Liverpool, near Albert Dock

by Chris Bertram on May 19, 2019

I’ve been rooting through my archives, reprocessing some files, and this one comes from a decade ago.

Liverpool, near Albert Dock


This is as much a request for information as anything else, and I imagine that it is information that other academics want too!

Most of the courses my department teaches fall into one of four categories. There are large and small courses, and there are courses aimed at majors and courses not aimed at majors. Plenty of small courses are not aimed at majors; most large courses are not aimed at majors (the exception, sort of, is 101, which is aimed, partly at least, at attracting majors). In our context, large means 80-100 (with, occasionally, 160); small means 15-30.

I suspect, as do most of my colleagues, that more learning-per-student occurs in the small than in the large classes. This is far from certain, because we lack high quality measures of learning. We also assume that some teachers are better than others in large courses, and some are better than others in small courses, but we don’t know a great deal about who, because…. we lack high quality measures of learning.

We are not going to engage in a wholesale reform of our curriculum (that’s a prediction, not an insistence). Like most departments, though, we have some latitude in deciding how large our courses will be. The key choice that we can make is in how big to make the big courses, and how small to make the small courses. So, for example, we could keep our large courses as low as 80, and pay the cost in terms of allowing caps on our smaller courses to rise to (say) 30. [Of course we could decide to teach all, or nearly all, of our classes, as mid-sized, and if you could find me research that convinced me that was optimal I would share it with colleagues and try to persuade them, but I am putting that possibility aside to simplify things]. Because we lack high quality measures of learning, and because sample sizes are anyway small, we can’t make those decisions on the basis of what we know about our own situation, so it would be handy to have research that could tell us something useful.

But the research I have seen doesn’t tell me anything useful.

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Five stitches and Røbic’s music

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 12, 2019

I was for the second time in my life as a parent on the emergency room yesterday. Our youngest (11yo) son and I went shopping in the afternoon, and bought a new bread knife. Well, it was sharp, and because he has been using our (very old) bread knife for a long time without ever causing any problems, we had not worried enough about what would happen if we let him use a razor-sharp new bread knife. He made a mistake when cutting a bun, and suddenly was standing in front of me with a yawning gap in his hand. [click to continue…]


Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas archway

by Chris Bertram on May 12, 2019

Pézenas archway


On Eric Hobsbawm and other matters

by Corey Robin on May 9, 2019

I’m in The New Yorker this morning, writing about Richard Evans’s new biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, explaining how the failures of Evans the biographer reveal the greatness of Hobsbawm the historian:

Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard Evans, is one of Britain’s foremost historians and the author of a commanding trilogy on Nazi Germany. He knew Hobsbawm for many years, though “not intimately,” and was given unparalleled access to his public and private papers. It has not served either man well. More data dump than biography, “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” is overwhelmed by trivia, such as the itineraries of Hobsbawm’s travels, extending back to his teen-age years, narrated to every last detail. The book is also undermined by errors: Barbara Ehrenreich is not a biographer of Rosa Luxemburg; Salvador Allende was not a Communist; one does not drive “up” from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.* The biography is eight hundred pages because Hobsbawm “lived for a very long time,” Evans tells us, and he wanted “to let Eric tell his story as far as possible in his own words.” But, as we near the two hundredth page and Hobsbawm is barely out of university, it becomes clear that the problem is not Hobsbawm’s longevity or loquacity but the absence of discrimination on the part of his biographer.

Instead of incisive analyses of Hobsbawm’s books, read against the transformations of postwar politics and culture, Evans devotes pages to the haggling over contracts, royalties, translations, and sales. These choices are justified, in one instance, by a relevant nugget—after the Cold War, anti-Communist winds blowing out of Paris prevented Hobsbawm’s best-selling “The Age of Extremes” from entering the French market in translation—and rewarded, in another, by a gem: Hobsbawm wondering to his agent whether it’s “possible to publicize” “Age of Extremes,” which came out in 1994, “& publish extracts on INTERNET (international computer network).” Apart from these, Evans’s attentions to the publishing industry work mostly as homage to the Trollope adage “Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon also take away from England her authors.”

Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions. What we get from Evans, however, is boredom itself: a shapeless résumé of things starting and nothing beginning, the opposite of the storied life—in which “public events are part of the texture of our lives,” as Hobsbawm wrote, and “not merely markers”—that Hobsbawm sought to tell and wished to lead.


Down the corridor of every Marxist imagination lies a fear: that capitalism has conjured forces of such seeming sufficiency as to eclipse the need for capitalists to superintend it and the ability of revolutionaries to supersede it. “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality,” “The Communist Manifesto” claims, “while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” Throughout his life, Marx struggled mightily to ward off that vision. Hobsbawm did, too.

But what the Communist could not do in life the historian can do on the page. Across two centuries of the modern world, Hobsbawm projected a dramatic span that no historian has since managed to achieve. “We do need history,” Nietzsche wrote, “but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge.” Hobsbawm gave us that history. Nietzsche hoped it might serve the cause of “life and action,” but for Hobsbawm it was the opposite: a sublimation of the political impulses that had been thwarted in life and remained unfulfilled by action. His defeats allowed him to see how men and women had struggled to make a purposive life in—and from—history.

The triumph was not Hobsbawm’s alone. Moving from politics to paper, he was aided by the medium of Marxism itself, to whose foundational texts we owe some of the most extraordinary characters of modern literature, from the “specter haunting Europe” to the resurrected Romans of the “Eighteenth Brumaire” and “our friend, Moneybags” of “Capital.” That Marx could find human drama in the impersonal—that “the concept of capital,” as he wrote in the “Grundrisse,” always “contains the capitalist”—reminds us what Hobsbawm, in his despair, forgot. Even when structures seem to have eclipsed all, silhouettes of human shape can be seen, working their way across the stage, making and unmaking their fate.

You can read it all here.

Also, as many of you know, for the last two years, I’ve been making the case that Donald Trump’s presidency is what the political scientist Steve Skowronek calls a “disjunctive” presidency. Over at Balkinization, I use the opportunity of my deep, deep agreement with the great Jack Balkin—whose views on so many things I share, and who also has argued for Trump as a disjunctive presidency—to raise some questions about our shared position, and where our analysis may go awry. You can read that here.


  • Several astute readers pointed out to me that this locution of traveling “up” somewhere is often used in Britain to signify going from a smaller to a larger place rather than traveling from south to north. I passed the information on to my editor at The New Yorker, and they’ve now cut the phrase from the text. I’m leaving it here because, well, the error was mine, and in a passage where I’m pointing out Evans’s errors, I should acknowledge my own.


Wishing Is Free

by Belle Waring on May 8, 2019

As has been established. So, I am curious about you and your mode of daydreaming. There is a type which, according to Wikipedia, eats up 47% of your time but consists only of rehearsal for future tasks, mild mind wandering away from the book you’re reading, turning over creative puzzles while doing repetitive tasks, staving off boredom but with short non-recurring fantasies, or generally spacing out. In one of the studies referenced, workers like truckers who face extensive expanses of boredom used daydreaming to mitigate this, with only 5% of the fantasies having sexual content and few being violent. There are some very credulous researchers out there, was my main takeaway from that study.

No, but do you create and maintain elaborate fictional worlds which you keep for months or years at a time? I feel like this is a very normal thing to do but it’s unclear to me how common it is. Recently people have decided that this form of extensive world-building is either evidence of or in itself a form of mental illness, dubbed maladaptive daydreaming. It’s alleged to be linked to depression, OCD and childhood trauma. Moving swiftly on, whether the creation of intricate internal universes is maladaptive or not seems surely to vary according to how dependent the person is on daydreaming, whether it’s interfering with their life somehow, if they are being made unhappy by it, etc. And I’m not sure why it would ever be making you unhappy since you can just change whatever it is that’s troubling you. I mean, people can’t torture you in your fantasy world—unless you happen to want to be tortured, in which case, wish away!
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The Steelwool Scrub – A Fallacy

by John Holbo on May 7, 2019

This case is picture-perfect for making a simple point in debates about religious liberty: ‘sincere religious belief’ is not a ‘get out of bigotry free’ card. It is no carte blanche defense (legal or moral).

The man is nothing if not religiously sincere. Anyone who wasn’t would have kept his mouth shut, not blurted the following: [click to continue…]


Is Warren’s college plan progressive?

by Harry on May 6, 2019

Ganesh Sitaraman argues in the Garun that, contrary to appearances, and contrary to the criticism that it has earned, Elizabeth Warren’s college plan really is progressive, because it is funded by taxation that comes exclusively from a wealth tax on those with more than $50 million in assets. Its progressive, he says, because it redistributes down. In some technical sense perhaps he’s right.

But this, quite odd, argument caught my eye:

But the critics at times also suggest that if any significant amount of benefits go to middle-class or upper-middle class people, then the plan is also not progressive. This is where things get confusing. The critics can’t mean this in a specific sense because the plan is, as I have said, extremely progressive in the distribution of costs. They must mean that for any policy to be progressive that it must benefit the poor and working class more than it benefits the middle and upper classes. This is a bizarre and, I think, fundamentally incorrect use of the term progressive.

The logic of the critics’ position is that public investments in programs that help everyone, including middle- and upper-class people, aren’t progressive. This means that the critics would have to oppose public parks and public K-12 education, public swimming pools and public basketball courts, even public libraries. These are all public options that offer universal access at a low (or free) price to everyone.

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Sunday photoblogging: yellow doors

by Chris Bertram on May 5, 2019

Metal panel


Evidence and conventional wisdom

by John Quiggin on May 5, 2019

I’ve been looking over some posts from the bright dawn days of blogging in the early 2000s. One thing that struck me is that some ideas I put forward as unconventional but evidence based, are now fairly widely accepted. In view of the widespread, and justified, concern about a post-truth era, this seems encouraging, and worth investigating. A few examples

  • In this post on equality of opportunity from 2003, I noted that “contrary to popular belief, there is less mobility between income classes in the United States than in European social democracies.” I was drawing on a 1999 book, The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Goodin, Headey Muffels and Dirven, which I’d reviewed a couple of years previously. In 2009, when I started work on Zombie Economics, I wrote about this again. However, I soon realised I was pushing at an open door. The decline of social mobility in the US had become part of the conventional wisdom.
  • In 2004, some of the first studies of charter schools were coming out, showing that, contrary to the widely-shared expectations of education reformers, they weren’t showing any clear gains in student performance. I wrote about this fairly cautiously, noting that studies of this kind often fail to find any effect. As it turned out, however, the findings were replicated, particularly in the case of for-profit schools. This piece in the Washington Post (which used to be associated in some way with the for-profit testing industry, IIRC) shows how much the tide has turned against charters, and even more against for-profits.
  • Here’s a post on minimum wages, drawing on the work of David Card and Alan Krueger (whose tragic death recently was a big loss to the economics profession). from the early 1990s. By then, the formerly orthodox view that minimum wages had big negative effects on employment was sufficiently out of favour to be revived in Slate (then famous, or notorious, for “contrarian” views that generally tended to support the establishment).
  • Finally, I wrote a couple of mildly snarky pieces about the “Reading Wars” between phonics and whole language. This was one of the relatively rare cases in which the emerging evidence supported the cultural right. It’s pretty hard nowadays to find unequivocal supporters of whole language.

Looking at these examples, there’s a gap of about 10 years between the time the evidence emerged (or at least, emerged prominently enough for me to take notice) and the time the conventional wisdom adjusted. That doesn’t seem too bad. As the great replication crisis has shown, it’s unwise to take too much notice of an individual study on any social science topic.

Unsurprisingly, most of the examples above are cases where the emerging evidence was consistent with my broad political principles (I was never engaged in the Reading Wars, though I mostly lined up against the phonics advocates on other issues). I’d say that’s because most of the evidence we’ve had in the past twenty-five years or so has gone against the beliefs of the political right, who have had to retreat from the triumphalism of the early 1990s. But it’s obviously possible that there is confirmation bias at work. I’d be interested to see suggested examples of evidence shifting the conventional wisdom to the right in this period.


In Harry’s thread on teaching applied ethics, one commenter expressed the view that teachers should not say which side they support in a debate and should think of themselves as acting as lawyers for both sides. I think Harry sort of agreed with the first point. However, this isn’t always possible and sometimes isn’t even desirable. It won’t be possible when you have expressed yourself publicly and in-print on the issue at hand. When you have, then students will know what you think. Sure, you can present the best counter-arguments to your view in their best light, and you should, and you should encourage disagreement (and discourage unwarranted praise). But they’ll still know.

Some cases, though, are more resistant to impartiality. Take the ethics of migration, for example. I don’t find it hard to present arguments for restriction as put by people like David Miller or Christopher Heath Wellmann. So to that extent, even where the students know where I stand, they also know that I think there are philosophically respectable people whose arguments need addressing and that if they agree with, say, Miller, rather than me, that’s OK. Much more difficult, I find, is when we get onto state enforcement of immigration policy. The problem here is that even the restrictionists hedge their support for restriction with an acknowledgement that states must respect human rights and the values embodied in the rule of law.
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I teach a standard Contemporary Moral Issues/Applied Ethics course once a year, usually in the Spring, in lecture format, usually with 80-100 students (but this year with 170). Normally about 70% of the students are seniors, and about 70% are business majors (it meets an ethics requirement in the business major). We discuss topics such as abortion, inequality in education, parental licensing, the gendered division of labor. I have added two new topics this year—sex on campus, and speech on campus. Each semester I get them to take a long survey which includes questions about what their beliefs are about the topics, prior to studying them in class. A few years ago I started getting them to take a survey at the end of the class, about their post-study beliefs, whether they have changed their minds, and whether they think they know what I believe.

I want to know whether they have changed their minds because I am curious about whether they have really done the thinking I want them to have done. Most are encountering, and having to consider seriously, intelligent arguments for the “other side” for the first time, so at least some of them should have their confidence somewhat shaken. I want to know whether they think they know my beliefs because I am a reasonably strict non-discloser, and want to know whether, in fact, I succeed in not disclosing. If they all believed they know what I think, and were right about what I think, that would indicate that I fail!
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Sunday photoblogging: the beach at Grau d’Agde

by Chris Bertram on April 28, 2019

Beach at Grau d'Agde


In print at last!

by John Quiggin on April 27, 2019

April 23 was the official release day for Economics in Two Lessons. The book is now out in Australia as well Economics In Two Lessonsis now available in Australia from Footprint books.

It’s nearly eight years since I started work on the book. I think it’s been worth the wait. The painful process has produced something better than I originally planned, with plenty of help from commenters here and elsewhere.

According to Amazon, the book is often bought along with Crashed, by Adam Tooze, which is great company to be in.

[Begin plug] If you’ve read and liked the book as it appeared here, this would be a great time to contribute a quick review [End plug]


A moral puzzle on individual climate action

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 23, 2019

The Dutch philosopher Marc Davidson posted the following on the closed FB-group Climate ethics research (reproduced here with Marc’s permission):

Who can help with this moral riddle? Somewhere in the near future I have to be in Venice [leaving from Amsterdam]. I can take the train for about 200 Euro, which emits 0.04 ton CO2. Or I can take the plane for about 40 Euro, which emits 0.15 ton CO2 AND spend 160 Euro on buying emissions rights from the EU ETS which will remove 8 ton CO2 emissions. What is better for the climate and what is the moral right thing to do? I really intend to spend the entire difference on compensation.
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