Under the Tuscan mailbag
Olive Garden vs. real Italian food and Supreme Court alternate history
Greetings from a small town south of Siena in Italy. The pace of life here is a little slower and the internet speeds are commensurate, but nothing can keep me away from the takes game for long.
Thanks to everyone who wrote in this week and especially to folks who participated in the book club last week and to Professor Leah Boustan for joining us to discuss “Streets of Gold.” I thought it was a lot of fun and am looking forward to organizing more.
Nilo: Why this tiny town in Tuscany for vacation?
We’re traveling with another family and it’s the other family that specifically picked the house, so I’m not actually privy to all the details that went into the selection.
But broadly speaking, when you’re traveling with kids, the balance of considerations shifts away from “is there a ton of stuff to do here?” in favor of “can we afford to get a comfortable place to stay?” which militates in favor of things like visiting a pretty random scenic town. When I went around Italy with my college roommate when we were 22, we wanted to go everywhere and stayed in all the worst places we could find. But Montalcino is a great vibes town, and we’re enjoying plenty of Brunello and Pecorino cheese. Never fear, though, we’re going to Rome at the end of the vacation.
Sasara: You've previously tweeted/written about your interest in alternate history. Other than Harry Turtledove, what are your favorite works of alternate history or those you would most recommend to others?
I like Robert Harris’ detective thriller “Fatherland,” Philip K. Dick’s mind-bending “The Man in the High Castle,” and Michael Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union” a lot.
It makes me sad that the top three alternate history examples that came to mind all deal with a very closely related set of hinge points. One is about what if Hitler conquered Europe and ended up in a Cold War with the United States, one is about what if the Axis conquered the world and Germany ended up in a Cold War with Japan, and the third is about what if European Jews were evacuated from Europe to establish a Jewish homeland in Alaska. But World War II and the Holocaust are not the only events in world history! There’s a very good book called “The World Hitler Never Made” about alternate histories of World War II and their shifting purpose over time. But I hope in the future authors will explore more alternative histories of other points — to which I should note that “For All Mankind” on Apple TV+ is a very cool alternate history of the late-twentieth century based on a point of departure where the Soviets win the race to the Moon.
Charles Hancock: Do you see Elon Musk backing out of his contract to buy Twitter and the likely upcoming legal battles as just an interesting business story or as another indication of erosion in American Rule of Law?
It’s not “the rule of law” exactly, but I do think there is a deep normative foundation of American capitalism that’s been eroding over the past several generations.
The normative foundation is the idea that there is something to being a good businessman other than purely making a lot of money. Something we learned about Donald Trump is that back when he was doing actual property development, he would frequently refuse to pay contractors what he’d agreed to pay. Then after falling badly into arrears, he would offer people who complained a choice: pursue costly litigation against him and his team of lawyers in which he would publicly impugn the quality of their work or accept less than full payment right now. This turned out to work pretty well. The American legal system gives rich people the ability to bully middle-class business owners. Historically, rich people haven’t fully taken advantage of that opportunity in part because they worry about concrete reputational damage and in part because it’s the wrong thing to do.
But the more a “greed is good” mentality takes over, not only is the “I won’t do that, that would be wrong” motive eroded but the amount of reputational damage is eroded, too. And it means we’re transforming into more of a low-trust society where you have to ask yourself questions like, “it’s true that we made this business agreement, but what practical recourse do I have to enforce it if the other party breaches?” And even in a country with a strong rule of law, practical recourse can be hard to come by.
What Musk is doing seems like an example of this. He made a deal to buy Twitter, and then by coincidence the macroeconomic situation changed very quickly soon after he made the deal. Higher interest rates pushed down the price of tech stocks in a way that made Musk personally quite a bit poorer and meant that his agreed-upon acquisition price was a much higher premium over the market rate than he’d initially intended. So he’s pulling stunts in order to try to secure a better deal rather than saying “damn, I hit some bad luck but a deal’s a deal.”
Over time, that kind of savvy norm-erosion is going to make the United States a poorer country like we see here in Italy and elsewhere in southern Europe where people insist on personal relationships rather than arm’s length contracting in a way that makes it harder for companies to grow and scale and undermines competition.
Benjamin, J: What do you think of Warren’s proposal to standardize plugs & chords?
It seems fine, I guess. I think this kind of initiative might make more of a difference in the field of cordless power tools where right now the manufacturers lean very heavily on battery/charger compatibility to drive lock-in across the whole line of tools. The computer version of this doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.
Allen Thoen: And specifically, shouldn't electric cars, at least, have standardized, interoperable charging plugs and cords?
Here I think the upside to interoperability is clear and much higher than the case of phone chargers.
At the same time, we’re genuinely talking about a very new consumer technology where significant innovation is taking place and even the fastest chargers haven’t reached the “good enough” state where further improvement would be superfluous. So I can see a lot of advantages to standardization, but I’d also worry a lot about killing innovation here.
Brian T: What are your thoughts on resolving the tension that can arise between supply-side liberalism and organized labor?
Stepping back, I think a huge problem in the United States is that unionization is a property of specific companies, specific facilities, and specific job roles. Compared to Europe, this leads to much lower levels of collective bargaining coverage but it also leads to totally dysfunctional second-order political considerations because the fate of labor is tied up with the fate of very specific companies.
Unions are important in the American auto industry, for example. But that means that a specific set of companies were unionized at a specific point in time. When foreign companies open new plants in the United States, they are non-union. And then Tesla comes along and is non-union. And now the auto workers union cares not about fair pay standards across the auto industry but about how they can prevent the non-union companies from outcompeting the union companies.
And that’s the dynamic you see across the public and private sectors — in a country with low levels of unionization and no sectoral bargaining, everything becomes about trying to defend (or ideally expand) little islands of unionization, often in ways that can be very costly.
Aaron: Would the US be better off if the Philadelphia conventioneers had spared themselves a summer of hot air and gone along with Madison’s Virginia Plan?
The way I was taught this material, the emphasis was on the fact that the Virginia Plan didn’t feature the extra representation for small states that we see in the contemporary Senate. But if you look at the plan, the key difference is that it’s a de facto parliamentary system in which all the other branches of government are ultimately accountable to the lower house of the legislature.
I think that would be a much better system.
Now in terms of the big states versus small states, the bigger issue (as usual) is that the framers didn’t have the concept of modern political parties. Their notion was that as a pragmatic matter, small states didn’t want to enter a compact with other larger states unless they received certain guarantees. The issue today, though, is we didn’t just give a guarantee to secure the interests of the low-population states of 1790 (Delaware, Rhode Island, Kentucky), we gave disproportionate representation to future low-population states like Wyoming and North Dakota. In the pragmatic state-bargaining framework this seemed like a non-issue, because why would the existing states deliberately dilute their own political power by admitting empty states into the union? But what happened over time is that state admissions became a pawn first in the free/slave balance and then in partisan competition. So you ended up with “let’s create two Dakotas even though nobody lives there because it helps Republicans.”
Estate of Bob Saget: Are Italians still jealous of the endless breadsticks at Olive Garden?
I think this is because I tweeted that Italian-American cuisine is superior to authentic Italian food.
Obviously, Olive Garden (while delightful in its way) is not the greatest restaurant in the world. But that’s just to say there are lots of Italian-American restaurants that are better than Olive Garden. I’m talking about places like Parm in New York or Caruso’s Grocery or I’m Eddie Cano in D.C. These are good restaurants that put in an effort to serve good renditions of classic Italian-American dishes like chicken parm or spaghetti and meatballs.
What’s great about eating in Italy is that the average quality of randomly selected restaurants is very high. It’s a culture that places a premium on food and cooking, they have an agricultural sector that is geared toward quality ingredients, and it’s a joy to travel someplace where you can pop into a neighborhood trattoria or enoteca and have a delicious meal without much fuss. It’s incredible. But Italian-American cuisine, as a cuisine, is what happens when that strong food culture is transported to the United States where people are richer and can afford to be more indulgent. And personally, if you guarantee to me that the restaurant is going to be good, I think the gooey excess of Italian-American food is better than the relatively austere offerings of authentic Italy. But, like, Sbarro’s is bad.
Ryan: I love your "O'Malley would have won" bit on Twitter (although I understand it's sincere). Who, in your mind, was the O'Malley of 2020 (in the sense that there was a better, obscure candidate everyone was ignoring)?
Amy Klobuchar had the same strengths as Biden in terms of substantive moderation without being super old and I think would have been a stronger candidate.
I also think it would have been better on a number of levels to have a woman. There was always a certain subtext that “electable” just means “a white man” which I don’t think is correct but which I think at times has led Biden’s team to be less politically cautious than they ought to be. A woman president would be on firmer footing in responding to contemporary abortion politics, both in terms of being more able to give voice to the distress a lot of progressive women are feeling but also in being able to navigate the politics deftly. And of course Klobuchar could have picked Cory Booker as VP, and he’s a better politician than Kamala Harris.
Klobuchar’s problem, as a candidate, is that she wasn’t famous at the start of the campaign. She tried to overcome that with a very traditional retail-focused Iowa-centric strategy, but Pete Buttigieg (and Lis Smith, his key early hire whose book is worth your time) came up with a superior strategy for a non-famous candidate dealing with the contemporary political environment. I like Pete a lot, and it of course speaks well of him that he figured this out. But Klobuchar had stronger fundamentals as a candidate, and we’d be better off as a country if she’d hit on Buttigieg’s media-centric strategy and become better known.
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