I got into a bit of a twitter fight with the always interesting Branko Milanovic yesterday. It was a second-hand fight, because he’d already been involved in one with Kate Raworth and had blogged about that. What was interesting to me was how Milanovic believed some things to be not only true, but obviously true, which I thought not just false but obviously false.

Milanovic’s claim is that limitless economic growth is both necessary and desirable in today’s societies. In fact, he puts the claim in the negative:

De-emphasizing growth is not desirable, and perhaps more importantly, is utterly unrealizable in societies like our modern societies.

He may be right or wrong about that. If such growth implies increased consumption of resources, then that’s a pretty bleak prospect for anyone who believes in ecological limits, worries about heat death from climate change and the like.

Still, more interesting to me was his reasoning:

the really important counter-argument to Kate is that her proposal fails to acknowledge the nature of today’s capitalist economies. They are built on two “fundaments”: (a) at the individual level, greed and the insatiable desire for more, and (b) on the collective level, competition as a means to achieve more. These are not necessarily most attractive ethical characteristics for either individuals or collectives but they are indispensable for capitalism to function—they provide the engine that pushes it ever further. … This extreme commodification is obviously linked with insatiability of our needs and by our desire to climb up in hierarchical rankings. Since today’s uber-capitalism accepts only one ranking criterion, money (and since all other possible ranking criteria can be, through commodification, converted into the money-metric), the desire for higher societal rank is almost entirely identified with the desire for higher income. And if everybody wants to have higher income, how can we then argue they our society should cease to place a premium on economic growth …. ? [click to continue…]


Heterodoxy Contra Holbo

by John Holbo on July 12, 2017

Some months back I wrote a series of three posts critiquing Jonathan Haidt and, by extension, some stuff at Heterodox Academy (part 1, part 2, part 3). After that I traded a few emails with one Preston Stovall, who has just posted a brief critical response to my stuff at Heterodox Academy. So I’m linking to it. [click to continue…]


Jacob Levy on “The Sovereign Myth”

by Chris Bertram on July 12, 2017

Jacob T. Levy has written a really interesting piece for the Niskanen Center, which has at its centre the myth that the postwar era was one of sovereign and national democratic control and the fantasy that’s what we need to restore, a fantasy that fuels both the current wave of right-wing populism but is also present in some of the thinking around Jeremy Corbyn.

The imagined Golden Age in these kinds of stories of the fall from democratic grace is the postwar era; it’s often referred to as les trente glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of high economic growth, broadly distributed, during which most Western market democracies built substantial welfare and regulative states after World War II. The chronology varies from one country to another, but roughly speaking the Golden Age is taken to have ended sometime around 1970-75, opening political space for a very different political-economic model to take hold — with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, and the reconciliation of Mitterrand’s Socialist government in France to the market. … The people [now] want to take back control of their economies and their societies. Thus, to critics of neoliberalism, the populist upsurge is a kind of dark morality play; we’re being punished for Margaret Thatcher’s sins.

In the lens of Levy’s piece, UKIP and Trump, Theresa May, David Goodhart and “Liberal” Brexiteers like Carswell and Hannan are on the same side of a key dividing line together with some left-Rawlsians in political philosophy, and other “relational egalitarians”, with people like David Miller, with Blue Labour, with the Furedites with their enthusiasm for national sovereignty, with Lexiters and national-sovereigntist socialism-in-one-country types like John McDonnell and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. On the other side of that line are cosmopolitans of various stripes and with seriously differing attitudes among themselves to “capitalism”, to property and markets. Sitting uncomfortably in the middle are some of the Labour “mainstream”, the US Democrats, and people like Macron, who want to hang onto the postwar international order but are nevertheless wedded to the nation state and the possibility of control in ways that foster the myth.

Whilst nation states may be unable to produce the level of control for democratic electorates that they falsely promise, they are rather good at classifying, organizing, excluding and generally bullying people, with miserable effects for the people and their families who don’t fit into the neat little containers of nationality and citizenship or who would challenge them. The people in the sovereigntist and middle groups have very different ideas about what they’d do with state power, of course, — some of them benign in aspiration — but they all want to bend state power to the production of their pet outcomes on behalf of democratic electorates within which the interests of the “national”, the ethnically dominant and the sedentary are over-represented compared to all the people who don’t fit. In my view, the renewed fostering of the “we” who want control and to take charge of “our” borders and “our” economy carries serious dangers for those others.



by John Holbo on July 10, 2017

Why do people say Putin is playing chess and Trump is playing checkers when it is obvious Putin is playing poker and Trump is playing Calvinball?

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are playing Jenga plus Hungry Hungry Hippos. (The object is to eliminate critical structures and foundations without having them collapse on your turn. And you have to feed the hippos.) What game would you say Democrats are playing? Animal Crossing? Clue? Fix-It Felix Jr.?


Next Thursday, July 13th, is Science-a-thon and I will be participating by writing several posts and sharing pictures about how science gets done. If there are questions you’d like me to address, please post in the comments as I welcome suggestions for topics to discuss.

Science-a-thon is being organized by a graduate school friend of mine, Tracey Holloway, who is an Earth scientist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. The idea is to showcase in 12 pictures throughout the day the work that scientists do with the goal of raising public awareness. I decided to join even though my work is rather different since I very much support the cause of raising funds for science. Here is my fundraising page if you’d like to support the effort financially. Or if you’re a scientist and would like to join Science-a-thon yourself, you can do so here.


Expertise and punditry

by John Quiggin on July 7, 2017

I concluded my post “Against Epistocracy” with the question “Who gets to decide who is well-informed? And who gets to decide who gets to decide?”. This is, I think, a fatal flaw in any system proposing to replacing democracy with rule by a well-informed elite, or any kind of putative aristocracy. But even in a democratic system, we have to make decisions about who should decide things. In many cases, we would like to call on expert advice, and that brings us back to the question “who, if anybody, is an expert on a given topic”. I don’t have a complete answer, but I think it’s helpful to distinguish between experts and pundits or, better, between expertise and punditry.

[click to continue…]


Against epistocracy

by John Quiggin on July 6, 2017

I’ve finally been got around writing something about US philosopher Jason Brennan’s arguments for “epistocracy”, that is, restricting voting to people who are well-informed about the issues. For a long time, I assumed that such an idea would be ignored, and fade into oblivion, as most academic ideas do. But it’s popped up here in Australia. Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs has a trenchant piece on a variety of anti-democratic commentators, including Brennan, to which I can’t really add much.

So, I’ll try to offer some more specific objections to Brennan’s case for epistocracy.

[click to continue…]


Happy 4th of July!

by John Holbo on July 4, 2017

I got up at 5 AM to take a hike in the Arizona desert with older daughter. Nothing around me but cactus, rocks, and the sun getting it together to glare over the mountains. (Older daughter was a couple hundred meters away, around the bend. I was alone!) A few bird noises. Ah, nature! How … natural it all seemed. Suddenly - voices! Two hikers, their words carried across an ancient, solemn landscape, although they are invisibly off in the distance. They are arguing, loudly, about Trump and how stupid his tweets are. And yet all I see is primordial desert. Trump has, to all appearances, managed to troll the desert itself - patient floor of a primordial, long-dead sea. That guy is a pro, as trolls go.

But don’t let it get you down! On the way out I remembered to photograph a teensy bit of desert, dawn fireworks. Didn’t come out so well, but you get the idea. [click to continue…]


Gellner, Mair and Europe

by Henry on July 3, 2017

(Below is the text of a debate piece I gave last week at a meeting of the Tocqueville society, which is maybe of interest to some CT readers. A more polished version may appear sooner or later in the Tocqueville review)

The great Czech-English sociologist Ernest Gellner remarks somewhere that the Austro-Hungarian empire was strong so long as its subject populations complained about its central rule. It was when they stopped arguing with the center and each other – and instead took matters into their own hands – that it got into trouble.

Europe is surviving the Hapsburg test. For sure, it has lost the United Kingdom, but this loss has not triggered a cascade. People in the remaining member states still prefer grumbling to secession. Indeed, in the last few months the European Union has arguably become a little stronger, providing a fortress against a world that has suddenly become more dangerous and unpredictable. Trump’s election has not led to a tidal wave of populism overwhelming traditional democracies. If anything, it has made populism look less attractive.

Still, from a certain perspective, the European Union resembles the Hapsburg empire than one might like.  European leaders too have their court language, incomprehensible to their own citizens, and attachment to bureaucratic obscurities. As Gellner suggested in his last book, they also have the same enemies – irredentist nationalists who hate what they view as bloodless cosmopolitanism. [click to continue…]


Michael Bond is dead

by Harry on June 29, 2017

During my second visit to Cincinnati, in 1993, we went to the mysterious Beechmont shopping mall [1], and I noticed, to my great surprise, a remaindered VHS of Paddington Goes to the Movies (with one episode of The Herbs tacked on). I thought to myself “oh, that’ll be handy when we have kids” and, indeed, when we did, 4 years later, the first kid loved it (as do the others, and as do the many young kids who still come to our house). According to the graunaid obit Michael Hordern said that Paddington was one of his three most challenging roles (the others being Lear, and God)—and the truth is that what Bond, Hordern, and Ivor Wood produced in those programmes is magical. But the books are magical too. Paddington causes as much trouble as William Brown or Dennis the Menace [2] or Wooster, but lacks the mischief or malice of the first two and the doltishness of the third: he always reminded me of a mixture of Jennings and Darbyshire about whom I read alongside him. As an adult, with a child who is Paddington-like in many ways, its Mr. Brown I most empathize with. People who don’t like the politicization of children’s literature may have found the recent movie, a flagrant piece of left wing multiculturalist, pro-immmigration, propaganda, a bit much—but it actually stuck close to the books and the TV version: rooting its politics in a long and optimistic English tradition not just through using Bond’s characters (it’s not an accident that Paddington is only the second most English person in the books; the first being Mr Gruber, a Hungarian emigre), but even through the choices of music it used.

I have one Peruvian friend. After I’d gotten to know her well enough to notice how she dresses I realized that I always see her in a duffel coat. Once I knew her well enough to be confident she wouldn’t think I was engaging in some sort of obnoxious national stereotyping I asked her if all Peruvians wear duffel coats (I did not ask if she was from darkest Peru), and was delighted that she got the joke.

Bond’s legacy is almost entirely wonderful—not just Paddington, but The Herbs, Olga da Polga, and Pamplemousse. (For those of you who like crime, the Pamplemousse books are light, funny, but excellent: start with Monsieur Pamplemousse ). One complaint—he is indirectly responsible for the success of the odious Jeremy Clarkson, whose school fees (Repton) were paid for by the income his mother derived from creating and commercializing the stuffed Paddington Bear. Remember that, next time you buy one.

Here he is, singing in the rain:

[1] Much lamented….
[2] The British Dennis the Menace, not the American one, an entirely different kettle of fish who, nevertheless, and by some bizarre coincidence, also first hit the news-stands in March 1951.


Overton Thoughts

by John Holbo on June 28, 2017

Sorry to be off the grid for a few weeks, loyal readers. Family stuff. Not fun family stuff, mind you, the hard stuff. But we’re ok. Good healthcare is important, kids. Make sure your country offers it!

Belle told you what music she’s listening to. I’m listening to nothing but Randy Newman (by choice) and Pokemon-themed stuff (because my 6-year old nephew really likes it while I’m driving him to school and camp and swimming. He seems so happy.)

So, naturally, I’m thinking thoughts about the state of the Republic. [click to continue…]


What Music Am I Listening To This Week?

by Belle Waring on June 28, 2017

Once again, answers to the real questions. Not, why are Republicans actual mustache-twirling villains, or have we reached peak McArdle, but the music stuff. I meant to post this yesterday, but reasons. OK, cool.

Lorde’s new album is amazing. If it has one drawback it’s that as an adult she is writing about love and sexual relationships, which are the most basic song topics, really. As a young teenager she was writing about weird stuff like seeing your home city from the air for the first time or taking the train with your friends.

I love this song so much. Golden was a short-lived but good band who gave a great live show, and has this one genius song. I was inspired to listen to it by one of our commenters reminding me to listen to Ali Farka Touré. Which you should too! But the Golden song is particularly dear to my heart because they “get chicken at Negril,” an excellent Jamaican restaurant in Silver Spring, MD near my mom’s house. Also, it combines the sweetness of West African guitar riffs with the satisfying resolution of a more normal pop song, rather than a meandering continuity.

I love Bon Iver too much. So sue me. You should read the lyrics because you will for offing sure not understand them from listening to the song, I tell you what.

Hey, can’t go wrong with this one.


I screen, you screen…

by Maria on June 27, 2017

I can’t be the only person who gets horrible eye-strain and frequent migraines from looking at computer screens for many hours a day. But my job, in the physical sense, is basically reading screens and typing stuff into computers. Like so many of us.

Then there’s the generalised version of the ‘spending too much time reading crap on Twitter’ problem, which is a total time-sink and makes me aggravated and unhappy.

These are two distinct but also connected issues. Stuff I’ve considered/tried includes:

Turning off the router at night and only turning it on again in the morning a couple of hours into actual work. Other household members can find this annoying. (Understatement)

Looking for a word-processing only machine – but they’re all extremely old and have tiny screens.

Reviving an old laptop and making it a non-connected machine. Helps with the Twitter problem, but not with the migraines.

Writing by hand and inputting later. Good for shorter stuff, extremely tedious in longer doses.

Keeping the lightness setting on my laptop squintingly low. Helps with the headaches, not the Twitter.

Using an unconnected machine for long-form. I always crack.

Freedom or other such programmes. I always crack.

Feeling that as kindles and such can be read without eye-strain, there must be some sort of work-devices that also can? But being unable to find one.

And so forth.

I mean, the overall problem is that we have little monkey (ok, ape) brains and love novelty and distraction and tiny yet sustained doses of social feedback, and also live in a wider techno-capitalist superstructure that wants to get and keep us addicted, etc. etc. And also that an inability to think long-ish and against the grain kinds of thoughts is, well, convenient to the maintenance of that type of economic set-up. I get that!

But I will take 100% responsibility for being so distractable if I can find a way to work without getting a fucking migraine at least every ten days that wipes out my ability to produce work for at least two days, each time. And is also no bloody fun.

So, this is clearly a bleg, but I figure many CT people struggle with this sort of thing, and any experiences/suggestions you have may find a grateful reception from many others.

Also, my back is completely banjaxed from it, but there’s yoga for that.


Getting creative in a computer science course

by Eszter Hargittai on June 24, 2017

Lane Tech College Prep CS Chicago Flag

There are lots of stats out there about how seriously computer science (CS) education is lacking in the United States (and I suspect many other places). Issues range from high schools not offering computer science classes at all to CS classes not counting toward graduation requirements. There are exceptions, however, and I wanted to highlight a very impressive project from a CS class at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School taught by Jeff Solin. Jeff had his students create a 3D representation of the Chicago flag. Check out his description and many pictures of the finished project. There is so much creativity in that project! So neat and so impressive.


Doodle some music

by Eszter Hargittai on June 22, 2017

Today’s Google Doodle in honor of Oskar Fischinger’s 117th birthday is very impressive and fun. Click on the image on the linked page and then click on the image again. Click on the little squares to create your music. You can change all sorts of aspects of your creation by clicking on Modify on the bottom and making various selections on the left, and also by changing the instrument on top. (Note that as far as I can tell, changing the instrument reverts to a clean slate so take care with the timing.) Enjoy!