly pleasing entertainment, it also profoundly explores Shakespearean art.

The witches are major figures in this production. Played brilliantly by Philip Fletcher, Meghan Grady, and Katherine E. Hill, they look like characters one might find dancing at a gothic party in Hell. They crawl out of stage-bottom holes spewing corrupted air and double with a bishop, a rabbi, and an imam in the world-cracking beginning of the play. Macbeth’s first words, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” are realized in the witches reappearing and disappearing throughout the play. They show that Macbeth’s personal problems are also problems of the structure of the world.

This wordless production poignantly communicates Macbeth’s combination of personal and worldly effects. Verbal dialogue ordinarily absorbs much of the weight of revealing persons to each other and the audience. In this production, the actors communicate solely through actions, gestures, facial expressions, and acts of the eyes. While words might be imagined to come from somewhere within, gestures, facial expressions, and acts of the eyes are readily understood as material actions like the actions of the rest of the world. Dispensing with words helps to bring together the actors and Macbeth the play-world.

The effect is exquisite in Macbeth’s relationship to Lady Macbeth. George and Martha’s living room death-match in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the cosmic necessity of a Greek tragedy like the Oresteia both play out through Irakli Kavsadze’s and Irina Tiskurishvili’s superb acting. They’re just an ordinary couple who enjoy a drink together, sexually taunt each other, and desperately need each other. But their relational problems lead to the murder of the King of Scotland and murders of many other truly beloved, real persons. In an artful production choice, Macbeth’s victims appear to Macbeth at the end of the play like the Erinyes of Greek tragedy, like a self-curse that Macbeth cannot subsequently dispel.

The wordless production may have enabled some spectacular staging. Ben Cunis as Macduff displays impressive fighting skills in vanquishing Macbeth. That fight could be in a conventional production, or in a Hollywood action film in which the action figure is actually a good actor. Military personnel swarming in chaotic, beautiful patterns about the darkened stage, with flashlight-tipped guns shooting light darts around the intimate, frozen Rosselyn Spectrum theater, probably also could be transferred to a conventional production. In the comic highlight of the evening, Courtney Pauroso in the role of the porter puts on an impressively expressive drunken soldier act. Words from the drunk might detract from the art of that acting.

The hugely successful banquet scene probably depends on wordlessness. Macbeth’s unwilled turning inside out and the Lady’s desperate swerving to maintain the form of the event produces moments in which horror and comedy meet. The silent ghost of Banquo stands in every host’s fear of conversational topics not to be discussed at a convivial evening. Appropriate for a banquet is conventional social conversation. The guests can hardly make social conversation in unison, but they convincingly gesture that way. Towards the end of the debacle, the guests in unison stick their figures over the table, nervously strum them, and emerge from under the table. That is a great moment in wordless Shakespearean play.

The pleasure of attending this play does not depend on theatrical sophistication or any level of prior knowledge of the plot and characters. The Macbeths’ ambition, fears, and their unraveling in carnage are clearly communicated within this production. Shakespeare connoisseurs might hear in their heads specific phrases at certain points in the action, such as Lady Macbeth’s call for sexual negation: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty.” A reviewer who described a three-hour production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as “that rare example of a long night’s journey you only wish could go on longer” surely would enjoy attending this production many times. If you are just looking to see an action movie, or to feel like you do at a horror film, you can get much of those effects from this production, and much more.

The Synethic Theater’s production shows unforgettably the unheroic tragedy of Macbeth. At its center is a pedestrian domestic drama (except, perhaps, for the erotic sadism that the Macbeths prominently display). Macbeth, like a middle-manager scheming to become acting chief executive officer of a major corporation, imagines his ambition to encompass the globe. While Macbeth’s actions are preternaturally ruthless, they also are like the actions of ordinary life: contingent, done without a coherent, well-thought-out plan. For Macbeth, a tragic ordering of the cosmos is a matter of hearsay: “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood.” The world of Macbeth has no more sure balance than the particularities of an ordinary person’s psyche.

Synetic Theater’s Macbeth is a profound exploration of Shakespeare’s work. It’s a play not to be missed.

Synetic Theater presents Macbeth, January 12 – February 25, 2007, at the Rosslyn Spectrum, Arlington, Virginia. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili, adapted by Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili. Performances Thurdays through Saturdays, 8 pm, Sundays, 3 pm. Tickets $30-$35, $5 off for seniors and students, $15 student “rush” tickets; free parking available. See www.synetictheater.org for more information.

unsocial non-networks

Most blog posts did not include any links. A recent study selected 44,362 blogs in a way biased toward finding linked posts. Among all 2.2 million posts in those blogs in August and September of 2005, 98% of the posts had no incoming or outgoing links.[1] This isn’t a matter of A-List bloggers exclusivity or blogger masses languishing at the bottom of an influence hierarchy. Most blog post don’t even have any outgoing links.

Most bloggers probably blog in a room by themselves, sitting down, typing on a keyboard. Much blogging seems to be about self-expression, like writing in a diary back in the days of secret, personal histories, or about news reporting, like that in traditional media, but with much smaller audiences.

Humans in physical proximity are naturally social. Silence is awkward. Not making eye contact raises suspicion. Persons with nothing in common and no reason to communicate will nonetheless communicate when in physical proximity without a strong alternative focus of attention. Only persons united in an intimate connection are likely to feel comfortable being together in silence when communicating is an authorized possibility. In physical proximity, self-expression and monologues without regard for communication tends to be interpreted as offensive.

Alternative circumstances of communication evoke remarkably little of this natural human sociality. Communicative circumstances are important. Blogging is not like being in a room with other people, even though other persons’ blogs are readily available to a person blogging. Bloggers forlornly lamenting that no one links to them should realize that this does not mean that no one would talk to them.

* * *

[1] Jure Leskovec, Mary McGlohon, Christos Faloutsos, Natalie Glance, and Matthew Hurst (2007), “Cascading Behavior in Large Blog Graphs: Patterns and a model,” Paper to be presented at SIAM International Conference on Data Mining (SDM 2007), Minneapolis, MI, USA, Apr. 26-28, 2007 (pdf). Blogs were selected through link traversal (see Sec. 4.1 of paper). For share of isolated posts, see Sec. 5.3.

systematized personal recommendations

User-to-user recommendations within a large online retailer’s recommendation system generated a very small share of sales. With keen business sense (see Netflix) and with praiseworthy regard for the common intellectual good, this retailer allowed some experts to analyze freely a large database of its users’ recommendations and to publish publicly their analysis. The database includes all recommendations that the online retailer’s users made for books, music, and movies from June, 2001 to May 2003.

The online retailer’s recommendation system worked as follows:

Each time a person purchases a book, music, or a movie [DVD or video] he or she is given the option of sending emails recommending the item to friends. The first person to purchase the same item through a referral link in the email gets a 10% discount. When this happens the sender of the recommendation receives a 10% credit on their purchase. [1]

The database includes persons who purchased and made a recommendation, and persons who received a recommendation. The database does not include persons who made a purchase but neither made a recommendation to another person nor received a recommendation from another person.

Purchases that generate recommendations generated few recommendations. Persons who purchased a book and recommended that book made on average 2.0 recommendations per purchased book.[2] Notice that this statistic by definition can be no less than 1: purchases that produced zero recommendations were not recorded in the dataset. To estimate the average number of recommendations per purchase, one needs an estimate of purchases that did not produce a recommendation.

Only a small share of purchases generated a recommendation. Persons who received a recommendation and then purchased the recommended book forwarded the recommendation to another person in about 24% of such purchases.[3] Imitation and concern for social norms have a pervasive and powerful effect on human behavior. The share of purchases in which a person who did not receive a recommendation for a book, but nonetheless purchased it and recommended it is surely less than 24%. That implies that the total number of books purchased per year was higher that 6.1 million, probably much higher. Two plausible figures are 100 million and 30 million.[4] These figures imply shares of purchases that generated a recommendation at 1.4% and 4.9%, respectively.

The overall ratio of recommendations to purchases is much lower than 2. Suppose that the retailer was selling 100 million books per year (the results are qualitatively the same if the retailer was selling only 30 million books per year). Given 2.0 recommendations per book purchase for purchases that produced a recommendation, the overall ratio of recommendations to purchases is 0.028. Making a recommendation created the possibility of a 10% credit for the recommender and a 10% discount for the receiver. Nonetheless, relatively few recommendations were made.

The share of purchases that resulted from user recommendations is miniscule. If the retailer was selling 100 million books per year, then less than a tenth of one percent (0.04%) of purchases followed from users’ recommendations. User social networking through a systematized recommendation system wasn’t a major driver of sales.

Nonetheless, the user recommendation system may have net positive value to the retailer. About 43,000 book purchases per year can plausibly be attributed to user recommendation of books through the retailers’ system.[5] Suppose that the average book price was $30 and the average gross margin was 60%. Then the user recommendation system generated a gross margin of about $800,000 per year. That might be sufficient to make it a profitable feature.

Recommendation systems have major effects on sales. One unsourced report indicated that “35 percent of [Amazon’s] product sales result from recommendations.” Greg Linden, who should know, stated (see comments), “Personalization was responsible for well more than 20% of sales when I left Amazon in 2002.” Automated recommendations probably account for most of the sales through recommendations.

A trade-off between communicative control and potential social effects is an important aspect of social networking. Commentary on the recommendation analysis has largely neglected this issue (for relevant discussion, see here, here, and here, for starters). Being personally responsibility for an online retailer sending a specific purchase offer to a social connection has some social meaning that a potential sender might prefer not to evaluate, and in any case the user cannot change the message sent. The social diffusion of given names, and business successes that arose through social networking, such as Hotmail, Google, MySpace, Youtube, and others, depended on more loosely structured forms of communication.

* * *

[1] See Leskovec, Jurij, Lada A. Adamic, and Bernardo A. Huberman, “The Dynamics of Viral Marketing,” p. 3.

[2] See Leskovec, Jure, Ajit Singh, and Jon Kleinberg, “Patterns of Influence in a Recommendation Network (pdf), Table 1. The total number of book purchases was 2,859,096 over the 711 day period.

[3] Leskovec et. al., “Dynamics of Viral Marketing,” p. 8, Table 3.

[4] See Brynjolfsson, Erik, Michael D. Smith, and Yu (Jeffrey) Hu, “”Consumer Surplus in the Digital Economy: Estimating the Value of Increased Product Variety at Online Booksellers” (pdf), Management Science, v. 49 n. 11 (Nov. 2003) p. 1587, and Sandoval, Greg, “Amazon Losing Ground in Core Area: Books,” CNet News.com (Nov. 5, 2001).

[5] Leskovec et. al., “Patterns of Influence,” Table 1 (figure annualized).

Carnival of the Bureaucrats #6

This month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats celebrates the rules of golf. Every year golf’s regulatory bodies receive thousands of requests to clarify rules. Golf’s rule-making cycle takes four years, much longer than typical rule-making cycles at one of the world’s leading regulatory agencies. However, official decisions on interpretations of golf rules are published every two years. The most recent decision order contained more than 1,200 individual decisions. These decisions do not discuss opposing arguments, contain no analysis of relevant empirical evidence, and provide no reasons for the rulings issued.

The regulatory environment for innovative communication services on golf courses appears grim. Wireless services vitally important to the most disadvantaged golfers have been forbidden:

14-3/14 Electronic Instrument Used to Find Ball

Q. A transmitter has been embedded in a golf ball. When used with a special radio receiver, a player may find such a ball readily because the transmitter emits a signal that grows louder as the receiver moves closer to the ball. Is the use of such a ball and receiver permissible?

A. No. Use of such a ball in conjunction with the receiver is a breach of Rule 14-3. However, use of such a ball without the receiver is permissible, provided the ball conforms to the Rules and its use is in accordance with any conditions of competition that may have been adopted (e.g., the List of Conforming Golf Balls Condition). (revised decision)

In addition, communication regulation favors the growth of non-golf related communication. Under Decision 14-3/16, golfers may use a mobile phone “for matters unrelated to golf (e.g., to call home).” More important uses of communication devices are harshly suppressed:

14-3/16 Use of Electronic Devices

…examples of uses of an electronic device during a stipulated round that are a breach of Rule 14-3, for which the penalty is disqualification, include:

· Using the device (e.g., a television or radio) to watch or listen to a broadcast of the competition being played;

· Using the device to ask for or give advice in breach of Rule 8-1 (e.g., calling a swing coach at home); or

· Using the device to access information on advice-related matters that were not published prior to the start of his round (e.g., analysis of strokes made during that round). (revised decision)

The only possible explanation for these rules is that the titans of the golf industry have not been spending enough quality time with golf industry regulators.

You might consider watching a video of prior British Open play (available soon on a variety of mobile devices) while waiting for the duffers in front of you to clear the fairway. Watching a very good golf swing is likely to activate your nervous system in a way that makes it more likely that you will execute a good golf swing immediately after watching it (more evidence). Doing this would apparently not contravene the prohibition on asking for advice from a prohibited source (see Rules of Golf, Rule 8-1).

On the other hand, under the Rules of Golf, Rule 14-3, a player “must not use any artificial device or unusual equipment: (a) That might assist him in making a stroke or in his play;…” In the near future, mobile video may not involve unusual equipment, and in modern life watching Internet videos is as natural as breathing. However, Rule 14-3 states:

The United States Golf Association (USGA) reserves the right, at any time, to change the Rules relating to artificial devices and unusual equipment and make or change the interpretations relating to these Rules.

All statutory law and administrative regulation is subject to change. The crucial questions concern the political structures (institutions? interests? mentalities?) and legal processes (notice? comments? written, public reasons?) by which such change is effected. Analyzing the possibility for changes in rules is a critical, and often neglected, aspect of regulatory analysis.

While golfing, during lulls in watching golf videos on your mobile devices (if permitted under the relevant regulations), you may now be able to use a laser rangefinder to determine the yardage to the hole and associated hazards. Given widespread regulatory uncertainty, you also need to study these regulations carefully:

14-3/0.5 Local Rule Permitting Use of Distance Measuring Device

Q. May a Committee, by Local Rule, permit the use of distance measuring devices?

A. Yes. A Committee may establish a Local Rule allowing players to use devices that measure distance only. However, the use of devices that gauge or measure other conditions that might affect a player’s play (e.g. wind or gradient) is not permitted.

Using a rangefinder that includes a slope function is illegal. Somebody should tell Patrick.

Personal blog note: My favorite golfer is my distant relative Natalie Gulbis. The bureaucrats working at Ellis Island weren’t too concerned about accurately recording names! 🙂

Additional entries in this month’s carnival:

Tracy Coenen remarks, “The government is raiding our pocketbooks again!” Her FRAUDfiles Blog reports, “another tax increase is being discussed in Wisconsin,” and asks, “When has a tax increase ever put more money in people’s pockets?” Suppose a tax increase goes to support hard-working government bureaucrats who make government regulations better. If the cost of the government bureaucrats’ salaries is less than the value they create for people by making better regulations, then increasing taxes has in effect put more money in people’s pockets!

Consider some numbers. Suppose the total budget of a regulatory agency is $300 million, and that the regulatory agency regulates an industry with total revenue about $1,000,000 million. Particularly for an industry in which regulation is pervasive and highly significant, the performance of the regulator can easily be much more important than the direct tax cost of the regulator.

David Maister considers, “What’s a professional firm?” He remarks, “Should bureaucrats be called professionals?” Of course they should. Most bureaucrats are in fact professional bureaucrats. But I would not consider professional those bureaucrats who engage in conduct unbecoming of a bureaucrat.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival regulations. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

grave weaknesses in massive public spending project

My sources deep within the World Bank have leaked some explosive analysis by Greg Kisunko, Steve Knack and Colum Garrity of the World Bank’s Public Sector Governance Group. This isn’t just about small candy. It’s a revelation way, way, way bigger than the Halloween Documents. If this project gets canceled, and the analysis seems to suggest that it will be, the earth is going to shake and all parents will wish they had been barren.

more on distributing computing

Developing good social networking technology requires thinking about distributing computing between humans and computers. Way back in 2002, a human-computer interface designer discussed some problems with the then-trendy idea of context-aware computing:

I suggest rather than trying to take humans out of the control loop, we keep them in the loop. Computational systems are good at gathering and aggregating data; humans are good at recognizing contexts and determining what is appropriate. Let each do what each is good at.
[Erickson (2002) p. 103]

Recognizing and respecting comparative advantage between humans and computers is also a good design principle for social networking technology.

Social networking technology that depends on a computer having better (human) social intelligence than a human challenges the designs of both. Consider a social networking application for a mobile phone called a Jerk-O-Meter. It measures the user’s voice activity and voice stress. Using these data, the application evaluates the user’s communicative performance and delivers these messages:

“Stop being a Jerk!”
“You could do better”
“Now we’re getting somewhere”
“Wow you’re a smooth talker”
[Madan & Pentland (2006), p. 6]

Another application, called Wingman3G, measures speaking time, voice rate, and vocal stress. It evaluates this data using a model of successful dating communication and produces real-time messages such as:

“Maybe you could speak a little slower?”
“You’re getting there, maybe you could relax a little?”
[Madan & Pentland (2006), p. 7]

Human brains evolved under selection for social intelligence. Digital computers did not. Human social intelligence can easily encompass that of computers and reduce their social value to the social value of recognized manners and conventions.

Compared to humans, digital systems are relatively good at routine collecting, processing, and distributing information. Information such as on-line/off-line status, communication initiation, communication addressing, communication duration, as well as word rate and stress indicators, might be valuable to humans using social networking technologies. An interesting recent paper discusses the design of shared visualizations of such information (“social proxies”). It offers six claims for good design of social proxies:

1) “Everyone sees the same thing; no user customization”
2) “Portray actions, not interpretation”
3) “Social proxies should allow deception”
4) “Support micro/macro readings”
5) “Ambiguity is useful: suggest rather than inform”
6) “Use a third-person point of view”
[see Erickson (2006), pp. 13-4, which describes these claims in more detail]

Claims 1) and 6) suggest designing social proxies to be like objects in our one, real world. Claims 2)-5) point to the comparative advantage of human social intelligence in human social interactions.

* * *

References

Erickson, Thomas (2002), “Some Problems with the Notion of Context-Aware Computing,” Communications of the ACM, v. 45 no. 2 (Feb.) pp 102-4.

Erickson, Thomas (2006), “‘Social’ Systems: Designing Digital Systems that Support Social Intelligence” (pdf file).

Madan, Anmol and Alex “Sandy” Pentland (2006), VibeFones: Socially Aware Mobile Phones (pdf file).

a case study in re-arranging economic rights

Book Review: Stephen F. Williams, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2006).

Understanding how to advance liberal democracy is crucial to the welfare of persons around the world. In Russia in 1906, a decree of the tsar gave peasants living in agricultural communes an opportunity to establish individual land titles and to consolidate their land plots. In Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime, Stephen F. Williams analyzes the socio-economic circumstances of this land reform, its legal structure, and its consequences.

This book is a testament to the power of individual enterprise and a model of scholarship in the public interest. Williams is an independent scholar with a highly important day job that does not require him to compete for academic prestige. In the preface to his book, Williams explains that when the Soviet Union fell in December, 1991, he wondered what precedents existed for market-oriented reform in Russia. He recalled Petr Stolypin’s agrarian reforms:

Looking around to get a clearer idea of what these reforms amounted to, I found a wealth of scholarly material. But I found neither a summary account of the story, aimed at the intelligent citizen with an interest in property rights and the development of liberal democracy, nor any sustained application of the fundamental insights of the modern law-and-economics movement. Thus this book.

Thus Williams did an enormous amount of unpaid scholarly work to produce this book.

If you want a solid understanding of land reform in Russia from 1906 to 1915, read this book. The Stolypin land reform has been at the center of contentious debates about the nature of Russia and its future. The author synthesizes an enormous body of both English and Russian-language work concerning these reforms. He carefully analyzes possibilities for individual transactions and consequences of different macro-structures of these transaction possibilities. The author does not tell a dramatic story about the reforms; rather, he works toward an objective, reasoned analysis of what actually happened.

If you want a resource for thinking about re-arranging economic rights to further liberal democracy, read this book. Even in regimes of highly concentrated authority, changes in rights enacted from above can have dramatic effects:

Once perpetual intellectual property was ended in England in 1774 [in Donaldson v. Beckett, a decision of the House of Lords], and Shakespeare was sold in conditions of economic competition, the effects were dramatic. The number of editions rose sharply, print runs lengthened, and minimum prices fell. It had taken nearly 200 years for the minimum price of access to a Shakespeare play to fall back to what it had been in Shakespeare’s day. When we add in the anthologies, the abridgements, the sale in parts, the inclusion in school books, and all the other innovations of the post-1774 public domain, we can say that, by about 1800, Shakespeare at last became available to readers of all classes and ages. [1]

Similarly, shifts from granting to individual companies exclusive rights to control use of a band of radio spectrum to radio regulation that authorizes broad classes of users has fostered enormous expansion in use of wireless devices.

These changes in copyright and radio regulation curtailed types of individual economic rights, while Stolypin’s reform increased a type of individual economic rights. Public discussion of this schematic difference tends to be polarized between idyllic descriptions of social production on the commune under Brezhnev (“joys of zastoy”), and inspiring proclamations that rags-to-riches success, progress, and economic evolution depend on fierce, every-woman-for-herself combat for individual goods in the human jungle. That sort of discussion, as valuable as it may be, is not a sufficient basis for good public policy. Understanding how Stolypin’s reform actually worked provides insights into practical issues relevant to any type of re-arrangement of economic rights across a large population.

Stolypin’s reform re-arranged land rights within one social group: peasant agricultural workers. Chapter 2 of the book discusses how open fields, repartition, and family tenure in peasant agricultural communes reduced their agricultural productivity. As Chapter 5 documents, Stolypin’s land reform improved peasants’ opportunities for acquiring individual land titles and for consolidating their plots. Individual land ownership and consolidated plots gave peasants better incentives for working and improving the land, reduced the cost of traveling between plots, reduced costs of boundary negotiations, improved access to credit by enabling some types of secured mortgages, and promoted the development of a land market among peasants. A land market among peasants provides a decentralized mechanism for establishing land plots that can be farmed more efficiently and for shifting land to more efficient farmers. Stolypin’s reform re-arranged peasants’ agricultural land rights with the primary economic objective of increasing peasants’ agricultural productivity.

Stolypin’s reform kept peasant agriculture in a category separate from other economic activity. Chapter 6 insightfully notes:

Article 50 of the 1910 Act said, as had prior Interior Ministry circulars, that alienation of allotment land that had become personal property could be effected only in accordance with the system established by the Emancipation. This prevented sale, mortgage, or gift to anyone not a member of the peasant estate, or the enforcement of the owner’s personal debts (by any non-peasant creditor) against the owner’s interest in the land. (p. 221)

Outsiders are likely to be powerful agents of change. In particular, organizations in agricultural supply and services, and agricultural processing and marketing are powerful forces for changes in land ownership, including moving land into and out of farming use. Such organizations were underdeveloped in subsequent Soviet agriculture. [2]

Why did Stolypin restrict land transaction to transactions among peasants? Williams observes:

Stolypin’s speeches in defense of these restrictions were strikingly defective. In his other speeches on the reforms in the Duma or state council, he generally marshaled fact and analysis to make a case that the consequences of his proposals would be desirable and those of his adversaries undesirable. But when it came to the restrictions on allotment lands, he was reduced to a kind of semantic conjuring trick. (p. 221)

Not restricting land exchanges to peasants would make agrarian reform more difficult to describe and predict. Whether for reform or revolution, political proposals typically require describing intentional change and negotiating among established interests. Because economic flexibility and dynamism don’t have specific appeal to established interests, their value is difficult to incorporate in practical re-arrangements of economic rights. The boundaries of Stolypin’s land reform, and his poor justification for them, point to important general issues in re-arranging economic rights.[3]

Administrative capabilities are an important constraint on re-arrangements of economic rights. Assigning meaningful individual land titles requires land surveying. Williams notes that Russian had almost no land surveyors before the start of the reform. Nearly 7,000 persons became surveyors in the course of the reform (p. 158). Nonetheless, more than 60% of the applications for land consolations remained uncompleted when World War I effectively stopped the land reform. (p. 158). Property rights depend on good government administration. Property rights are not effectively established merely by legal decree.[4]

Example is a powerful motivation for re-arrangement of economic rights. Williams finds provinces with a relatively high level of pre-reform hereditary tenure and land consolidation had a higher fraction of households seeking individual title and land consolidation under the Stolypin reform (p. 172-3). Humans have a natural propensity to compare their situation to that of others, and ask, “Why not us?” That sort of question probably played a key role in motivating the large-scale re-arrangement of economic rights in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the twentieth century.

Ideas have important connections to property rights. Williams includes a poignant quotation from a peasant in a Soviet prison (pp. 1-2). Under the Stolypin reform, this peasant had gotten rich. The peasant explained his success thus:

I worked hard, but to tell the truth, got little from it. I wasn’t able to manage. As least not until the Stolypin booklet fell into my hands. Perhaps he didn’t write it, but that’s what they called it. There it was explained how one needs to manage. And when I applied what was written there to my land, I got rich directly.

In other words, he got rich on his individually owned plot not through hard work but by following authoritative instructions. The Soviet authorities then confiscated most of his land and “threw me out into the forest.” That was not the end of the story:

They took away everything, but I brought my Stolypin booklet. And then years passed, and again I did things according to Stolypin, and again I was rich — not rich, but well enough off.

Farming by the booklet is a wholly implausible cause of success. The peasant seems to invoke the Stolypin booklet as justification for his success, which was not secure:

And again they were envious, and again they took everything and threw me out.

Changing ideas of social value has to occur in conjunction with re-arranging economic rights to make those rights secure.

Property rights reform requires good law and effective administration. The great writer offering to society the big idea has casts a long shadow over the past two centuries of Russian history. Big ideas are no substitute for careful analysis of circumstances, practical proposals, and detailed evaluation of consequences. Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime is an impressive example of serious policy analysis.

Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime also is a pioneering work of independent scholarship. As such, its greatest flaw is that it is not freely available on the Internet for all to appreciate and study. Many persons around the world who might find this work inspiring and useful are likely to have difficulty gaining access to it. Like Stolypin’s agrarian reform, this work respects, with little deliberative justification, established class boundaries. Made freely available to all, it would have made a much bigger contribution to understanding how to re-organize economic rights in a way consistent with liberal democracy.

* * *
[1] St Clair, William (1994), The reading nation in the Romantic period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 157.

[2] See Galbi, Douglas (1994), The Significance of Credits and Subsidies in Russian Agriculture, Table 4.

[3] Telecommunications policy has similarly suffered from lack of appreciation for the possible scope of change. See Galbi, Douglas (2000), Transforming the Structure of Network Interconnection and Transport, Section II.A.2.

[4] Auctions of rights to control use of radio spectrum has tended to proceed under the assumption that administrative assignment of rights is sufficient to establish secure rights. No provision is typically made for an independent institution to adjudicate publicly interference disputes. In practice, almost no interference disputes are publicly adjudicated, and virtually no case law defines relevant precedents and decision rules. See Galbi, Douglas (2006), “rights to communicate using radio spectrum,” post on purplemotes.net.