Sunday photoblogging: Pantheon

by Chris Bertram on May 17, 2015

Possibly the greatest building in the history of the world ….

Rome: The Pantheon

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Is the UK benefits system a CDO?

by Daniel on May 16, 2015

Almost as an illustration of the sort of thing John’s looking at in terms of misplaced opportunity costs, I have a piece up at medium.com on forthcoming changes to the UK benefit cap system, and how they could have fairly serious consequences for housing benefit tenants. I probably don’t emphasise it enough in the piece, but these knock on effects destroy the cost economics of the policy – once tenants are evicted because they can’t pay the rent, they become emergency cases and have to be accomodated by the council in short-term accomodation, which is one of the most wasteful and expensive things you can do in housing policy. As I said in discussion of the piece, if you don’t like subsidising these guys as buy-to-let landlords, you’re unlikely to love them when they come back as bed-and-breakfast proprietors, at twice the price.

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Economics in Two Lessons

by John Quiggin on May 16, 2015

I’ve been promising for a long time to write a new book, framed as a reply to a free-market tract Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, published in 1946, but still in print and popular among free market advocates. Its popularity reflects the fact that it’s a reworking of Bastiat’s “What is Seen and What is Not Seen”, still one of the best statements of the case for free markets.

Bastiat’s argument is implicitly based on the concept of opportunity cost but, since the term wasn’t coined until 1914, he doesn’t use it. Neither, more surprisingly, does Hazlitt. Once this is made explicit, Hazlitt’s rather ponderous, and misleading statement of his “One Lesson”

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
can be boiled down to the much simpler statement “Market prices reflect opportunity cost”. In important respects, this is true, particularly when we consider the problem from the perspective of choices about how to allocate an individual, family or government budget. With fixed aggregate levels of public expenditure, for example, more money for the military means less for schools, and vice versa.

There are plenty of other questions about private and public decisions for which Hazlitt’s One Lesson is useful. Another example is the well-supported finding that the best way to fight poverty is to give money to poor people. This is unsurprising given that poor people themselves will usually have a much better idea of the opportunity costs they face than will those seeking to help them.

But as a general statement, Hazlitt’s One Lesson is false, which is why my working title is Economics in Two Lessons”. Lesson Two is “Market prices do not reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society”
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Panel on Education in the Digital Age

by Eszter Hargittai on May 15, 2015

In DC this coming Tue May 19th? If you’re interested in education and technology issues then please come hear our panel on the topic organized by Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

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Rationalism and the True Knowledge

by Henry on May 15, 2015

The introduction to the American edition of The Star Fraction contains Ken MacLeod’s second-most famous dictum – “History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine.” The Fall Revolution books are all about history and people trying to make it (or perhaps more accurately, histories, and people trying to make them). They’re also books that reflect a very specific historical period – when the Berlin Wall had fallen or was about to fall but the Washington Consensus had yet to gel – a moment where the cold logic of nuclear deterrence still held, sort of, while the political transformation of Eastern Europe and the new market anarchism of Sachs, drugs and rock and roll was starting to get going. Maybe the closest thing to the manic intensity of the first three books (and chunks of the fourth) is the Zone of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – black markets, hustlers, ideas, freewheeling politics, and the frozen arc of the Rocket still hanging above it all. They’re also (and much more so than Pynchon, whose zaniness is often forced) very funny books – they don’t play anything for obvious laughs, but are riddled through with intellectual black comedy.

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But what does it mean for Ireland?

by Maria on May 15, 2015

In 1898, the Skibbereen Eagle, the weekly paper of the landed and merchant classes of West Cork, published a thundering editorial against Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia. The Eagle had taken note of the Tsar’s tendency to trample the self-determinative rights of various Central Asian nations and took it upon itself to say to the world; ‘down with that sort of thing’. And so it was that the last of the Romanovs’ hand surely trembled as he clutched his own copy of the Eagle and timidly read its promise to “keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression and man’s natural rights which undoubtedly include a nation’s right to self-government. ‘Truth’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Justice’ and the ‘Land for the People’ are the solid foundations on which the Eagle’s policy is based.”

And so it is, that a week after the Conservatives took power in Westminster and announced their insistence on ramming through their first round coalition negotiation document manifesto, the question of what it means for Ireland must be asked, and fulminating admonitions bellowed from across the Irish Sea. Or, in my case, south London. [click to continue…]

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There’s a technique that MacLeod uses in several novels which I call helical construction. In helical construction, the story is told in two interwoven strands, each strand entirely separate from the other, both progressing forward in time and joining at the end. Chapters alternate between the two strands. If you consider the events of the book chronologically, the events of the past strand all take place before any of the events of the future strand, but the reader encounters the two strands in tandem. This casts shadows in both directions in terms of plot, foreshadowing, reader knowledge and expectations, and subverts a lot of the traditional ways stories are told.
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One of the stupidest things I have done in life was not taking my dad up on his suggestion, when I was 18, that I go and spend some time living with his friend, hero, and mentor, Harry Ree, and act a sort of secretary for him. As a result, I never met Harry. Harry was an academic education scholar, of the very progressive variety who, later in his career (well, he was only slightly older than I am now) quit professoring, and went to teach in a comprehensive school. I knew, even then, that the regard in which my dad held him meant he was really, really, something, and it was only a combination of shyness, social awkwardness, and the general low-level depression that plagued me for much of my youth and early adulthood, that stopped me taking up my dad’s suggestion. I think about it now, reasonably often, having played the sort of role in younger people’s lives that dad would have liked Harry to play in mine. Idiotic really.

Until recently I assumed that Harry was, at that time, still bound by the Official Secrets Act, so I wouldn’t have learned much about his wartime activities. Not so! He, in fact, starred in School For Danger (aka Now It Can Be Told (youtube has the date wrong)). He began the war as a conscientious objector but then spent most of 1943 in occupied France, working for the SOE aiding the Resistance. Last year was the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and at a celebration held at the Institute of Education my dad got hold of this, amazing, broadcast. I tried to put it up last week for the anniversary of VE Day, but the file was too large for CT and I only just figured out how to put it somewhere else – and anyway, there was a lot of other, less welcome, stuff going on that day. I think the BBC probably hold the copyright, so if they request me to I’ll take it down (but please, if you’re from the BBC, don’t ask me to take it down). It’s a tribute to the ordinary French people who lived, and those who died, fighting the Nazis in the small and large ways they could. It’s also a tribute to the men and women of SOE. I don’t know how difficult it is to give your life for a valuable cause. But I am pretty sure that, however difficult that is, it is even more difficult to live every minute knowing that you, and those who are risking their lives just by not turning you in, might be captured, tortured, and killed, any minute. It is 15 minutes of beautiful, inspiring, intensely sad, poetry. Everyone in who understands English should listen to it. Humbling.

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I had, frankly, been afraid of trying to read Ken MacLeod, because I wasn’t sure I had the prerequisite domain knowledge. I studied Russian and majored in Political Science at UC Berkeley,[^fn0] and wasn’t sure that this had given me enough expertise on the history of Communism to jump into his work. Now that I’ve overcome this fear, I should check whether there’s a market for a MOOC, “Remedial Ken MacLeod Prerequisites,” in which I discuss leftism in the twentieth century, MacLeod’s crony and [former Big Pharma dispenser][1] Charles Stross, and the landscape of rural Scotland, or, “Reds, meds, and sheds.”

Then again, perhaps that’s unnecessary; even if you think a Mexican icepick is a margarita with extra salt, you can still enjoy The Restoration Game (novel, 2010) and, to a lesser extent, The Human Front (novella, 2001). Spoilers commence here! [click to continue…]

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Arendt, Israel, and Why Jews Have So Many Rules

by Corey Robin on May 13, 2015

For more than five decades, readers of Eichmann in Jerusalem have accused Hannah Arendt of being a self-hating Jew. In the current issue of The Nation, I turn that accusation on its head. Eichmann in Jerusalem, I argue, “is a Jewish text filled not only with a modernist sense of Jewish irony…but also with an implicit Decalogue, a Law and the Prophets, animating every moment of its critique.” The reaction against Eichmann in Jerusalem, on the other hand, often coming from Jews, ”has something about it that, while not driven by Jew-haters or Jew-hatred, nevertheless draws deeply, if unwittingly, from that well.” What explains this reaction from Jews? Perhaps, I go onto write, it has something to do with the jump, within a relatively short period of time, “from the abject powerlessness of the Holocaust to the mega-power of the modern state” of Israel. That jump “not only liberated the Jew from his Judaism but also allowed him to indulge the classic canards against it.” Arendt was one of the earliest to spot that jump; the half-century-long campaign against her, which shows no signs of abating, is but one register of its consequences.

Along the way, I talk in my piece about the banality of evil, that moment in the 1960s when Norman Podhoretz wasn’t a fool, negative liberalism, the argument last fall between Seyla Benhabib and Richard Wolin, why Jews have so many rules, Matthew Arnold, and what the wrongness of Eichmann’s readers reveals about the rightness of its arguments.

Read it here.

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Viv Stanshall Day

by Harry on May 13, 2015

I’ve decided to unilaterally declare today “Viv Stanshall Day”.

I noticed last night that Radio 4 Extra is repeating Big Shot: A Trip Through the Canyons of Viv Stanshall’s Mind.

So I got very anxious about a student I’ve been teaching all year, who is visiting Madison from a UK university. I have taught her philosophy and helped her with her writing, and given her the best mince pies she has ever had and generally looked after her welfare. I even showed her that wonderful youtube clip of Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steele talking about Americans (I showed the whole class, they loved it). But—I had neglected her national heritage. Might she go home without having learned anything about Viv? So I sent her some videos:

Her response (timestamped 1.04am): “I am listening to these in the union with Gab and am trying not to just sit here laughing to myself!… My Pink Half of a Drainpipe – the bit about rice pudding. Just all of it really; wonderful, just wonderful. I am convinced I have seen the tigers one before, which was bloody funny…These have brought me much joy.” And I know she doesn’t lie because she hated the paper of mine that we read in class, and was quite uninhibited about saying so.

Tragedy averted. Maybe the now we have a majority Tory government at last, they will officially declare today Viv Stanshall day! Can’t I start a petition or something?

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The last gasp of (US) neoliberalism

by John Quiggin on May 13, 2015

The defeat of the “trade promotion authority” bill in the US Senate marks a big setback for Obama’s attempts to push the (still secret) Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement through Congress. As always, there’s plenty of manoeuvring to come, and the deal may still get up, but even so, it looks like the last gasp for neoliberalism, in the US sense of the term. [click to continue…]

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Britain’s new government

by Chris Bertram on May 13, 2015

Within less than a week of coming to power, the new British government has made financial threats or legislative proposals with the following effects:

In a rather chilling turn of phrase, the Prime Minister tells us (by way of explanation):

“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”

By my rough estimate, the party making these proposals has the positive support of around 22% of the adults subject to coercive state power who are resident on the territory. This was the party that used to go on about the perils of “elective dictatorship”. So it goes.

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Peter Gay Has Died

by John Holbo on May 13, 2015

New York Times obituary.

I guess I’m the one who should make this little post, since for the last couple weeks I’ve been talking, a bit, about his classic book, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. I didn’t know very much about the man, myself, before reading his obit this morning. I haven’t really thought much about his legacy – how much of what he wrote was valid, or is still valid in light of subsequent historiography. But he has had an influence on me. In sophomore (?) year of college I heard about him from a Freudian psychology prof. I struggled through The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. It was maybe the first ‘proper’ intellectual history I read. I found it fascinating. But I had such screwy ideas at the time that the details didn’t really stick. Maybe I should go back and give it a reread in honor of the man. Well, maybe not the whole thing …

Any thoughts about Peter Gay?

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Attention conservation notice: A 5000+ word attempt to provide real ancestors and support for an imaginary ideology I don’t actually accept, drawing on fields in which I am in no way an expert. Contains long quotations from even-longer-dead writers, reckless extrapolation from arcane scientific theories, and an unwarranted tone of patiently explaining harsh, basic truths. Altogether, academic in one of the worst senses. Also, spoilers for several of MacLeod’s novels, notably but not just The Cassini Division.

I’ll let Ellen May Ngewthu, late of the Cassini Division, open things up: [click to continue…]

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