by John Holbo on July 14, 2015

Everyone who’s anyone knows Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “The Fox and the Hedgehog”, written around the postulate that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” It’s a good essay, although too famous for its own good. I would not presume to dispute the divine wisdom of Archilochus. But I’ve always thought that, applied to academic philosophy, the following would be more apt: the fox knows a variety of medium-sized things, the hedgehog knows an extremely large number of small things. Generalists, specialists. And having Big Ideas is yet a third thing. Having One Big Idea isn’t like slipping through the dappled forest, lightly, alertly. But it also isn’t waddle, hunker, clench. Waddle, hunker, clench. Write a tight little article, in which you anticipate 14 objections to your point and answer them, one by one. Defending yourself by preemptively making it too much bother for a potential predator to attack you from any conceivable angle is a classic academic tactic, but not a Big Idea thing. [click to continue…]



by John Quiggin on July 14, 2015

Obviously, my analysis of the Greek debt crisis was wrong. My crucial error was the assumption that, having held the referendum and being faced with an unacceptable offer, Tsipras would choose exit from the euro rather than capitulation. Judging by this interview with Varoufakis (H/T Chris), that’s what Tsipras thought too, until, too late, Varoufakis told him it couldn’t be done. Certainly Tsipras’ actions were consistent with that interpretation.

Syriza has clearly been beaten. But I doubt that the outcome will work well for the other side in the long run. (Nearly) everyone understands that the debt can’t ultimately be repaid. But the German voting public hasn’t been told that. A deal that had some kind of quasi-automatic mechanism for writing down the outstanding balance (for example, by multiplying up the proceeds from asset sales) might have got around this problem. As it is, an explicit writedown will be needed at some point, presumably after Syriza has been forced out of office. That will be incredibly unpopular in Germany, while making clear to everyone else the locus of sovereignty in the post-crisis EU.

Update Commenters generally disagree with my take on the Varoufakis interview. I’m not wedded to it. The crucial point is that exit from the euro is extremely difficult, and that this fact will be used to punish any eurozone country that tries to resist the controlling powers.


Sunday photoblogging – Strasbourg: Ponts Couverts

by Chris Bertram on July 12, 2015

As we wait to see whether Europe can survive in its current form, I thought something from Alsace would be suitable.

Strasbourg, Ponts Couverts


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…]


Travel blogging: Zürichberg

by Eszter Hargittai on July 11, 2015

I was in Zurich last week where my hosts kindly took me to a very nice restaurant on Zürichberg, a hill that offers pretty views and a peaceful environment of fields and forests. In addition to the garden restaurant of the Hotel Zurichberg, there is a terrace as well with even better views. It turns out, Zürichberg is host to all sorts of attractions: FIFA’s headquarters, the Zurich Zoo and a beautiful cemetery where James Joyce is buried (as pointed out by Daniel in his insightful reflections on Switzerland last summer).

FIFA’s headquarters greet you with three flags, the middle one proudly proclaiming “My Game is Fair Play.” It’s good that they cleared that up. I was curious to see a sculpture peeking out from behind some trees, but as we tried to enter the FIFA grounds, a security guard stopped us explaining that unless we were children playing in the soccer match nearby or their parents, we could not proceed. Nearby was a guard with a weapon as well, not a common occurrence in Zurich.

The highlight of this area for me was Friedhof Fluntern, a most charming cemetery, if that word is appropriate given the context (as aptly noted by a reviewer on TripAdvisor, “how do you rate a cemetery?”). Given the Swiss context, it is not a huge surprise that the grounds are very orderly. But there is more to it. It feels more like a garden than a cemetery. You can imagine spending time there to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. A colleague even noted that he sometimes goes there to read. The headstones move past the usual venturing into the whimsy and artistic. The cemetery is on a hill, which adds to its character. I enjoyed going from row to row trying to peek into the lives of the people buried there through their names, the dates and notes on the stones, and the little sculptures honoring them. See more of my Friedhof Fluntern photos here.

It was too hot to proceed to the Zoo, but having later read that they have Galapagos giant tortoises, I was bummed by my decision to skip it and will be sure to visit next time I am in town.

To get to Zürichberg, take Tram 6 from Central to Zoo, which is a 2-minute walk heading east from the main train station, which is ten minutes from the airport by train. Zurich offers day tickets for its entire public transportation system. The 24 or 72-hour ZürichCARD can also be very beneficial if you plan to visit numerous attractions.



by John Quiggin on July 11, 2015

Another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. To recap, the Two Lessons are

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In this section, I’m working on Lesson 1, leading up to the point (my restatement of what’s usually called the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics) that an ideal competitive equilibrium is one in which there are no unexploited potential gains from technical improvements or mutually beneficial exchange. For reasons I’ve spelt out already I don’t want to use the term “Pareto-optimal” to talk about this. I also want to confine “efficient” to its normal meaning of “technically efficient” and avoid the common economist practice of extending this to cover various definitions of “market efficiency”. So, I’m talking about “free lunches” or, more formally, benefits with no opportunity cost.

In Lesson 2, I’ll be looking, among other things, at the Second Welfare Theorem, which says any outcome with no free lunches corresponds to a particular initial allocation of property rights, broadly defined to include taxation obligations and entitlements of all kinds.

Now please comment, criticise and hopefully enjoy

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The Genealogy of Trolling

by John Holbo on July 10, 2015

I’m teaching Nietzsche this semester. I think Genealogy of Morals is the best place to start. At least they are essays! The aphorisms of The Gay Science are the most satisfying, but they are so superficially open to a wide variety of readings, they scatter students every which way. You need people to have a better sense of what Nietzsche is about if you don’t want the aphoristic stuff to turn into just a really fun rorschach test.

Here is my thought for the day: Nietzsche basically thinks morality, good and evil, were invented to enable trolling. That is the value of this value, such as it is. When he says we are decadent, he means Western civilization has turned into an endless comment box, filled with folks trolling. No one has even read the original blog post that set it all off. Eventually the trolls start trolling themselves, for lack of any non-trolls to troll. Trolling the trolls feels like non-trolling, but it’s really just supertrolling. Untermensch als Uberzwerg! (This is Zarathustra’s penultimate insight.) There needs to be some non-trolling way to get past all trolling. The one thing no true troll truly feels is joy, hence Nietzsche’s emphasis on the need to be joyful and affirmative. Also, truth. The one thing every troll pretends to care about. The one thing no troll cares about. Which reminds me: English psychologists, what’s up with that? Are they just sealions, sealioning us? It’s fascinating to ask what truly motivates them! Are they cruel or cunning or simply clueless? Or some combination of all three! Do they know how they look? Also, derp. Philosophy is derpy. This is a key Nietzschean insight. All those footnotes to Plato amount to a flerped herp of derp. Also, the internet as shame culture. “What do you consider the most humane? – To spare someone shame.” Nietzsche would not have liked the way the internet has turned out. In fact, when he complained about democracy, he was really just complaining about the internet. Right? [click to continue…]


Why Greek debt is a problem

by Henry on July 8, 2015

Daniel wrote a post some months ago which has a useful point about Greek debt.

Don’t think of the Greek debt burden, either in cash € terms or as a ratio to GDP, as an economic quantity. It basically isn’t an economically meaningful number any more. The purpose of its existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem. The regular rituals of renegotiation of the bailout package, financing of debt maturity peaks and so on, are the way in which the solvent Euroland nations exercise the kind of political control that they feel they need to have if they are going to be fiscally responsible for the bills.

If this is right – and I think it is – it suggests that Greek debt is a different kind of problem than most people argue, but that it is arguably a worse one. Pretty well everybody, including most Greek people on both the left and right, agree that the Greek state is a mess (read Stathis Kalyvas’s book for history on how it got there, and on the relationship between Greece and the West). This creates problems in a common economic area, exactly to the extent that the euro area needs some rough congruence of state capacity across countries to administer all the things (taxes; fiscal policy) that the area needs to function properly as a backstop to monetary union. The story of the eurozone’s relationship with Greece post-crisis is a story of external powers trying to restructure an entire political system from outside, using the crude tools of control that are available to them. The situation is somewhere between the kinds of Washington Consensus restructuring and conditionality that the IMF used to impose as a quid-pro-quo for emergency loans to countries in crisis, and the massive efforts to restructure the political systems of Afghanistan and Iraq post invasion.

Obviously these past efforts have mostly turned out pretty badly (perhaps you can argue some of the IMF cases – but you’d have an uphill battle if you really wanted to make a general defense). There are instances of successful political-restructuring-from-outside in Germany and Japan, but both of those involved (a) military occupation over a long period of time, and (b) relatively strong pre-existing state structures. There isn’t any warrant to believe that this effort will turn out better, or that the Troika-or-whatever-they-call-themselves-these-days have the local knowledge and public legitimacy to bring real changes through. The more plausible scenario is the one we have – locals vacillating between (a) resentfully going through the bare minimum of the motions of reform that they think they need to go through to get the money, and (b) resisting outright. This is not a recipe for long term success at anything apart from fostering grudges on both sides.

However, it gets worse. If I understand Daniel’s arguments over the last few years rightly, he thinks that the Greeks should just shut up and get on with it, since (a) the alternative is worse, and (b) given the unsustainability of the debt burden, the richer eurozone countries are going to quietly disappear it at some unstated point in the future when everything becomes less politicized. This is not, contra some commenters, a stupid or evil argument – but I don’t know that it’s right either. The Greek state is not the only one that is underdeveloped – the EU/Eurozone one is too, meaning that there isn’t any single actor that can strike deals, whether informal or formal, on the part of the collectivity. It’s not at all clear that anyone can quietly make a credible commitment to Greece to knuckle under in the expectation of better things in the long run, because it’s not clear that anyone on the other side of that bargain can push through a long term restructuring of debt given how toxic the politics have become. Even if the Greeks started behaving exactly as the rich eurozone countries want them to, it’s not clear that the latter countries’ publics will be willing to forgive what appears to them as vast amounts of taxpayers’ money – and under the current system as I understand it (happy to be corrected if I’m wrong, since much of the devil is in the detail), all that it takes is one member state with a cranky right wing coalition partner to refuse a deal.

To be clear – none of this conducts towards any specific recommendations for what Greece or the eurozone countries ought to do. It’s a lot more modest than that. If we treat Greek debt as a political instrument of control rather than a quantity that is going to be demanded from the Greek people over the shorter run, we should be arguing about the project for which that instrument is being deployed, and asking whether (a) it is fit for purpose, and (b) whether the kind of project that it’s being used for is one that’s going to work over the longer term. We should also be wondering (c ) about the endogenous ways in which the instrument of debt as a form of political control affects the actors on both sides of the relationship, and whether it makes some successful and mutually acceptable long term modus vivendi more or less likely. Obviously, I’m skeptical on all of these (and given past track record, I’d have expected Daniel to be more skeptical on (a) and (b) than he appears to be), but willing to hear counter-arguments.


Polygamy and Polyamory

by John Holbo on July 8, 2015

What does our esteemed CT commentariat make of this Politico pros-and-cons of polygamy back-and-forth between deBoer and Rauch? (DeBoer’s response to Rauch here.) [click to continue…]


Derp: An irregular verb

by John Quiggin on July 7, 2015

Following up on Noah Smith’s marvellous definition of derp, I thought I would add the first person to give the declension of this irregular verb

  • I can’t see this happening
  • You regularly restate your tight (low probability) prior
  • He herped a flerp of derp, the twerp

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Orientalism at the Font

by Belle Waring on July 7, 2015

I have a few observations about Asia, and living here and also traveling to nations other than Singapore. I have been mulling them over on this trip alone as I have no one to talk to (except everyone I meet, and it’ll astonish you to know I am a friendly, chatty person. Well, the friendly might surprise you if you think of me as a harpy swooping to scourge my foes with a whip of venom. In truth I smile at strangers, and it took me some little time living in NYC before I could repress the drive to meet with my gaze every person I pass, a practice that actually impedes walking in Savannah, as one frequently knows the person and cannot, under any circumstance, walk past them without speaking briefly. My children think I am “scary,” a not unadulterated good character reference. By this they mean I have a mean glare on me, but that’s part of a mother’s job. If you can’t get somebody to stop fooling around just by looking at them sideways, you have failed to cultivate your maternal powers.) I have been loath to commit them—these ideas you forgot I was talking about just now—to pixels because I feel they are disorganized and perhaps it is not even possible to unwind the tangled skein. However, you are always kind in accepting my scattered thoughts as continuous writing and thus encouraged I will proceed.
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Lots of people have raised the suggestion of applying game theory to the the Greek debt crisis. I haven’t attempted this, reflecting my general scepticism about game theory in the absence of a well-defined strategy space. But now the Greek government and public have made, what is, in effect, a final move. In view of the No vote, Syriza can’t accept a deal that doesn’t include an explicit debt write-off or one that obviously crosses its stated red lines. Within those parameters, its clearly eager for a face-saving compromise.

For the other side (effectively the Troika and the German government), since Syriza’s move has already been made, the problem has now been reduced to one of decision under uncertainty, which is something I am comfortable with. More precisely, it’s a choice between a “safe” option, with an outcome that is fairly predictable, and a “risky” option where the outcome is uncertain.
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Radio Silence

by Belle Waring on July 5, 2015

I realize our blog was curiously silent when we were all thinking, “gay marriage—in your FACE bitches!” And, “isn’t it a good thing that not quite enough Supreme Court justices were swayed by a ludicrously weak argument first tendered in the spirit of ‘0bummercare’ on IIRC the Volokh Conspiracy; at the same time, wasn’t that scary? Still, in your FACES hypocritical Jesuitical bastards!” And, “oh Lord why in the church why? How did he steel himself to it after they welcomed him and he did bible study for an hour. An hour! What kind of mordant acid of racism could etch a stain so black on the filth-splattered escutcheon of Dixie?” And, “I love the president of the United States of America. I am crying watching YouTube. There is snot on my face.” And, “holy shit, people are giving a crap about the confederate flag?! Are you serious? No, really, what?” I’ll be honest as a girl born in Savannah “home of the official platinum-level flag of bigotry” GA; a girl whose step-father was Edmund Kirby-Smith (the fourth and only)—-this last one has me reeling. Also, has me realizing that I wasn’t cool in the 90s when I used a metal Dukes of Hazzard lunchbox as a purse for like 3 years. I was a dick. Well, truth be told I was going to post about the evil of Tom Bombadil, but then I felt like I needed to explain myself, so I’ll just wait a short while (and don’t you steal my thunder!).

The thing was, we flew to my in-laws in Eugene, OR (via HK and SF) and then I found out I had to do something in Indonesia so I flew back another 24 hours maybe six days later, to Singapore and then Bali, and now I’ma sort this out, fly back to Singapore, fly HK to SF to Eugene, and then the next day fly from Eugene to SF to Newark New Jersey to Savannah, and then 6 days later to Dulles, then National, then Martha’s Vineyard? No, I must have to fly to Boston. Whyyywwyyyy? OK, some people have real problems that don’t involve them flying around the world to beautiful places, so I’ll stop moping and let’s join in a carefully composed round of huzzahs and somber reflection and sore winner uncharitable triumph, shall we? In short, America: F@#k Yeah.


Sunday photoblogging: near Nant Peris, Snowdonia

by Chris Bertram on July 5, 2015

Near Nant Peris, Snowdonia


Locke and the Declaration

by John Quiggin on July 5, 2015

I didn’t take part in the book event on Danielle Allen Our Declaration, except as a commenter. But, as it happened, I converged on some of the central questions by a different route. For some time now, I’ve been writing critically about John Locke and his propertarian theory of liberalism. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that Locke is best seen as an American rather than an English political theorist, even though he was an absentee owner rather than an American resident.

Further, while his writings appear liberal if interpreted in the English context, and if attention is focused on the passages where he is seeking to diminish the power of the English monarchy, his crucial contributions to the theory of propertarian liberalism are his justifications of expropriation and enslavement in the American context. The combination of the two made him the ideal theorist for those who wanted a Declaration of Independence that justified rebellion against the British monarchy, in combination with rule by a slave-owning aristocracy in the newly independent country.

James Wilson’s contribution to the Danielle Allen seminar, The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough explores many of the issues, as does Gabriel Winant.

I’ve made a start to spelling out the arguments in a piece for Jacobin magazine, entitled John Locke Against Freedom, which has given rise to some interesting discussions on Facebook, Twitter etc. Chris Bertram has raised some effective criticisms, and hopefully will spell them out in more detail later on. A couple of notable points, with partial responses

  • I’ve overstated the extent to which Locke’s influence was confined to the American context, although it remains clear that his political theory mattered more in that context than in England

  • Even if Locke himself advocated and benefited from expropriation and slavery, it’s not obvious (as I assert) that his theory of classical liberalism necessarily entails these things. I plan to spell out the argument in more detail soon.