The most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse?

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 21, 2019

I have no idea how he found it, but George Monbiot read an (open access) academic article that I wrote, with the title “What, if Anything, is Wrong with Extreme Wealth?’ In this paper I outline some arguments for the view that there should be an upper limit to how much income and wealth a person can hold, which I called (economic) limitarianism. Monbiot endorses limitarianism, saying that it is inevitable if we want to safeguard life on Earth.

As Monbiot’s piece rightly points out, there are many reasons to believe that there should be a cap on how much money we can have. Having too much money is statistically highly likely to lead to taking much more than one’s fair share from the atmosphere’s greenhouse gasses absorbing capacity and other ecological commons; it is a threat to genuine democracy; it is harmful to the psychological wellbeing of the children of the rich, and to the capacity of the rich to act autonomously when it concerns moral questions (which includes the reduced capacity for empathy of the rich); and, as I’ve argued in a short Dutch book on the topic that I published earlier this year, extreme wealth is hardly ever (if ever at all) deserved. And if those reasons weren’t enough, one can still add the line of Peter Singer and the effective altruists that excess money would have much greater moral and prudential value if it were spent on genuine needs, rather than on frivolous wants.

Monbiot wrote: “This call for a levelling down is perhaps the most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse.”
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Sunday Photoblogging: Palazzo Tursi, Genoa

by Chris Bertram on September 15, 2019

Genoa: Palazzo Tursi, Via Garibaldi


This is your phone on feminism

by Maria on September 14, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk in Austria on smartphones and cybersecurity.

“Put up your hand if you like or maybe even love your smartphone,” I asked the audience of policymakers, industrialists and students.

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

“Now, please put up your hand if you trust your smartphone.”

One young guy at the back put his hand in the air, then faltered as it became obvious he was alone. I thanked him for his honesty and paused before saying,“We love our phones, but we do not trust them. And love without trust is the definition of an abusive relationship.”

We are right not to trust our phones. They serve several masters, the least of whom is us. They constantly collect data about us that is not strictly necessary to do their job. They send data to the phone company, to the manufacturer, to the operating system owner, to the app platform, and to all the apps we use. And then those companies sell or rent that data to thousands of other companies we will never see. Our phones lie to us about what they are doing, they conceal their true intentions, they monitor and manipulate our emotions, social interaction and even our movements. We tell ourselves ‘it’s okay, I chose this’ when we know it really, really isn’t okay, and we can’t conceive of a way out, or even of a world in which our most intimate device isn’t also a spy.

Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.

I ‘m really proud of this piece. The rest of it is here.

Comments here at CT v. welcome especially as there’s more I’d like to say about Kate Manne. Anyone here read ‘Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny? Her thing is that while sexism is the rationalising part, misogyny is the law enforcement branch of patriarchy. (this is a scandalously short and impertinent summary. It’s a fantastic book and I recommend reading it.) I’m thinking that, analogously for surveillance capitalism, exploitation is the rationalisation and predation the policing mechanism. But not sure if that quite works, i.e. if the terms match up, as well as the overall analogy.


9/11 babies are voters

by Chris Bertram on September 11, 2019

It doesn’t seem like 18 years, but it is. Babies born that day are now voters, among other things. Crooked Timber, 16-years old now, came out of the eruption of blogging that followed 9/11. In the atmosphere that developed after 9/11, many of the ways of thinking, arguing, abusing and obfuscating that we associated with the new populism became commonplace. Those who expressed critical opinions, even people of the stature of Nelson Mandela or Mary Robinson, were subject to character assassination by armies of keyboard vigilantes. Ordinary people who said something critical had no chance: recall Cindy Sheehan? Fake and fakish news and associated panics became part of the landscape. In the subsequent wars, particularly in the Middle East, criticisms of US or Israeli actions were blunted by swarms of amateur online experts comparing and undermining photographic evidence. Maybe we’d have ended up here anyway, but that terrible and murderous day set us on the path to the pit of Trump and Brexit, a pit that will be hard to climb out of.

UPDATE: I’m reminded via twitter that the anthrax scare was about a real thing, even though the anti-Muslim spin that was part of the panic around it was confected. I’ve changed the OP to reflect that.


Haters gonna hate

by Chris Bertram on September 10, 2019

I spent a couple of hours the other afternoon reading Amia Srinivasan’s wonderful paper “The Aptness of Anger”. One theme of that paper is that anger can be a fitting response to a moral violation and that our evaluation of whether someone should be angry does not reduce to instrumental considerations about whether being angry does any good. I find Srinivasan’s argument persuasive but I also found myself wondering about a side-issue that is not really dealt with in the paper. If anger is an apt response to a moral violation, where that violation might be a betrayal by a friend or global injustice, we obviously need an independent theory of morality to anchor our judgements about when anger is appropriate. After all, people get angry all the time when they are denied something they believe themselves entitled to, but the anger is only a candidate for being justifiable when they are actually entitled to that thing. (Srinivasan has written eloquently about incels, who are very angry at being denied something they are not entitled to.)

Some of the angriest people around at the moment are supposed to be the so-called “left behinds”, althouth perhaps relatively prosperous people often perform “being angry” on their behalf. Insofar are they are angry about the neglect that they and their communities have suffered at the hands of central governments, the lack of regional and industrial policies, or the growth of inequality, then their anger does seem to be a reaction that is indeed an appropriate response to a moral violation, namely, social and economic injustice. But a lot of the anger that we’ve seen stoked up in recent years has been anger towards “immigrants”, where “immigrants” denotes both actual immigrants and non-white people perceived as such by those who resent them. The “moral violation” that this anger corresponds to is the sense that those people don’t belong in the bigot’s safe space. It is the mere presence of such “foreigners” in a space the haters think of as being theirs and reserved for them that constitutes the perceived outrage and generates the anger. (Similar anger at mere presence of unwanted others can be seen in other cases, such as, for example, gentrification.) [click to continue…]


Passports and Brexit

by John Quiggin on September 9, 2019

I was looking over this post from 2016, on the consequences of a relatively successful Brexit

I’m finding it hard to see that anything will happen to justify the massive effort involved. The Poles and other EU citizens whose presence was the biggest single justification for Brexit won’t go away. On the contrary, it seems pretty clear that all EU citizens will get permanent residence, even those who arrived after the Brexit vote. Even with a hard Brexit, the benefits of consistency with EU regulations will be overwhelming. The terms of any trade deal with non-EU countries won’t be any better than the existing EU deals and probably worse.

Even symbolically, what’s going to happen? Typically, national independence is marked by a ceremony where the flag of the imperial power is lowered, and the new national flag is raised. But, from what I can tell, the EU flag is hardly ever flown in the UK as it is. The same for national currency, passport, official languages and all the other symbolic representations of nationhood. So, after a successful Brexit, Britain will be a little poorer and more isolated than before, but otherwise largely unchanged. Will that count as success in the eyes of those who voted to Leave. I don’t know.

Most of that still looks about right. But as commenters at the time pointed out, I was wrong about passports. One of the big things Leavers disliked about the EU was the replacement of the blue British passport with EU burgundy. It turns out that the colour change wasn’t compulsory, and the reintroduced blue passports will be printed in France, but at least that is a symbolic win for the Brexiteers.

On the other hand, how does this fit with the oft-repeated claim that Leave voters were “left behind” “stayers”? To be nostalgic for blue passports, you would presumably need to have undertaken a fair bit of international travel before 1988, when they were replaced. That experience, combined with the assumption that Britain is far superior to the EU, sounds like the profile of a stereotypical well-off, middle-aged or older, Tory voter. And, as far as I can tell, it was this category that provided the core support for Leave. That’s consistent with Trumpist voting most places in the English speaking world.


Sunday photoblogging: Hamburg (former) warehouses

by Chris Bertram on September 8, 2019

Hamburg: warehouses


Making participation count.

by Harry on September 5, 2019

Here’s my latest piece at ACUE, this time on class participation, what it is, how to make it happen, and why we probably shouldn’t grade it (if you read it it says that we shouldn’t grade it, but I doubt that’s true in all circumstances). Here’s a taster:

Unfamiliar with the practice [of grading participation] I started asking faculty why they graded participation and what they counted. The standard response was that you have to grade it, “otherwise students won’t talk.”

I was skeptical. Whereas we can provide students with a reasonable understanding of what is required when writing an essay, taking a test, setting up an experiment, or making a presentation, participation is vaguer. But let’s assume that participation is, as colleagues tended to say, speaking in class—an action that is, in principle, readily observable and gradable. A number of problems arise.

The first problem is obvious: It’s not just talking, but talking productively, that we care about. Saying things that are interesting and useful to the conversation is a sign of good participation; saying things that are off-topic is a sign of bad participation. If we’re going to grade students’ talking, we should focus on quality, not quantity.

Students need to know this. But once they do, some feel pressure to impress you with correct or pat comments. In setting expectations, it’s hard to overstate that quality includes getting things wrong—for good reason. As a recent graduate wrote to me, “One thing I’m especially grateful for: I’m more willing to risk getting things wrong in discussion and writing than I used to be because you made it clear in class that making mistakes is part of engaging rigorously with philosophy and not something to fear. That seems obvious now, but it wasn’t always.”


But how will they pay for it?

by Henry on September 5, 2019

Since the climate change townhall is happening, here’s a piece I wrote for Wired about it last month, based on some ideas of Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green and Thomas Hale.

Last week, CNN announced plans to host a climate crisis town hall with the Democratic presidential candidates on September 4. MSNBC scheduled a multiday climate change forum with the presidential hopefuls later that month.

In both venues, some version of the perpetual question will undoubtedly be raised: “How will you pay for the costs of dealing with climate change?”

Despite its pervasiveness, this is a profoundly wrongheaded line of inquiry. Asking how to pay for the impact of climate change implies that these costs are a matter of choice. The reality is that global warming will impose massive costs, regardless of whether policymakers respond or not. Thus, the real question is not “How would you propose to pay?” but instead “Who is going to pay?” and “How much?” [click to continue…]


Lord Viv Stanshall Day

by Harry on September 4, 2019

Its Lord Vivian Stanshall Day today, an international moving feast in which we celebrate the great man. It really should have been on the day that Boris Johnson became PM, but those of us in Viv-land were too blinded by the surrealism of the Tory electorate to respond. And, anyway, it doesn’t really matter because, in our hearts, every day is Viv Stanshall Day. At least, that’s how its been seeming for a while now. Here he is with The Young Ones (btw I endured (well, that was my dad’s word for it) a dreadful, Viv-worthy, youth production of Summer Holiday in the summer, in which my niece managed to shine as an overactive surreal narrator), and.. well in an ad for Ruddles which has to be seen to be believed.



by Harry on September 4, 2019

Its the first day of class for me. Both my classes this semester are small—20 or fewer—and in such classes I always begin the first several classes with icebreakers so that they get used to talking in front of the group and learn each others names. A good icebreaker is brief (I allow 5-7 minutes for the whole round)—so it must be pretty easy to come up with a quick answer—but revealing (because I want them to get to know each other). I have a small collection of them. Here’s a sample: please add more if you have them!

Name a novel you haven’t read that you think you should have read
Name a novel you have read that you think the rest of us should avoid reading
What would your choice be for a final meal?
Name a song or singer or band that you are embarrassed that you like [1]
If you had been raised in a different country which one would it have been?
Of the 50 states, which is the one you are least interested in visiting?
If you had to rely on a past England cricket captain to get your country out of the mess it is in, which one would it be? [2]

[1] Surprising how often Justin Beiber and the Jonas Brothers turn up here, both of whom seem entirely un-embarrassing to me. Someone usually mentions Taylor Swift, enabling me to reveal that I have seen her live.
[2] This one has a right answer, but I don’t know what it is—Brearley or Jardine, I imagine. Unless your country is Albania, of course, in which case it’s obviously Fry.[3]

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I was at a bookish festival this weekend. (Thank you, lovely Primadonna. I hope you happen again next year.) Pretty frazzed between work trips (Austria last week. Kuwait tomorrow! Yay?), I ditched the festival schedule and largely let Milo’s nose decide which sessions we attended. Serendipity. Also; no pressure. These were my watchwords. We went from tent to barn to tent, not lingering too long. I had a sitdown in a tent with a sign-up for what I thought was ‘read the first paragraph of your work in progress’. Great! I signed up, popped out with Milo to get some water for him, then came back. Turned out it was not a ‘haltingly read your tender first lines’ session but … stand-up.

No pressure.
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Could the Queen sack Johnson? Would she?

by John Quiggin on September 2, 2019

Having vague ideas of Parliamentary supremacy, I’m struck by reports that Boris Johnson could simply ignore a vote of no-confidence, and remain office to push through a No Deal Brexit, even in the face of legislation prohibiting such a course of action. As far as I can tell, these arguments are based on the premise that Parliament must nominate an alternative, and the assumption that neither Corbyn nor anyone else would prove acceptable to a majority. (Update: On more careful reading of the linked article I see that the new boss, Cummings, saying that Johnson could, for which I read would, ignore a vote for a new PM).

That might be true, and then again it might not. The question that occurs to me is whether Johnson could also ignore a vote in favour of a new PM, and if so, what could be done about it? One possibility is that the Queen could dismiss him, and invite the new PM to form a government, which would presumably hold immediate elections.

That, pretty much, is what happened in Australia in 1975, though the government’s position was far more tenable than in the hypothetical that I’ve outlined above. The government had a majority in the House of Representatives (our equivalent of the Commons). However, the government was unpopular and the Senate (similar to the US Senate in most respects) refused Supply, creating a financial crisis. The Governor-General (representing the Queen) sacked the PM (Whitlam) and installed the Leader of the Opposition (Fraser) in his place. Fraser called an election and won.

I honestly have no idea whether if Johnston refused to go, he could be removed, by the monarch or otherwise. For that matter, could he get the Queen to prorogue Parliament indefinitely, and govern by decree? That sounds inconceivable, but maybe only in the sense of Vizzini in the Princess Bride.

It’s worth noting that the absence of a written constitution isn’t the critical issue here, or at least not to the extent often claimed. Australia has a constitution, but it’s silent on all the relevant issues (it doesn’t even mention the office of a PM).

That’s enough from me. Useful links and informed comments much appreciated.


Sunday photoblogging: Alte Pinakothek, Munich

by Chris Bertram on September 1, 2019

Munich: Alte Pinakothek


The missing question

by Harry on August 30, 2019

Yesterday’s All Things Considered story about Brexit was a remarkably insidious piece of journalism. Their man in Albion visited the town with the highest Brexit vote in Britain (a ‘namesake’ of Boston Mass: the fact that they have the same name is, no doubt, a remarkable accident), managed to find a woman who voted for Brexit, and asked her what she thought of the Prime Minister’s decision to restrict the sovereignty of the elected parliament (not the way he put it). She was enthused “If that’s what it takes…then so be it”: Brexit has to be done and dusted because we’ve got to ‘slow and control” immigration. She freely admitted that Brexit would be bad for the economy, and he asked if she cared that it will be bad for her business. It as already been bad for her business, which relies on EU migrant labor, but that is something she was, nobly, willing to put up with. But what she was willing to put up with in order to slow and control immigration is entirely uninteresting. The question he didn’t ask was how she justified wrecking other people’s businesses and the businesses that other people who are worse off than she is work for. Next time, please present her with some remainers who are going to lose their livelihoods because of Brexit, or the non-trivial number of remainers who will lose their lives because the health service is understaffed (or just badly staffed) and ask her to justify the costs she is trying to impose on them. (Brilliantly, when I looked for the story to link to, I got an ad for an interview with the repulsive James Dyson).