Conservative scholar Robert George has issued a “call to action” to constitutional scholars and presidential candidates who are opposed to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. George believes the decision was wrongly decided, that it is a gross usurpation of judicial power and misinterpretation of the Constitution.

But things take an interesting turn in the statement, when George invokes Lincoln on Dred Scott to argue that, despite the Court’s ruling, we—and more important, government officials, including future presidents—should not accept Obergefell as the law of the land. That is, we, and they, should not accept Obergefell as binding on our/their conduct. [click to continue…]


Duly Noted

by John Holbo on October 8, 2015

‘Politically correct’ is so unamenable to non-absurd definition that it seldom receives even the lightest semantic gloss. So this is noteworthy, from Lowry and Ponnuru:

Among the most consequential forms of political correctness — in the sense of the use of social pressure to suppress the expression of widespread and legitimate viewpoints

It is, I suppose, possible that by ‘legitimate’ they just mean conservative. But that would be rather question-begging. The alternative is that they are begging the question against conservatism, which reduces to political correctness, due to it being a not utterly un-Burkean affair. A third possibility is that our authors haven’t given the matter much thought.


A city known for its public art, Chicago has launched with much fanfare “Statue Stories Chicago,” an initiative to bring its statuary into the digital age. For the next ten months, statues and sculptures all over the city will “talk” to visitors if they use their smartphones to scan a code or go to a particular URL. Funders and the actors hired to record the voiceovers are rapturous in their praise of the initiative’s creative multimedia approach. “It’s a really wonderful idea. Everyone has their own story about, ‘If the walls could speak.’ Here we have the statues speaking,” said one.

Some things are better left unsaid. Contemplating a statue and speculating about its subject is a privilege to be enjoyed in tranquility. A digital voice disrupts the silent speculation. Is Dorothy Gale- a challenging voice to imagine without the influence of Judy Garland- so insipid? Does Cloud Gate (“The Bean”) of Millenium Park, a giant reflective abstract work, speak through David Schwimmer? Says who?  Not the sculptor, Anish Kapoor, who has said, “Without your involvement as a viewer, there is no story.”

That a smart phone is required to hear the statues, rather than pressing a button to play a recording, adds insult to injury. We are already buried in our devices; why require them to appreciate a piece of public art? This gimmick, while it may well result in more visitors to the statues, robs us of the liberty to imagine. To be sure, we are free not to tune in, but the digital allure is hard to resist.

My view of the project softened when I read last week of a contest open to teens to submit an imagined monologue for “The Fountain Girl,” a statue in Lincoln Park that was originally commissioned by the Women’s Temperance League. Incentivizing children ages 12-18 to give voice to the statue of a child through creative writing is a prime example of how art can inspire imagination.

I was so taken by the idea that I regretted that my own daughter was too young to enter the contest. Then I thought of her voice, beautiful to my ears but alien to others. Does the world want to hear it as the definitive voice of The Fountain Girl, any more than I want to hear Ross as the voice of The Bean? I don’t think so.


The one-way ratchet of the TPP

by John Quiggin on October 6, 2015

Also, maybe of interest, this piece on the recently announced (but still secret) Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.


Bitcoin, a waste of energy

by John Quiggin on October 6, 2015

I have a piece up on ABC (~ UK BBC, not US ABC) discussion blog The Drum, making the point that most of the market value of a Bitcoin reflects the electricity wasted in the calculations needed to “mine” it, with the obvious disastrous implications for the global climate. Unsurprisingly, it’s provoked some vociferous, if mostly incoherent, responses from Bitcoin fans. Hoping to use the heat energy arising for some useful purpose.


To Glorify His Majesty, King Squirrel I

by John Holbo on October 5, 2015

So I’m reading As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, by Michael Saler. When up pops a quote from the Julian Young biography of Nietzsche, referencing a passage by Nietzsche’s sister, which reads: [click to continue…]



This, you might think, qualifies as another in the series “Short Answers to Silly Questions”. But a Brookings Paper study by William G. Gale, Melissa S. Kearney, and Peter R. Orszag reaches the opposite conclusion.

The study looks at increasing the top marginal tax rate (currently 39.6, applicable to incomes above $400k for singles), with the strongest option being an increase to 50 per cent. The proceeds are assumed to be redistributed to households in the bottom 20 per cent of the income distribution.

The headline finding is that the Gini coefficient is barely changed, as are other popular measures including the 99/50 ratio (the ratio of income at the 99-th percentile to 50-th percentile, that is the median). But the 99/10 ratio and 90/10 ratios change a lot, from 50 and 17 under current law to 37 and 12.5 with the redistribution.

What does this mean? Two things:

(i) As is well known, the Gini coefficient is a lousy measure of income inequality, much more sensitive to the middle of the income distribution than to the tails
(ii) The proposed redistribution would substantially improve the welfare of the poor, with most of the burden being borne by taxpayers in or near the top 0.1 per cent.

It’s obvious, as the authors note, that the 90-50 measure won’t change, since neither group is affected (there’s no simulation of behavioral responses which might have indirect effects). But, since the 99-th percentile income is very close to $400k, there’s very little impact on this group either. But the tax, as modelled, raises a lot of money from the ultra-rich incomes. As a result, distributing the proceeds at the bottom of the distribution raises incomes substantially, which explains the big changes in the 90-10 and 99-10 ratios.

The real lesson to be learned here, one I came to pretty slowly myself is that old-style measures looking at quintiles or even percentiles of the income distribution are no longer very relevant. The real question, in the economy of Capital in the 21st Century is how much should go to the ultra-rich.


Sunday photoblogging: boat at Gruissan

by Chris Bertram on October 4, 2015

Boat at Gruissan


I know the unknown, and the unknown knows me

by John Holbo on October 4, 2015

I just realized Arthur Brown, and his Crazy World, is/are still around after all these years.

That new video is good! Very Tom Waits.

I am also interested to learn that in the 80’s, Brown moved to Austin, Texas, got a Masters degree in counseling and started a house-painting business with a former Zappa drummer.

Imagine going in for counseling and having it be Brown there some office, setting off the smoke alarms for sure.


My comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East

by John Quiggin on October 3, 2015

Four years ago, I put forward a comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East (reproduced in full over the fold). Looking back from 2015, I think it’s clear that it would have yielded better outcomes all round than the actual policy of the Obama Administration, or any alternative put forward in the US policy debate. Not only that, but it needs no updating in the light of events, and will (almost certainly) be just as appropriate in ten years’ time as it is now.

Feel free to agree or disagree.

[click to continue…]


Brian Friel has died

by Henry on October 2, 2015

The playwright, Brian Friel has died. He had been failing in recent years, but his death is still an enormous loss. I didn’t know him, but I loved his plays. His most famous play was probably Dancing at Lughnasa (which repurposed bits and pieces from a book by my and Maria’s grand-aunt, Maire MacNeill), but it wasn’t his best. That honor surely goes to Faith Healer; the Abbey production, with Donal McCann as the fantastic Francis Hardy, is the most extraordinary play I’ve ever seen. Its depiction of the main character’s embrace of the comforts of failure is in some ways more savage than Beckett, and certainly more intimate. Translations is also very fine, and has considerable social science interest – it’s no coincidence that James Scott uses a snippet of dialogue taken from it as his epigraph for Seeing Like A State. I’m sorry that he’s gone.


Clusterfuck of Corruption at NYT Book Review (Updated)

by Corey Robin on October 1, 2015

Greg Grandin takes to Gawker to report on a clusterfuck of corruption at the New York Times Book Review:

This Sunday, the New York Times Book Review will publish a review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger, Kissinger: The Idealist. The reviewer is Andrew Roberts.

Roberts brings an unusual level of familiarity to the subject: It was Roberts whom Kissinger first asked, before turning to Ferguson, to write his authorized biography. In other words, the New York Times is having Kissinger’s preferred authorized biographer review Kissinger’s authorized biography.

Oh, and Roberts isn’t just close to the subject of the book he is reviewing. He has also been, for a quarter-century, a friend of the book’s author.

The Times, too, normally checks those things. When I’m approached about reviewing books there, I’m usually asked if I know the author or have a conflict of interest.

Last May, the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on the topic: How close a connection between reviewer and author (and in this case, between author, reviewer, and subject) is too close a connection? “It’s fine if readers disagree with our reviews,” the Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul told Sullivan, “but they should not distrust them.”

…Still, it’s a “tricky challenge,” Paul said, “to get someone informed but not entrenched.”

If Roberts were any more entrenched, he’d be wearing a Brodie helmet and puttees.

A spokesperson for the New York Times offered the following statement to Gawker, on behalf of Pamela Paul:

“We always ask our reviewers about any potential conflict of interest, as we define it, and disclose any possible conflicts in the review if necessary. In this particular case, we asked Andrew Roberts and were satisfied with his assurances that no conflicts of interest existed that would sway his review one way or the other.”

The Times might as well have asked Kissinger to review his own biography. Or, better, Ferguson himself, since, along with Roberts, there’s not a nano-difference between the three men, at least when it comes to controversies about war.

So how is the review itself? Contrary to the bet that an opinionated yet informed expert might turn in an exciting piece, Roberts’s essay is ponderous, and, if possible, even more hagiographic than the authorized biography itself.

“Kissinger’s official biographer,” writes the man Kissinger first asked to be his official biographer, “certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have a defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago.”

Let me be clear: I think it would be totally legitimate if, say, Ferguson, with his well-known conservative politics, were to review my new, critical book on Kissinger. That might indeed make for an engaging, fun debate; readers would know where author and reviewer stand. However, asking Roberts to review Ferguson, without acknowledging their connections, not to mention Roberts’ history with Kissinger, is a trench too far.

Thus a new genre is born: the authorized review of the authorized biography.

I should admit that I have my own vested interest in the matter. Not only is Greg a friend whose work I have discussed here over the years, but as he reports in his piece:

My friend Corey Robin had a relevant experience. When his book The Reactionary Mind was coming out in 2011, the Times contacted a widely respected intellectual historian to review it. The potential reviewer didn’t know Corey personally or professionally. Although they had never met, Corey had begun blogging that year, and he and the would-be reviewer began exchanging occasional comments on sites like Facebook. Minimal as the relationship was, the Times nixed the reviewer because of their putative entanglement.

The irony of that experience is that the person the Times wound up choosing to review my book—Barnard political scientist Sheri Berman, whose negative review (along with Mark Lilla’s in the New York Review of Books) set off a round of bitter controversy, on this blog and elsewhere, as the Times itself would go onto report—actually does know me personally. She and my wife had done cat rescue work together for years, and on several occasion I had been to her house, where we talked about political science and cats.

In related news, I‘ll be interviewing Greg about his new book on Kissingerabout which I have been blogging over at my site—on Sunday, October 4, at 12:30, at the Brooklyn Public Library. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by.

Update (October 2, 11 am)

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, writes a quietly devastating critique of the preferred authorized biographer writing a review of the authorized biography of Kissinger:

In the italic identification line appearing with his review of a new biography of Henry Kissinger, Andrew Roberts is described only as “the Lehrman Institute distinguished fellow at the New-York Historical Society.” And that is true.

But what is also true is that Mr. Roberts had what many reasonable people would consider a conflict of interest as a reviewer: He was Mr. Kissinger’s first choice to write his authorized biography.

The Times Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, told me Thursday that she was unaware of that fact before the publication of a Gawker piece that makes much of that relationship and of Mr. Roberts’s acquaintance with the book’s author, Niall Ferguson.

Gawker’s headline: “Kissinger Biography Is Great, Says Pal of Author and Kissinger in New York Times.” Indeed, the review is kind to Mr. Kissinger and to Mr. Ferguson; it calls the book “comprehensive, well-written and riveting.”

“We rely on our reviewers to disclose conflicts of interest,” Ms. Paul said. Mr. Roberts disclosed no conflict, saying only that he had met Mr. Ferguson a few times but that this wouldn’t affect his review.

She made the point that Book Review editors cannot realistically open full-fledged investigations into their reviewers’ backgrounds. If Mr. Roberts had told editors that he had turned down the chance to write the book himself, Ms. Paul said that it might not have disqualified him as the reviewer but that she would have had him acknowledge that information in the review.

Should he have told editors? If she’d been in Mr. Roberts’s place, she said, “I would have disclosed it.”

Indeed, Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Roberts will share a London stage to discuss Mr. Kissinger and the authorized biography later this month.

My take: Both assignments were considerably less than ideal. Times readers must be able to believe that a review is an impartial assessment of a book’s merits. That assessment shouldn’t be influenced (or appear to be influenced) by deference to a fellow Times employee or by a significant relationship or circumstance — especially one that goes undisclosed to readers.

But, wait, there’s more.

Not only is Roberts, as Greg Grandin reported in his Gawker piece, a quarter-century-long friend of Ferguson’s (contrary to Roberts’s claim that they only met a few times). He also, my friend Jonathan Stein told me, co-wrote an article with Ferguson back in 1997. In a volume of essays edited by Ferguson.

Here’s the cite: Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, “Hitler’s England: What If Germany had Invaded Britain in May 1940?” in Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, ed. Niall Ferguson (London: Picador, 1997), 281–320.

One last question: How did Roberts come to be chosen as the reviewer of the Ferguson bio in the first place? He’s not exactly a natural choice in that he’s mostly written about British politics and European war in the 19th century and early 20th century; there are lot of experts on Kissinger and American foreign policy. Indeed, it was just such an expert whom the NYTBR chose to review Grandin’s book on Kissinger in the very same issue of the NYTBR that Roberts reviewed Ferguson’s bio. (And, incidentally, one can tell the difference in the choices: where Roberts’s review is a combination of pabulum and hagiography, the review of Grandin’s book is judicious, scholarly, and intelligently critical). So who suggested Roberts as the reviewer and dealt with him on his review?


Alternative MacArthurs

by Henry on September 29, 2015

So the MacArthur ‘genius’ awards were announced today; I’ve always thought of them as tottering on a Bourdieuian knife-edge between two different kinds of legitimation. On the one hand, they are supposed to have consequences, to publicly recognize people who would otherwise be less well known, and giving them financial and symbolic support that they can then go on to use to do good and wonderful things. This means that it would be weird to give one e.g. to someone like Paul Krugman, who already is doing very nicely in terms of public recognition. On the other, they are supposed to go to people who are creative and brilliant – but in socially legitimated ways so as to maintain the status of the award. This means that they are unlikely to go to genuinely unsung geniuses, not simply because the selection process can’t find brilliance if it isn’t publicly well known, but because the legitimacy of the awards partly depends on their social validation by a variety of elite networks.

Hence, for example, we get today’s decision to give an award to Ta-Nehisi Coates. In one sense this is unquestionably awesome – Coates is fantastic. However, it would be unquestionably much more awesomer if they had given an award to Coates five years before, or gave it today to someone where Coates was five years ago. But the sociology of the process doesn’t seem to be set up to do that – like most institutions, it gravitates towards safe choices. A more risky symbolic venture capital approach – say giving grants to people earlier in their career in the expectation that 80% of them will flame out, 10% will do well, and 10% will be just wonderful would probably not be sustainable over the longer term (or at the least, it would make the prizes very different in status and connotation). Hence the current set up, which I suspect is mostly aimed to support safe bets – people who are either famous or very well regarded in their specific discipline – with perhaps a couple of riskier ones thrown in here and there, where they really strike fire with one of the selectors.

So if we were giving out awards rather than the actual selection committee, who would we give them to? It’s not likely, but it is possible that actual real people involved in the selection process will read this (Crooked Timber doesn’t have Vox-level readership, but it does have its own odd forms of cultural capital; stranger things have happened). So it’s possible that this thread could have consequences. Comments are open. My own two nominees (I can think of other very deserving candidates, but they’re personal friends; I’m also sure I’ll kick myself about all the people I should have mentioned as soon as I’ve posted this) would be Astra Taylor and Tom Slee. Both are writers in the hinterlands between technology and culture, neither is so high profile as to be a likely candidate at the moment. But both are just fantastic – brilliant writers (and in Taylor’s case, documentary maker and musician too) who could do wonderful things with MacArthur level exposure. Who else?


Trenchant Music Criticism

by Belle Waring on September 29, 2015

Did you used to love the least google-able band in the world, Fun.? Probably you will also like the guitarist’s new (-ish) band Bleachers. I love this song right now. 80s synth riffs ftw.



by John Holbo on September 29, 2015


RUSH LIMBAUGH: There’s so much fraud. Snerdly came in today ‘what’s this NASA news, this NASA news is all exciting.’ I said yeah they found flowing water up there. ‘No kidding! Wow! Wow!’ Snerdly said ‘flowing water!?’ I said ‘why does that excited you? What, are you going there next week? What’s the big deal about flowing water on Mars?’ ‘I don’t know man but it’s just it’s just wow!’ I said ‘you know what, when they start selling iPhones on Mars, that’s when it’ll matter to me.’ I said ‘what do you think they’re gonna do with this news?’ I said ‘look at the temperature data, that has been reported by NASA, has been made up, it’s fraudulent for however many years, there isn’t any warming, there hasn’t been for 18.5 years. And yet, they’re lying about it. They’re just making up the amount of ice in the North and South Poles, they’re making up the temperatures, they’re lying and making up false charts and so forth. So what’s to stop them from making up something that happened on Mars that will help advance their left-wing agenda on this planet?’ And Snerdly paused ‘oh oh yeah you’re right.’ You know, when I play golf with excellent golfers, I ask them ‘does it ever get boring playing well? Does it ever get boring hitting shot after shot where you want to hit it?’ And they all look at me and smile and say ‘never.’ Well folks, it never gets boring being right either. Like I am. But it doesn’t mean it is any less frustrating. Being right and being alone is a challenging existence. OK so there’s flowing water on Mars. Yip yip yip yahoo. You know me, I’m science 101, big time guy, tech advance it, you know it, I’m all in. But, NASA has been corrupted by the current regime. I want to find out what they’re going to tell us. OK, flowing water on Mars. If we’re even to believe that, what are they going to tell us that means? That’s what I’m going to wait for. Because I guarantee, let’s just wait and see, this is September 28, let’s just wait and see. Don’t know how long it’s going to take, but this news that there is flowing water on Mars is somehow going to find its way into a technique to advance the leftist agenda. I don’t know what it is, I would assume it would be something to do with global warming and you can—maybe there was once an advanced civilization. If they say they found flowing water, next they’re going to find a graveyard.

I dunno. I’m going to wait for the movie. I figure in 20 years, they’ll do a remake of The Martian, with Chris Farley’s re-animated corpse as Rush Limbaugh, in Matt Damon’s role. Only this time, NASA will be trying to keep him on Mars so he can’t talk radio back about how the lack of flowing water on Mars proves there’s no global warming on Earth. But then Deja Thoris falls in love with him, because the lighter atmosphere makes him a tremendous golfer. And he teams up with Tars Tarkas – who has four arms, ergo can hit two golf balls at once.