Adam Smith in action

by Henry on July 31, 2015

The New York Times:

Brian Canlis, a co-owner of his family-named restaurant, is also a client. He said he was fond of Mr. Price, but was more discomfited by his actions. Mr. Canlis is already worried about how to deal with Seattle’s new minimum wage, which rose to $11 an hour in April and is scheduled to reach $15 an hour for small businesses within five years. The pay raise at Gravity, Mr. Canlis told Mr. Price, “makes it harder for the rest of us.” Mr. Price winced. “It pains me to hear Brian Canlis say that,” he said later. “The last thing I would ever want to do is make a client feel uncomfortable.” But any plan that has the potential, as Mr. Price has put it, to “set the world on fire,” is bound to make some people squirm. Leah Brajcich, who oversees sales at Gravity, fielded complaints from several customers who accused her boss of communist or socialist sympathies that would drive up their own employees’ wages and others who felt it was a public relations stunt.

The Wealth of Nations

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals.


Demography and irreligion

by John Quiggin on July 30, 2015

A few months ago, I was a bit surprised to read a report put out by the Pew Research Center predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. The main points are presented in a peer-reviewed article in the journal Demographic Research, which suggests the analysis should be solid.

Still, I thought I would dig a bit, and found a longer version of the report here, including the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050. That seemed like a very slow rate of change, so I did some amateur demography of my own. I found another Pew report, released almost at the same time, which focused on the beliefs of Millennials (those born from 1981 onwards). This report showed that less than 60 per cent of Millennials currently report a Christian religious affiliation, compared to around 70 per cent of X-ers (born 1965 onwards) and much higher levels for older cohorts.
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David Frum on the crisis in the mediterranean

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2015

David Frum is a US pundit, who writes on US politics. So, being based elsewhere, I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to him. Unfortunately, today, somebody drew my attention to this article in the Atlantic in which he argues, as a prelude to some boilerplate anti-immigrant conservative points, that the people who are crossing the Mediterranean are economic migrants rather than genuine refugees. Although there’s a rather dismissive mention of Syrians at the beginning of the piece “just 30 per cent” (30 per cent of a large number is a lot of people), the message of the piece is clear. Frum calls in aid the Canadian journalist Doug Saunders, who knows his stuff and usually writes sensibly on immigration matters.

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Hey, Kids – Colors!

by John Holbo on July 29, 2015

Do you like colors? Do you like art? If you answered ‘yes’ to both questions, you might find this site interesting.


Nietzsche Wins The Internet in 1886

by John Holbo on July 28, 2015

Couple weeks back I pointed out Nietzsche was an internet theorist avant la net. He is a nice observer of the psychology of it.

Stand tall, you philosophers and friends of knowledge, and beware of martyrdom! Of suffering “for the sake of truth”! Even of defending yourselves! You will ruin the innocence and fine objectivity of your conscience, you will be stubborn towards objections and red rags, you will become stupid, brutish, bullish if, while fighting against danger, viciousness, suspicion, ostracism, and even nastier consequences of animosity, you also have to pose as the worldwide defenders of truth. As if “the Truth” were such a harmless and bungling little thing that she needed defenders! And you of all people, her Knights of the Most Sorrowful Countenance, my Lord Slacker and Lord Webweaver of the Spirit! In the end, you know very well that it does not matter whether you, of all people, are proved right, and furthermore, that no philosopher so far has ever been proved right. (Beyond Good and Evil, Part 2, 25, The Free Spirit, trans. Judith Norman)
Lord Slacker and Lord Webweaver are perfect, not to mention the Knight – ahem – Troll. (“Ihr Ritter von der traurigsten Gestalt, meine Herren Eckensteher und Spinneweber des Geistes!” Not sure about the German connotations of ‘Eckensteher’ – corner stander. Does it mean: flaneur? Guy who hangs out on the stoop, just watching the passing show? Rubbernecker, wallflower, guy who has been sent to the corner by teacher? Probably not that last.) Some of you will want to continue reading the post. Others will already be running to stick bits of the above passage into a Meme Generator. O joy! (For a circa 2012 value of ‘joy’.) [click to continue…]


One of our Twitter accounts is missing

by Henry on July 27, 2015

A public service request – someone, presumably a Crooked Timber reader, put up a Crooked Timber Twitter account a few years ago, to automatically tweet new posts that we put up. Which was very nice of them – but it appears to have stopped working sometime back in 2013. If the person who put this together reads this and would be kind enough to let us know the password so that we can put it all back together, we’d be grateful (we presume that he or she has abandoned this little project himself or herself). If anyone knows who did this, and could contact them, we’d be grateful too (the only two accounts that the Twitter account follows are WTDirect and the PHL Jokes Initiative, if that’s any clue). Or if this turns out to be abandonware with no known owner, and there’s some way of getting Twitter to release it that someone knows of, also good by us.


Sunday photoblogging: Hekla, Iceland

by Chris Bertram on July 26, 2015



On the New York Intellectuals

by Corey Robin on July 26, 2015

I first read Irving Howe in college, in Andrew Ross’ seminar on intellectuals. We read Howe’s ”The New York Intellectuals.” I don’t remember what I thought of it. What I remember is that Howe was an object of great attraction for someone like me, the epitome of the independent left intellectual.

At some point in graduate school, I grew less enamored of the New York Intellectuals as a whole: in part because of their compromises or collaboration with McCarthyism, in part because the ideal of the independent left intellectual lost its allure for me. Howe’s star fell somewhat. Which is ironic because Howe was one of the few anti-Stalinist intellectuals who managed to keep his bearings during the McCarthy years.

This past year, I’ve been re-reading Howe. His literary criticism, which I used to love, now leaves me cold (I’d add to my list of resentful essays I discuss in that post his bitchy reassessment of the battle between Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett.) But to my great surprise I’ve been newly impressed by his political criticism. When he’s not obsessively whacking Tom Hayden or the Berkeley radicals, he can be astonishingly keen and prescient about the weaknesses of the American Left, the contradictions of the welfare state, and the long-term impact of McCarthyism. Free of that crabbiness of spirit that so often mars his judgment and makes his voice so grating, he can see what’s moving and what’s stagnant in the American current.

This morning, I re-read “The New York Intellectuals.” It first appeared in Commentary in 1969. It has two weak moments: when he’s rehashing his critique of the Stalinism of the American Left of the 1930s and 1940, and when he’s gnawing on the “new sensibility” of the counterculture and its spokepersons (Marcuse, Mailer, Norman O. Brown, even Susan Sontag). They feature that pugilism that Howe is so often celebrated for but which now seems so tiresome and familiar. When he’s not rehearsing his case for the prosecution, Howe can really rise above the material.  [click to continue…]


There’s been a lot of back and forth about economic reasoning and the EU. This article by Kevin O’Rourke, takes a different perspective, one that is well worth reading, exploring the consequences of economists’ handwaving over utility for the technocratic politics that we face today. I’ve seen other efforts to make this kind of case, but they haven’t been nearly as clear or accessible.


Beyond Galilee

by John Quiggin on July 24, 2015

If there’s to be any chance of stabilizing the global climate, a large proportion of existing reserves of coal will need to be left in the ground. The Galilee Basin in Queensland, estimated to contain 27 billion tonnes of coal, enough to raise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by several parts per million on its own, is arguably the biggest test case in the world right now. Fortunately, the latest news is good.

The critical project is the Carmichael Mine proposed by Indian conglomerate Adani . To get the coal out Adani proposed a new rail line and a port expansion at Abbot Point. A Korean conglomerate, POSCO (originally a steelmaker)m was named as the builder of the railroad, with the prospect that POSCO would take an equity share and the Korean Export-Import Bank would lend money on favorable terms. If the rail line is built, other projects could go ahead. One such project, owned by Bandanna Coal (now in receivership) was just approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

It now seems clear that Adani is mothballing the project. A month ago, the engineering design teams were told to stop work, and now Posco’s contractors have been sent home. Coincidentally or otherwise, Posco has announced the intention to return to its steelmaking roots, with aggressive cuts to its engineering and construction divisions.

Adani is still blaming regulatory delays, but this seems increasingly implausible. The sacking of the engineering teams will set the project back many months, if not years, and burning your primary equity partner doesn’t seem like a sensible response to regulatory problems. At this point, I’d say the strategy is to obtain and bank the regulatory approvals then hope that the price of coal increases in the future. This seems unlikely, given the collapse of demand in the US, declining demand in China and increasing Indian focus on renewables, in which Adani itself is a big player.

Moreover, with every year that passes, the obstacles to coal projects of any kind get bigger. Most international development banks will no longer lend to such projects, global banks are under similar pressure and institutional equity investors are being pushed to divest. It’s unlikely that the proponents of new coal projects in Australia will ever again see a government as favorable as the Abbott government, so if they can’t succeed now, they will probably never do so.


I got a new iMac. Awesome! Until last week I was using my old iMac, from 2009. I buy a good one so it will last. It’s amazing how one day in front of the retina display makes me think ‘yuck!’ looking at my tired old, burnt out 2009 display. But onward, to the future! [click to continue…]


A Brief Theory of Very Serious People

by Henry on July 22, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Thomas L. Friedman speaks during a rehearsal before a taping of Jeopardy! Power Players Week at DAR Constitution Hall on April 21, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Tyler Cowen argues that the concept of “Very Serious People” refers to people who “realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics.” I’m not either the originator nor the popularizer of the term, but I think that’s wrong. As I understand it, the theory underlying the concept of Very Serious People is as follows.

1. Everyone has a mix of beliefs, some of which are right, and some wrong.
2. Everyone co-exists in a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people’s beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people’s beliefs. This bias is not random, but instead reflects and reinforces existing power structures and asymmetries.
3. People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.

Or: Shorter Theory of Very Serious People.

1. Being Tom Friedman Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.
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Hurdy-Gurdy Facts and Fictions?

by John Holbo on July 20, 2015

I’m still preparing to teach Nietzsche. Today I was rereading “The Convalescent”, in Zarathustra – the key chapter in which the animals clue Z. in that his job shall be to teach Eternal Recurrence. A minor linguistic detail auf Deutsch: he is moping in the depths of his most abysmal thought and they – the animals – sing to him about how everything that goes around, comes around, and he calls them ‘barrel organs’ [Drehorgeln] and accuses them of bothering him with a mere Leier-Lied. Which seems like it should just be translated ‘lyre-song’, which it has been. But the Del Caro translation is ‘hurdy-gurdy song’. Which seems a bit unnecessarily far from the original. Curious, I put ‘Leier-Lied’ in Google translate and got ‘lyre-lay’. But then I tried ‘Leierlied’ – no hyphen – and got ‘gurdy song’. Is that a thing? (Obviously I have too much time on my hands.) ‘Hurdy-gurdy’ in German is Drehleier. Leierkasten, by contrast, is a synonym for barrel-organ, so it makes sense that the translator would make a connection. Both barrel-organs and hurdy-gurdys operate by means of cranked cylinders, which makes sense: Zarathustra is complaining that the animals’ philosophy is just cylindrical crankiness. Round and round and round. Very lowbrow stuff. The animals set Zarathustra straight and tell him he needs to make himself a new Leier, so he can sing this song himself, because this is totally his jam. At this point there is no question of translating it as ‘hurdy-gurdy’. Dude is in the middle of nowhere and those things are very complicated engineering feats. He’ll be lucky to string a few strings on a frame, to sing to the sheep, thank you very much. [click to continue…]


Monday photoblogging: Boat at Solva

by Chris Bertram on July 20, 2015

I couldn’t get to a computer yesterday and photoblogging from a mobile device proved beyond my powers, so Sunday photoblogging has changed to Monday for this week.

Boat, Solva


I’m now coming up to (what I hope will be) the most challenging part of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. The core theoretical point the first part of the book (Lesson 1) is that, under a set of ideal assumptions, competitive equilibrium prices both reflect and determine the opportunity costs faced by consumers and produces. This means that there is no way to rearrange consumption to make someone better off unless someone else is made worse off. (I’ve already mentioned my reasons for avoiding the term “Pareto-optimal” in this context.

What I’m trying to do here is to spell out the logic underlying these results in a way that foreshadows the discussion of market failure and income distribution, in Lesson 2, but still shows the power of market mechanisms. I’ll probably need a few goes at this, and this is my first try. Critical comments on everything from the underlying theory to editorial nitpicks are welcome. Sincere praise is also welcome of course, but constructive criticism is best of all. [click to continue…]