Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 5

by John Quiggin on March 17, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first four chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’m continuing with policy applications of Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
That will be followed by Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 5. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
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We’re all going to need safe spaces

by Henry on March 16, 2018

So I got muted on Twitter this morning by Jonathan Chait.

Riffing off this really fantastic essay on Jordan Peterson, I’d pointedly asked Chait whether he might reconsider his own position given Peterson’s guff about the deep commonality between trans activists and Maoist murderers of millions. After a grumpy back-and-forward he responded even more grumpily that he’d only ever said that identity politics people had borrowed Marxism’s critique of liberalism. I pointed out that he’d in fact also suggested that we’d all be marching to the gulags if the campus left got its way. After a couple more tweets, the ban-hammer descended. Finis.

Traditionally, a post like this would continue the fight by other means, likely (as a bunch of people have been doing on Twitter), by doing a tu quoque tying Chait’s habit of blocking or banning people on Twitter to his condemnations of campuses shutting out inconvenient voices. I don’t want to do that. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that Chait should mute or block me if he wants – I’ve occasionally done it myself to people who kept on trying to pull me into arguments that I didn’t want to be pulled into. Doubtless, those people felt aggrieved too that I wasn’t responding to their (in their minds good and cogent) points. Given the way that Twitter is set up, you sometimes have no other good options, if you want to continue to have the conversations that you do want to have, and not have them drowned up by the conversations that you don’t.

But there’s also a much bigger point there, about the kind of space that the Internet has created. Liberalism of the small-l kind goes together with a strong emphasis on free speech. The implicit assumption is that we will all be better off in a world where everyone can say whatever they want, to whoever they want, even if it is inconvenient, or wrong minded, or crazy.

However, this assumption rests on empirical assumptions as well as normative ones. And as speech becomes cheaper, it may be that those assumptions don’t hold in the same way that they used to (see further Zeynep Tufekci, Rick Hasen and Timothy Wu, as well as Molly Roberts’ forthcoming book).

There are two versions of the problem. First – speech doesn’t scale, and at a certain point, the scarce resource isn’t speech but attention. Even when people who want to argue with you are entirely sincere, there is a point at which you simply can’t pay attention to everyone who wants to talk at you on Twitter and still function. You need to make choices.

Second, speech is increasingly being weaponized to drown out inconvenient voices. “Flooding” attacks (as Roberts describes them) are making online political conversation more or less impossible in authoritarian regimes, as people have to deal with a spew of tendentious, irrelevant, and angry comments, what Adrian Chen describes as a “flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space” (in passing, I used to be very strongly in favor of anonymous free speech on the Internet; I’ve had to seriously rethink that).

In the standard shibboleth, the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have discovered is that the best antidote to more speech is bad speech. And while there is a lot of paranoia about Russian bots, there was, I think, a very real attempt to use these techniques to stir things up in the US election, and in Western European countries too.

These are problems that liberalism (including strongly-left-democratic versions of liberalism) are poorly equipped to handle. We don’t have any good intellectual basis that I know of for deciding the appropriate ways to allocate attention, since we’ve only started to have that problem in the very recent past. We also don’t have good tools for muting the kinds of speech that have been weaponized to undermine conversation, while preserving the kinds of speech that conduct towards it. Which is maybe all a long winded way of saying that I don’t particularly blame Jonathan Chait for wanting a safe space, and wanting to exclude me from it. We are all going to need safe spaces – and to start thinking systematically about how to build them while preserving conversation. Neither Chait’s version of liberalism, or the kind of left-democratic approach that I am more attracted to has any good idea of how to do this (or if either have, I’m not reading the right people and want to be pointed to them).


Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 4

by John Quiggin on March 15, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first three chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve learned a lot from the comments and made changes in response to some of them. These chapters have been a bit abstract, but now I’m moving on to some applications, which might be more interesting for some readers. Here’s the introduction to Part II

Lesson 1, Part II: Applications

The economic analysis showing how market equilibrium prices reflect the opportunity costs facing producers and consumers is elegant and, for a certain kind of mind, convincing.

For most of us, however, it’s more useful to see how the logic of prices and opportunity costs works in particular cases, sometimes in ways that conflict with strongly held intuitions. This will also give us more insight into the ways in which prices can fail to reflect opportunity costs for society as a whole, some of which we will examine in Lesson 2.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 4:Lesson 1: Applications. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
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Adam Roberts, “The Thing Itself” – a Review

by John Holbo on March 14, 2018

Last week I finished Adam Roberts SF novel, The Thing Itself [amazon]. (Adam is, you may have noticed, a regular commenter here. I’ve been friendly with the dear fellow for years.)

The mash-up joke at its heart: it’s The Thing (you know: the John Carpenter film, remake of the 1950’s film, adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella, “Who Goes There?“) meets Kant’s Ding An Sich!

That’s a good joke! I like jokes like that. Adam likes jokes like that. I haven’t read as many of Adam’s novels as a good friend should, but the author of a humorous sequel to The Brick Moon, and a little thing called Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea, likes to take an idea, give it a spin. Just drop it. See how low it can go.

Back to The Thing Itself. What if Kant were on to something? Some Thing. What would the possibilities be, for space travel, for sanity, for commerce, for common-sense, if we could sidestep, as it were, space and time? (I don’t think this is going to satisfy sticklers for Kant scholarship, but attempts are made to keep up the conceit. Fiction often involves implausible leaps, as many important writers have noted.) [click to continue…]



by Maria on March 13, 2018

For a couple of days I’ve been tweeting about the Financial Times’ decision to have Steve Bannon as its “keynote interview” in a conference on the future of news in New York, on 22 March.

Fresh from his tour of Europe where Bannon told his rabid fans being called a racist is a “badge of honour”, Bannon has declared himself the “infrastructure” of the world’s far right.

As Bannon spent the last week holed up in luxury hotels one wonders at him being able to afford, and soliciting Europe’s far right ‘politicians, operatives and investors’, he told the New York Times: “…he was weighing whether to buy a name-brand outlet, like Newsweek or United Press International, or to start a new one, or to connect entrepreneurs with capital or invest himself.”

Bannon wants money to start a new, far right media venture. What better place to do that than the world’s financial and media hub?

Enter the FT.

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by John Holbo on March 13, 2018

Belle and I are watching Annihilation on Netflix. We are about 50 minutes in. This just makes no sense. These people. But maybe it’s worth watching until the end? What do you think?

Take my survey!

Or leave a comment.

(I understand the book was better.)

UPDATE: the Plain People of the Internet have spoken. I guess we’ll watch the rest a bit later. (We did other stuff last night.) The main problem with the film, in a nutshell, is that you have a small group of scientists going into this mysterious area, the Shimmer. Everything they know indicates that their safety measures are ludicrously insufficient. They aren’t wearing hazmat suits even though they have every reason to expect radiation or poisonous atmosphere or environment. They are not soldiers, but they are armed. They are all neurotic loners (who else would volunteer for this mission? But there’s limits to the ‘send in people who don’t have a lot of close family’ strategy.) The result is that their actions and reactions, in the Shimmer, aren’t interesting, since they consistently mismatch the situation. There’s a fine line between surreal and stupid, and the film is not managing to keep its small team of scientists on the former side of the divide, in this weird place.

Should I watch Annihilation?


The Slippery Slope of the Sum of All Fears

by John Holbo on March 13, 2018

Before March 18, 2018: No collusion!

March 18, 2018: “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take these series of inadvertent contacts with each other, meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of a fiction and turn it into a page-turner, spy thriller.”

Six months from now: Yeah, but it’s like one of those late Tom Clancy ones. The ones written after Clancy was dead, or retired, or counting his money? Maybe it’s just a video game.

12 months from now: OK, it’s definitely as good as early Tom Clancy. The really good stuff. But some of the characters are unbelievable, in a way that pushes the reader out of the story. Like the Mooch. True, Clancy wrote flat, one-dimensional, omni-competent heroes. This is like – the opposite? The thing has reality show pacing, not ‘proper’ thriller structure. Clancy would not have made that mistake.

18 months from now: Wow! I could not put this one down! It was unbelievably thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering whether this was it. And the big reveal! You realize everything up to that point was just the tip of the iceberg. Hunt For Red October Surprise! But we still have to completely ignore all these revelations because: no zombies.

24 months from now: Zombies!

[NOTE: this post is intended as a joke, although I think there is a point to the joke. There was some confusion concerning an earlier post, due to confusion as to whether it was a joke: it was. This one is a joke. I don’t expect zombies.)


Sunday photoblogging: Pensions strike!

by Chris Bertram on March 11, 2018

Photography can’t always be about aesthetics. As Miriam posted about the other day, academics and many academic-related staff in the UK are currently on strike in defence of our pensions which are under threat from a plan to shift all the risk from institutions to individuals and to leave us thousands of pounds worse off in our retirement. It is a considerable achievement for managers paid vast sums of money on account of their managerial abilities to have engineered a situation where their staff vote 9:1 for strike action. Anyway, it has, so far been a determined and somewhat joyful action in which we have rediscovered what we have in common. However this ends (and the signs are good) the atmosphere in our workplaces will have changed forever. People really are really missing their students, teaching, and research and are loving the support and solidarity we’ve had from our students. But I doubt that bullying micromanagement will be as passively accepted in the future as it has been in the past.

USU Pensions strike 2018-11


Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 3

by John Quiggin on March 10, 2018

Thanks to everyone who commented on Chapter 2 of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve learned a lot from the comments but haven’t yet had time to respond to them.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 3. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.

The book so far is available
Table of Contents
Chapter 1
draft of Chapter 2
Feel free to make further comments on these chapters if you wish.


Youth In Action

by Harry on March 8, 2018

I doubt I’m the only one here with a kid planning to join the school protests/walkout next week. As far as I am aware, locally it seems to have been put together largely by the schoolkids themselves, coordinating across the 4 comprehensive high schools in the district. Maybe its different in your city or town. Anyway, my friend Meira Levinson has helped put together a great resource for young people planning to take or considering taking their first political action (and there’ll be a lot of them in the next week or so). Here it is, please share it with your children or with your friends who have children. Meira’s description is below the fold:

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Crowley On Ancient Blurb Technology and Le Guin

by John Holbo on March 8, 2018

I was most gratified when John Crowley showed up – easy as pie – in comments to my “Omelas” post. I will try to repay the compliment of this gesture (nigh-effortless to its author!) by linking to his new Boston Review piece, reminiscing on Le Guin and blurb technology of yore.

In 1973, when I finished my first novel, the difficulties of the blurb-solicitation process were enormous, or would surely seem so to writers now who send digital files effortlessly to famous people through websites and email. The great new advance then was the Xerox machine; you at least didn’t have to produce carbons (hopeless) or photostats (expensive) to send out. But still, as often as not—or more often than not—your solicitations weren’t responded to, which could seem like a foretaste of failure: perhaps readers wouldn’t respond either. Now and then a query would get a curt reply asking that the manuscript not be sent, that the recipient didn’t read such submissions.

For my first novel, I received a hand-written postcard from Ursula K. Le Guin welcoming me to the fold.

I once sent a large manuscript to Anne Rice, the vampire biographer­. What I got back was a postcard, filled edge to edge with typing, asking why I felt I had a right to send her this mass of paper, did I really think she had any reason to read it—she did not—and what was she supposed to do with it? I thought of writing her back to say that she might just toss it in the trash with the rest of the week’s paper, but I didn’t.

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The Generation Game is over (at least for me)

by John Quiggin on March 7, 2018

For more than a generation, I have been railing against the Generation Game, that is, the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group. Today, I’m following the classic advice for those involved in an endless war: declare victory and get out. The basis for my claim is that I’ve managed to publish my latest critique in the New York Times, under the headline ‘Millennial’ Means Nothing (paywalled*). I expect this will reach more people than anything I could do with blog posts, so I will leave this topic and move on.

  • It’s fairly easy to get around, I believe.


Themes! What Are They?

by John Holbo on March 6, 2018

I’m writing something introductory (intended for a general audience) about ‘themes’ in literature. Obviously my theme must be that the term is a bit hopeless until you say what you mean by ‘theme’. I’m thinking of introducing it with reference to memories of writing book reports in 6th grade (I think it was.) Mr. Lofton’s (?) class at McCornick Elementary. (Or was he my 5th grade teacher? Can’t remember.)

Anyhoo: it was requisite, on pain of getting no credit for your report, that you correctly check one or more box(es) for ‘theme’. There were exactly four options:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Self

That’s all there is, there ain’t no more!

(Sorry, ladies! It was the 70’s, and Ms. was a magazine, but you got no love when it came time for themes.) [click to continue…]


The Right To Have Rights

by Astra Taylor on March 6, 2018

Last month The Right To Have Rights, an edited collection I contributed the afterword to, came out with Verso. Crooked Timber’s own Corey Robin was kind enough to provide an endorsement for the book, which he called “a marvelous deconstruction of a vexing concept, and a wonderful new way of doing theory.” Not bad!

The book’s form is indeed unique – each of the collaborators takes on a portion of Hannah Arent’s now famous phrase from The Origins of Totalitarianism “the right to have rights” (interestingly, the provocative formulation was initially overlooked by readers and not something Arendt lingered on or made much of). Stephanie DeGooyer tackles “The Right,” Lida Maxwell examines “To Have,” Samuel Moyn reflects on “Rights,” and Alastair Hunt addresses the implicit question, “of Whom?”

I’ll just say that writing the afterward was a real treat, mainly because I had never had the chance to deeply engage with Arendt before (I had read a few chapters, essays, and excerpts here and there and seen both of the recent movies about her released by Zeitgeist Films, but that was about it). Though I was glad to have an excuse to dig in, my contribution is a rather unorthodox (and not very Arendtian) reading informed by my reporting on the refugee crisis in 2015 and my ongoing economic justice work.

Building on the main contributions, I look at the way people’s citizenship rights are being undercut in an age of globalized capitalism and how neoliberalism and ethno-nationalism are dangerously entwined. As an activist, invoking rights can become a kind of reflex or habit, and sometimes (if I’m honest) a substitute for other kinds of argumentation and imagination, so it was also good to have an occasion to step back and ponder what we’re really talking about when we talk about rights or make entitlement claims. I’m not about to dismiss rights as nonsense upon stilts or bourgeois individualism run amok, but I emerged from this project more critical than when I began. I will certainly be more deliberate (and hopefully more forward-looking or even out there) in any rights demanding effort I’m part of as a result.

In honor of the book’s publication, I asked each of the contributors to share some thoughts in response to the same prompt. I asked them to reflect on what, if anything, grounds rights and whether we might need to start thinking about rights in new ways. Their replies are below.

I’d be curious to hear others reflect on the same prompt in the comments should inspiration strike.

The question of how rights might be recognized and fulfilled is a far more interesting and difficult question than what rights are in themselves. We tend to think of rights as the sacrosanct property of certain subjects: the right of individuals to bear arms, the right of citizens to vote, or the right of human beings to life itself. But rights are not inborn properties. If they were, we would never have to exercise a demand or make a claim for them. As much as we can assert a right, there must be a larger communal body that feels obliged or compelled to assume the burden of making sure we can enjoy this right. The question of how we might compel individuals, corporations and states to take up a responsibility for the rights of others is the question we should be asking. – Stephanie DeGooyer

We tend to think of rights as self-evident, as grounded in our equality as human beings. But that ground, historically, has been shaky: claims about who is truly human have served to exclude, disenfranchise, and license mass violence against marginalized peoples. Arendt alerts us to the shakiness of the ground of rights, and shows us that the way we can stabilize it is not through appeals to morality, but rather through political action and staging of rights. We “have” rights like we “have” a party or a conference: we have to collectively stage, enact, and demand that we all be treated as individuals capable of claiming our rights. We – as collective political actors – are the constantly changing, yet crucial, figures that give rights-claimers a ground to stand on. – Lida Maxwell

Arendt’s reflections remind us how little has been done to guarantee rights, especially for outsiders to existing states—as well as insiders whose protections are increasingly precarious, and risk becoming outcasts in their own lands. It remains true today that too many people, as Arendt observed, are driven to assert their “humanity” — or have others assert it for them — in the absence of any grounds for rights. – Samuel Moyn

Human beings, we say, are born with rights. But rights are not really a function of anyone’s biological make-up: they are things we can enjoy only as members of a political community made when individuals act together in concert. Historically when individuals have joined communities, it often came as a big surprise to existing members. A telling mark of the quality of our political communities is whether we reject or welcome those who, because they are rightless, need to become members. – Alastair Hunt


Why are UK academics striking? A beginner’s guide

by Miriam Ronzoni on March 5, 2018

Ingrid has suggested that I write a short post giving a general overview of the current strike action in UK universities, as many CT readers based outside of the UK might actually not know much about it. I am very happy to do so.

UK-based academics are currently engaging in the most massive industrial action ever undertaken by the sector. After being on strike five days overall over the past two weeks, they are committed to an escalation that will lead them to strike four out of five days this week and to a whole week walk-out next week. If negotiations do not progress sufficiently after this, the promise is to move to an assessment boycott. [click to continue…]