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overton window

Schopenhauer On Philosophy’s Overton Window

by John Holbo on February 4, 2018

On Facebook a friend was mentioning that good old Francis Bacon bit:

The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.

This reminds me of a bit from Arthur Schopenhauer I really love. In this other thread I joked about The World As Willed Misrepresentation, but here’s the real deal: Schopenhauer on philosophy’s Overton Window, so to speak. This is from his Parerga and Paralipomena (the title means something like ‘extras and omissions’), which used to be damned hard to find but was reissued last year (volume 1, volume 2). [click to continue…]

The Overton Window As Metaphysics

by John Holbo on January 31, 2018

Eric Schwitzgebel informs me that, annoyingly, the Overton Window turns out to be, like, something a libertarian dude published after he died. But, you know, there is actually a lot of plausibility to it. Eric is thinking about how, in philosophy, ideas migrate from unthinkable to sensible to popular. Maybe even policy! It would be fun to write a history of philosophical common sense. Try to trace shifts in what people have thought is obvious vs. weird. Eric is thinking, specifically, about local, recent shifts in attitudes towards panpsychism. Pretty wild idea, panpsychism! But if it moves from unthinkable to merely radical, probably notions like plant cognition and group cognition move from radical to … acceptable?

But here’s the thing. He’s burying the lede, my old poker buddy Eric is. (Or maybe he’s just playing his cards close to his chest.) If panpsychism is true, the universe could, like, BE an Overton Window. It started as unthinkable. Then there was that Big Bang moment when it passed from unthinkable to radical, and rapidly moves from there to acceptable, sensible. I would say that the existence of the universe is a very popular policy, in space and time, at present. It just makes sense, and the thought of nothing actually seems the radical option, by contrast.

Perhaps you would also like to subscribe to my metaphysics of cognitive bias newsletter: The World As Willed Misrepresentation.

Reality breaks through the Overton window

by John Quiggin on February 7, 2013

While I was looking at sources for my post on declining middle class access to first-tier college education, I came across this piece by Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute His main point is the possibility of reducing education costs through low-cost distance/online learning, on which I might say more another time[1]. What struck me, though was this passage (emphasis added)

my 10K-B.A. is what made higher education possible for me, and it changed the course of my life. More people should have this opportunity, in a society that is suffering from falling economic and social mobility.

The change on this point has been striking in a matter of a few years. When I was writing Zombie Economics in 2009 and early 2010, I spent a lot of time citing work going back to the 1980s and 1990s to show that the US has less intergenerational income mobility than most European countries. At that time, the conventional wisdom was definitely that the US was characterized by equality of opportunity – there were still plenty of hacks willing to deny that inequality of outcomes had increased, including plenty at AEI.[2]

The Occupy movement played a big role in focusing attention on the general issue of inequality, and once attention was focused, the facts pretty much spoke for themselves. At the other end of the political spectrum, the intellectual collapse of the political right became more and more evident, to the point that they were unable to put up any effective resistance. Instead we got arguments like this from Tyler Cowen, suggesting that maybe social immobility isn’t so bad after all.

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Opening the Overton Window

by John Quiggin on March 31, 2009

One of the effects of the Global Financial Crisis is that the window of ideas now regarded as thinkable has expanded greatly. Willem Buiter typically works close to the edge of the window, but even so, I doubt that he would have written this in the Financial Times a year ago:

[Tax havens] should be closed down.

The easiest way to achieve this is to make it illegal for any natural or legal person from a non-tax haven country to do business with or enter into transactions with any natural or legal person in a tax haven. That ought to do it. Tax haven, again, is defined not with respect to tax rates or tax bases, but with respect to bank secrecy, that is, with respect to the information shared by the country’s financial institutions with foreign tax authorities. That information sharing should be automatic and comprehensive.

As regards regulatory havens, once common G20 standards for regulatory norms, rules and regulations has been set, countries that violate these standards would be black-listed. The obvious sanction is non-recognition of contracts drawn up in the regulatory haven jurisdiction and non-recognition of court decisions in these regulatory havens. That ought to do it.

The logic hasn’t changed in the last year, but the idea that the OECD could simply cut off economic interactions with places like the Cayman Islands and Liechtenstein (let alone, say, Switzerland) wasn’t thinkable then. It is now.

Update Marshall McLuhan moment: In comments, Willem Buiter points to this piece, written a year ago, and taking an equally strong line. Despite getting this example wrong, I still think the window has shifted.

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I completely agree with John Fund. No wait, let me back up. Belle and I were just talking about this. (Our planes passed, heading in opposite directions, and we held up little notes to the windows.) Wouldn’t it be funny if Trump were a double agent?

Our way of thinking about it wasn’t quite like Fund’s. He presumes Trump is motivated by desire for Canadian-style health care. We hypothesized there could be some money in it. The Clintons are rich. Surely they could just be paying him off with cash or promises of favors or whatever.

But the interesting thing about the Trump situation, structurally, is this. As I noted in this post, [click to continue…]

Overton Straitjacket

by John Holbo on November 8, 2013

Approximately a bazillion commentators have pointed out, rightly, that the right-wing of the conservative movement holds sway over the political right, in the US; whereas the left-wing of the left-wing party, the Democrats, is so wimpy, comparatively, that it sounds funny even calling the Democrats ‘left-wing’, per se. Of course, conservatives say the opposite. They are the moderates blah blah blah. I don’t know what truth would have the tremendous force needed to burst their epistemic bubble, so let’s move on, talking among ourselves.

Here’s a non-obvious (perhaps because it is incorrect) thought about the dynamics of having a right-wing dominated by its extreme right-tip, to the point where it doesn’t really have much of anything but a right-tip. You’d think it would automatically NOT be like that. You’d think such a dominant right-tip would not only generate a more moderate middle but also an ‘acceptable’ right to its right. That is, whatever is the center of political gravity – which is now on the extreme right – would sort of end up ‘moderate’, by definition, so long as you adopt a relative definition. That is, folks would figure that if Ted Cruz is ok, then Ted Cruz’ dad is probably ok. Because, what the hell, they aren’t THAT different. (By contrast, Obama really didn’t seem much like Jeremiah Wright. The shocker there was going to have to be that this association proved he believed stuff totally different from what he said.) Overton Window 101. But this doesn’t actually seem to be the way of it. Rather, what we get is this big weight of conservative opinion, this huge clump of conservative grass-roots, right at the edge of what is considered at all acceptable, in US political discourse. There is a very narrow range of things you can say without being, on the one hand, a RINO squish; or, on the other hand, having to say it was all ‘taken out of context’ when David Corn or Media Matters gets wind of it. [click to continue…]

Today I conclude my reflections on Art Young, occasioned by the great new book about him [amazon associates link]. For those disinclined to purchase, I found a copy of one of his books, On My Way (1928), in free PDF form. (Doc announces itself as legal. No copyright renewal, so it seems.) Anyway, in honor of my earlier, literary maps post: say! the endpapers make a swell map!

But the Art path I shall trace in this post is not from Monroe, WI, to Bethel, Conn. A few years back I published a survey article on ‘caricature and comics‘. On the one hand, caricature is a minor art form – not necessarily low but distinctly niche. Funny line drawings of celebrities. On the other hand, formally, caricature is very old and very broad. This produces categorial dissonance. Caricature techniques are at the root of styles we don’t think of as caricature. This is the main thesis of Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, by the by. (No one seems to have noticed, but it’s true.)

In that essay I make some points with reference to the case of caricaturist-turned-Expressionist, Lyonel Feininger, but I could have used Art Young.

But let me start at the beginning, regarding Young. I like reading stories of youthful artistic influence, so here is his, pieced together from the new book and other sources. [click to continue…]

Recognising racism

by John Quiggin on September 13, 2016

Back in 2004, I wrote that

There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist.
This was one side of an unspoken agreement among mainstream politicians, the other being that no one would ever make a statement that was overtly and undeniably racist (this was the central content of “political correctness” in its normal usage). Both the use of overtly racist language and the use of the term “racist” in political debate put the speaker outside the Overton Window. The official debate was undertaken in terms of “dog whistle” coded appeals to racism on one side and euphemisms such as “prejudiced” or “racially charged” on the other. The peace was maintained by the fact that the political class as a whole shared a broad neoliberal[^1] consensus in which marginal differences over economic issues were central, and where social/racial issues were primarily seen as a way of motivating the base to vote the right way.

With the rapid rise of tribalism on the political right this tacit agreement is breaking down.
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Why Is Racism Unacceptable?

by John Holbo on August 7, 2013

Greetings from the road. I’ve been chivvying little girls around the globe for a few weeks, which interferes with keeping up one’s CT duties. So our text today is taken from one of the few literary works I’ve had a chance to read with real discernment, at leisure. The August issue of the Delta inflight magazine! 

The article in question is a celebration of the 50th anniversery of King’s “I Have A Dream Speech”. A number of prominent Atlantans reflect on its significance, generally and personally. (Hey, you can read it online. Who knew? Who ever links to articles in inflight magazines?)

It’s the sort of feel-good, unlikely-to-offend fare you expect from an inflight magazine. But the fact that MLK, his legacy and most famous speech, are fodder for such fare is noteworthy. In 1963, who would have expected that, a mere 50 years on, MLK would be not just a moral hero to many, but a non-polarizing, nominal hero to nearly all. Democrats love him, of course. And Republicans – although they may vote against MLK day and try to chip away at his pedestal every couple of years – are really more interested in making out, rhetorically, how they, not Democrats, are the true heirs to his legacy and philosophy (which has been so cruelly betrayed by the Democrats). As Orwell said about Dickens: MLK is a figure well worth stealing.  [click to continue…]

This is my contribution to the Erik Olin Wright Envisioning Real Utopias book event. One note: our event was originally supposed to kick off round about February 1st. You know how it goes with utopia. Delays, delays. I mention this because my rhetorical trick was going to be to check the newspapers, a week before our event, for signs of utopia. As a result, as of today, I’m quoting 7-week old newspapers. (I could have rewritten the post to suit last week’s news. But I find I like my even-more-vintage fish and chip papers better. I’m sticking with ‘em.)

Let’s start by locating our author’s project – Envisioning Real Utopias – with respect to a familiar dilemma. [click to continue…]

Who’s your daddy?

by John Holbo on February 10, 2013

I read Jonah Goldberg op-eds; also Media Matters; thus, back to back, this: [click to continue…]

The transition problem for minimum income policies

by John Quiggin on August 8, 2012

I was planning this as a followup to my earlier post on the feasibility of guaranteed minimum income (GMI) and universal basic income (UBI) policies[1]. Chris has opened debate on some of the fundamental issues associated with a Rawlsian transition, so there might be some benefits in a parallel discussion of the specifics of these policies, which seem to me to capture a fair bit of what Rawls had in mind.

Although the two kinds of policies can be made roughly equivalent in terms of their effects on the distribution of income net of taxes and transfers, they seem (to me, at any rate) to indicate quite different political approaches, and therefore different transition paths, each with their own difficulties.

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Response: Part I

by Francis Spufford on June 11, 2012

For a novel about utopias, there’s something almost disconcertingly utopian about being read this way.  All this generous attention; all this ideal intelligence.  Thank you, everybody.  There’s even a Soviet rationalisation available to me to ease the moral strain of being in receipt of this pocket-sized, individual portion of critical happiness.  Like the inhabitants of Akademgorodok, the privileged science city in Siberia which plays such a large part in Red Plenty, I can choose to tell myself that being Crooked Timberized is only an early and individual manifestation of a good fortune that is shortly to become universal.  One day, every book will be read like this.  In the radiant future, every author will be ringed by symposiasts asking demanding yet perceptive questions.  Every topic will have its conceptual underpinnings set into casually dazzling order by a Cosma Shalizi essay.  And all the springs of co-operative wealth will flow abundantly.

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How (not) to defend entrenched inequality

by John Quiggin on January 25, 2012


The endless EU vs US debate rolls on, but now with an odd twist. Although the objective facts about economic inequality, immobility and so on are far worse in the US than the EU, the political situation seems more promising. (I’m not talking primarily about electoral politics but about the nature of public debate.)

In the EU, the right has succeeded in taking a crisis caused primarily by banks (including the central bank, and bank regulators) and blaming it on government profligacy, which is then being used to push through yet more of the neoliberal policies that caused the crisis. And, as we’ve just seen, formerly social democratic parties like New Labour in the UK, are pushing the same line.

By contrast the success of Occupy Wall Street have changed the US debate, in ways that I think will be hard to reverse. Once the Overton window shifted enough to allow inequality and social immobility to be mentioned, the weight of evidence has been overwhelming.

This post by Tyler Cowen is an indication of how far things have moved. Cowen feels the need, not merely to dispute some aspects of the data on inequality and social mobility in the US, but to make the case that a unequal society with a static social structure isn’t so bad after all.

Update Cowen offers a non-response response here. Apparently, disliking arguments for inherited inequality, such as his point 3 (because of habit formation, social mobility reduces welfare) is a “Turing test” for reflexive leftism.

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Must We Act As If They Mean What They Say?

by John Holbo on September 3, 2011

Brief thoughts about that Bill Keller op-ed on candidates’ religions, and the kerfuffle that kicked up. But only by way of kicking off in the direction of what’s really going on here. The religion stuff needs a more general frame.

Keller is just being reasonable. If candidates say ‘my faith is a private matter and all that need concern the voters is how I will conduct myself in office,’ fine. But if candidates play up faith, for political advantage; if they announce that their religious views and values inform their political views and policy proposals, then obviously that makes religion fair game. Because in politics, your politics has to be fair game. Keller’s critics suggest that arriving at any such conclusion is tantamount to proposing something like a religious test for public office. Or worse! It’s an attempt to ban Christians from public life! But no. He’s only ruling out one or another of a couple possible norms that are so absurd that no one would ever advocate them explicitly. That you can’t fault politicians for concealing their policy objectives, so long as the politicians favor the policy on religious grounds. Or that you can’t fault politicians’ policy proposals, period, so long as they advocate the policy on religious grounds. Something like that. That’s nuts, so Keller is just being reasonable.

But, like I said, I don’t think this is the right way to think about this issue. For one thing, it misses that the religious case is just a special case of a more general phenomenon. Let me switch over to a question Kevin Drum asked last week: why do Republicans get a free pass? He’s absolutely right that they do. [click to continue…]