In search of search theory

by John Quiggin on July 10, 2014

This is going to be a long and wonkish post, so I’ll just give the dot-point summary here, and let those interested read on below the fold, for the explanations and qualifications.

  • The dominant model of unemployment, in academic macroeconomics at least, is based on the idea that unemployment can best be modelled in terms of workers searching for jobs, and remaining unemployed until they find a good match with an employer

  • The efficiency of job search and matching has been massively increased by the Internet, so, if unemployment is mainly explained by search, it should have fallen steadily over the past 20 years.

  • Obviously, this hasn’t happened, but economists seem to have ignored this fact or at least not worried too much about it

  • The fact that search models are more popular than ever is yet more evidence that academic macroeconomics is in a bad way [click to continue...]

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Unread Books?

by Harry on July 9, 2014

Jordan Ellenberg has devised an ingenious way of working out what books get bought but not read:


Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read.

Using this method, he finds that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has an HI of 98.5%, whereas Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has an HI of just 2.4%, worse even than Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, widely known as the ‘most unread book of all time’.

I find the Tartt result unsurprising because when, recently, I read her first book,The Secret History I spent the first 350 pages wondering why on earth I was reading it. Not only were all the characters repulsive, but, worse, I strongly suspected the author thought they were really cool. The picture of the author did not inspire confidence that I might be wrong. And, there really seemed to be no plot and I am someone who has no compunction putting down a bad book, so the fact that despite all that I remained hooked impressed me a lot (and it was completely worth it: from around p.350 it is riveting).

But (in Jordan’s spirit of this being entertainment, not science) several comments. First, in defense of Piketty, it is a great read, not at all what I had been led to expect, so if people are giving up they are missing out. Second, though, most copies of Hawking’s book were sold prior to Kindle, and I suspect that hard copies of books, which are sometimes bought for show, are more likely to go unread than kindle copies, which are often bought in order not to show (see 50 Shades). So, Hawking, I think, is still a winner. Next, though, the problem with the method is that I suspect that the kind of people who mark passages in their kindles are unrepresentative readers (not being rude, or anything, just seems quirky). But, finally. When I was a teenager, I saw Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago on the bookshelves of just about every house I ever went to, including the houses of people whom I never saw reading even a shopping list, let alone talking about a book. I do believe there are, or at least have been, people who have read it, but I’d be amazed if it would have gotten a HI of 0.5%.

Finally, finally, I wonder about academic books? I am pretty sure my first book has been cited much more often than it has read, and I have pretty compelling evidence that two of the reviewers didn’t read it (one reviewer based his entire review on the blurb for the book; and a second attributed to me, and criticized, exactly the opposite thesis from the one that I was defending).

Anyway, other nominees for unread, or ought-to-be-unread, books, with or without evidence?

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Vast, Conservative Literary-Persecution Complex

by John Holbo on July 8, 2014

It’s lazy days of summer, so here’s some low-hanging fruit: a long essay by Adam Bellow at NR, advocating for a conservative literary counter-culture to the totalitarian thing we’ve got now.

What is it that Bellow actually wants? Is it: let a thousand flowers bloom, so long as they are all paranoid dystopias about the liberal fascist not-so-distant-future? Surely not. A new T.S. Eliot? But what’s stopping him? Ignatius P. Reilly, but not treated like some sort of dunce? What? Consider this bit: [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Steps in Siracusa, Sicily

by Chris Bertram on July 6, 2014

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Sam Tanenhaus has a long piece in the NY Times, lamenting the failure of the latest attempt to convert the Republicans into a “party of ideas”. His star candidate for this role (one of only a handful of possibles) is Yuval Levin, and Exhibit A is Levin’s journal National Affairs, which he lauds for its mind-blowing wonkiness, in a way that’s impossible to summarise without parody. Here’s Tanenhaus

This was the sterile soil in which Levin planted National Affairs, which exudes seriousness of an almost antiquated kind. Each issue is the size of a small book, unleavened by illustration or even reported narrative. The typical Levin-assigned-and-edited article leads the reader through a forced march of acronyms and statistics and of formulations like this: “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (P.R.W.O.A.) replaced A.F.D.C. with a new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Under TANF, families can draw federal aid for only five years, to underline that welfare is supposed to be temporary. And where federal funding for A.F.D.C. had been open-ended, for TANF it is fixed, so that states must pay for any expansion of welfare.”

On it goes, article after article — “Taxes and the Family,” “Social Security and Work,” “Recasting Conservative Economics,” “Reality and Public Policy.” And yet with its stodgy prose, its absence of invective and red meat for the angry right, its microscopic circulation (6,000 subscribers, though some articles reach as many as 100,000 digital readers) and its one blogger who provides links to academic writings, National Affairs has become the citadel of reform conservatism.

Wow! an article that actually names a policy and describes its central features. It’s hard to believe that anyone still does this stuff. The tone is as if Tanenhaus had encountered a tribe in some remote wilderness engaged in ritual debates about tensor calculus.

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Let Freedom Ring!

by John Holbo on July 4, 2014

Well, that didn’t take long. It’s been 72 hours, and the Supremes have flipped from arguing that the administration could have been more accommodating to signing a temporary injunction on behalf of a plaintiff, refusing the terms of the accommodation. Kevin Drum has it about right: “It’s worth noting that quite aside from whether you agree with the Hobby Lobby decision, this is shameful behavior from the conservatives on the court. As near as I can tell, they’re now playing PR games worthy of a seasoned politico, deliberately releasing a seemingly narrow opinion in order to generate a certain kind of coverage, and then following it up later in the sure knowledge that its “revisions” won’t get nearly as much attention.”

Then again, as PR, this seems doomed to backfire generally. Whatever one makes of the legalities, there’s no missing the spirit in which these decisions are being celebrated on the right. It’s hard to believe many women voters will be inclined to say ‘well, if religious liberty means my boss gets to interfere with me getting what the law says I have a right to, in ways that feel very private and non-work-related, without that technically being a violation of my rights, I guess that’s alright. I guess my boss is exercising his rights, even though it feels like I’m taking a little symbolic walk of shame here!’ Conservatives are working hard to console themselves for recent cultural and legislative losses by building a relatively small, largely symbolic patriarchal dominance display out of ‘religious liberty’. But I’m guessing most women voters are not interested in playing the role conservatives want to cast them in here – i.e. being the loose woman rightfully, if only symbolically, scourged by the spiritually superior employer, all in the name of ‘liberty’. There is no way to make this little morality play palatable to conservatives without making it unpalatable to most women. A lot of conservatives are taking a ‘what’s the big deal!’ line, while at the same time making it clear that, to them, this is a big deal. It’s really not realistic to suppose women will be more immune to the symbolism of the drama than conservatives themselves, however it plays out in terms of provision of birth control to women who need it.

Happy 4th of July! Freedom is a great thing, if only we could agree what it is!

UPDATE: it occurs to me someone is going to complain that I’m cruelly indifferent to the real harm done to some poor women by these recent decisions. In fact, I’m aware of that. It’s really bad and I hope some workaround is found. It’s not clear one will be, which is a damn shame. Nevertheless, the point of the post is that people are getting exercised by the symbolism of the victory, one way or the other. There is no possible symbolism, along these lines, that will please conservatives, that won’t displease most women, because conservatives are in the market for a way to dominate women, in as public a way as possible, while reassuring themselves this is all just ‘liberty’. And most women aren’t in the market for some way to be publicly subordinated, under cover of ‘liberty’, I’ll bet. In the best case, it will just be symbolic. Who has to sign what piece of paper, etc., rather than women actually not getting certain goods the law promised them. But the very thing that makes it acceptable to conservatives, even if it’s symbolic, is going to make it unacceptable to women, even if it’s symbolic. So: good luck with that outreach to women, conservatives.

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Belle and I are on vacation, with intermittent internet. But sea and sun are lovely.

Crooked Timber needs a Hobby Lobby thread, since everyone’s got one. (But don’t expect to hear from me in comments. Wi-fi could die any minute.) You will not be surprised to hear I am sympathetic to Ginsburg’s much-quoted ‘startling breadth’ assessment. Here’s my semi-original question, bouncing off this assessment, via the dissent’s footnote 1.

“The Court insists it has held none of these [startlingly broad] things, for another less restrictive alternative is at hand: extending an existing accommodation, currently limited to religious nonprofit organizations, to encompass commercial enterprises. See ante, at 3–4. With that accommodation extended, the Court asserts, “women would still be entitled to all [Food and Drug Administration]-approved contraceptives without cost sharing.” Ante, at 4. In the end, however, the Court is not so sure. In stark contrast to the Court’s initial emphasis on this accommodation, it ultimately declines to decide whether the highlighted accommodation is even lawful. See ante, at 44 (“We do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA . . . .”).”

So: Hobby Lobby wins because Obamacare is not compliant with RFRA because of a less restrictive route not taken. But it could turn out that this less restrictive approach is itself not compliant with RFRA, i.e. is not a route after all. (Cases concerning this are still pending, as I understand it.) What if the Supremes decide this is so (as they are expressly reserving the right to do)? Could it turn out that there is no ‘least restrictive’ RFRA option, due to a sort of judicial uncertainty principle, arising out of the order in which the cases are taken up? That is, the court is really now saying, not that there is a less restrictive option, but that they are not yet sure there is NOT a less restrictive option? Either the cat will be dead when they open the box of their own pending decision about the accommodations for religious nonprofits, or it won’t be. But, until we open the box, there isn’t a legal fact of the matter. But surely there is no chance that they will decide in favor of the plaintiffs in pending religious nonprofit cases and thereby retroactively falsify the basis for their decision in favor of Hobby Lobby?

Or possibly I’m jetlagged.

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Tobacco International, Inc

by John Quiggin on July 1, 2014

In December 2012 the Australian Labor government introduced plain packaging laws for cigarettes. The effect was that cigarettes are supplied in drab olive/brown packages, with the main visual element being an (often disturbing) picture of the health effects of smoking. The tobacco industry (in co-ordination with the ubiquitous American Legislative Exchange Council) has fought tooth and nail to stop the laws, notably by ginning up trade disputes with Hong Kong and Ukraine, jurisdictions which have no significant tobacco trade with Australia and which (you might think) have more serious problems of their own to deal with. But so far, they have lost in every Australian court, including the court of public opinion. Despite a change of government, there’s no significant likelihood that the laws will be repealed or substantially modified.

Nevertheless, the leading Murdoch press outlet, The Australian, lovingly known here as the Oz, has launched a bizarre campaign, using secret tobacco industry data to claim that, by depressing prices, the laws have led to an increase in cigarette sales. These claims have been shot down in flames by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Treasury, and by health experts and bloggers, most notably Stephen Koukoulas .

The campaign is interesting for a couple of reasons

  • First, the commentators wheeled out by The Oz to defend this ludicrous claim are (without exception as far as I can tell) also climate science denialists. This is part of a much broader pattern – nearly all of the climate science denialists who’ve been around long enough got their start in tobacco denialism, as did much of the thinktank apparatus
  • Second, although the campaign was regarded as a bizarre oddity in Australia, where the Oz has lost a lot of credibility with this kind of thing, it was immediately picked up in the UK where (unlike in Australia) plain packaging is still a live issue. It certainly looks as if the Oz is taking one for the team here – shredding its remaining credibility to no real purpose at home, in order to provide a vaguely plausible Australian source for tobacco hacks to cite abroad.

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The location of memory

by Eric on June 29, 2014

A quick gloss on John’s post below. American educators now and then decry the failure to remember World War I. Of course that’s only an American failure – World War I is etched into the civic landscape of even small villages throughout the British Empire (starting with Canada).

Meanwhile, at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, you will find this exhibit:

Forgotten by whom?

Which is laughable here in California – here that’s the only war we do remember.

It’s terribly easy to find an inadequate memory of one or another war – all you have to do is ask a child, or someone in the wrong region of the country, or of the world. Where would we look to find an adequate memory of the war? Where do we want it enshrined?

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The 100 Years War

by John Quiggin on June 28, 2014

It’s 100 years today since a political assassination in the Balkans set in motion the Great War which, in one form or another, has continued ever since. In destroying themselves, and millions of their subjects, the German, Austrian and Russian empires brought forth Nazism and Bolshevism, which killed in the tens of millions. After 1945, the killing mostly stopped in the developed world, replaced by the threat of instant nuclear annihilation, which remained ever-present for decades and has by no means disappeared. Instead, the War moved to the Third World, and a multitude of proxy conflicts. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the renewed outbreak of the War in Europe, most bloodily in Yugoslavia and more recently in Georgia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the British and French imperial War plans, embodied in the (secret) Sykes-Picot treaty and the contradictory assurances offered to Jews and Arabs in the Balfour declaration and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence1, continue to work their evil consequences long after all the original participants have gone to their graves. Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine are all products of the Great War, as is modern Iran (the product of a revolution against British and later American suzerainty imposed after 1918).

And, after 100 years, nothing has been learned. The architects of the most recent catastrophe in Iraq are still respected commentators, as are the many historians and others who defend the conduct of the British-French-Russian imperial alliance in the 1914-18 phase of the Great War (most British and French apologists ignore or explain away the alliance with the most oppressive European empire of the day, but I imagine there are now Putinist historians hard at work producing defences of Tsarist war policy).

More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left.

Perhaps in another 100 years, if we survive that long, the world will have learned better.


  1. In addition to these, there was the secret Constantinople agreement with the Tsarist empire, and the Treaty of London and Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with Italy, none of which came into effect. These secret deals (and similar agreements made by the Central Powers) make it clear that all the major participants in the Great War were committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion, even as they all pretended to be defending themselves against aggression and pointed to the crimes of their enemies as justification for their own. 

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Reverse engineering Ross Douthat

by John Quiggin on June 26, 2014

Responding to the latest attempt to breathe some life into the zombie of “reform conservatism”, Matt Yglesias noted a revealing silence on climate change. As he observed

The thought process that ended with this approach is easy enough to understand. Whether climate change is a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore, 99 percent of scientists, and a dazzling array of foreign governments or a genuine problem is hotly debated inside the conservative movement. Whether or not fossil-fuel producers should be hampered in their activities by regulatory concern about pollution, by contrast, is not controversial. For smart, up-and-coming conservatives to mention climate change, they would have to pick a side on the controversial issue. Do they sound like rubes by siding with the conspiracy theorists, or do they alienate the rubes by acknowledging the basic facts and the coming up with some other reason to favor inaction? The optimal choice is not to choose.

I made much the same point a year ago in response to Ramesh Ponnuru’s <a href=””http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/349428/missing-point-conservative-reform”>plaintive observation that “To be a good reformer [in liberal eyes] a conservative has to agree that the vast bulk of conservatives are insane.”

In this NYT piece, Ross Douthat tries to respond to Yglesias. He ends up both confirming the point regarding climate change and illustrating the true nature of reform conservatism. [click to continue...]

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Lepore on disruption

by Eric on June 24, 2014

Jill Lepore deserves an award for her New Yorker essay against the gospel of disruption. The last paragraph alone is a sufficiently fine piece of writing to warrant reading the whole thing.

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar with the theory of disruptive innovation, it goes like this: Everyone, every institution that is superb at providing a product or service is in truth a Goliath, merely waiting for a little innovative David to topple him with a better way to do his job. Why work up your muscles to carry a cudgel if you can deal death with a slingshot?

Amazon has disrupted book-selling. Online commentary has disrupted journalism. MOOCs will disrupt the university (people swear).

You who are merely doing your job exceptionally well and profitably – you are a complacent fool.

In her essay, Lepore beats the tar out of the scholarship that gave rise to this preaching. Apart from pointing the article out to you, I want to comment briefly on how she says what she says. In truth, Lepore gives two arguments for the price of one, and it’s the second that I find more fetching and worth a little extra remark.

Mainly, and entertainingly, she points out the entire theory of disruptive innovation is bunk on its own terms. It neither explains what it’s meant to explain, nor predicts what it’s meant to predict. It’s a fable that comforts the comfortable, by depicting their rapacious waste as the inevitable manner of capitalism’s progress. I won’t try to summarize what Lepore says about the embarrassing failures of the theory, because she already says it well.

But Lepore makes a secondary argument you could almost miss. She notes that even if the theory of disruption were sound, there are certain human activities to which it should not be applied.

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Lepore says all this, but spends little time on it; having noted that people aren’t disk drives, she spends most of her essay observing that the theory of disruptive innovation doesn’t really apply to disk drives anyway.

I’d hazard a guess Lepore knows her essay works better this way. A significant portion of her readership would find it tedious to be told less briefly that we need to remember, or revive, the language of public trust, public interest, public service.

Lepore’s choice of emphasis reminds me of the origins of American liberalism in a different age. Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit. You had, he said (and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment), to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus. Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.

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Sunday photoblogging: Refugee Week

by Chris Bertram on June 22, 2014

It is the end of Refugee Week, a week of campaigning for and celebrating the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. In Bristol there’s an event in Queen Square every year, with music, food, stalls for the campaigning groups and so on. These are the Tan Teddy Singers, a Jamaican women’s singing group. Very fine they were too.

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My apologies for the delay in posting the second half of my reply to the symposium. I was traveling. Let me repeat at the outset my deep appreciation for the insightful comments provided by the contributors to this symposium. This is the sort of exchange that makes intellectual life rewarding. Given the delay since the original postings, I did not want to assume that readers of this post would remember what was said in the earlier ones, and I’ve tried to write this in a way that will be intelligible on its own. I take up here the six contributions that I did not discuss in the previous post. I’ll begin with David Owen, Michael Blake, Kieran Oberman and Ryan Pevnick, all of whom have related concerns. At the end, I’ll discuss the posts by Brian Weatherson and Patti Lenard.

In various, sometimes overlapping ways, David, Michael, Kieran and Ryan have raised questions about my theory of social membership. To recall (or, for those who have not read the book, to summarize), the central claim of that theory is that immigrants become members of society over time and their social membership gives them a moral claim to most of the legal rights that citizens enjoy and eventually to citizenship itself. It is important to note, however, that I do not start with a general theory of social membership that I try to justify on the basis of abstract principles and then apply to particular issues. Rather I start with the actual practices of democratic states and ask whether these practices seem to make moral sense. It is only after I have explored arguments about particular practices that I try to show that the idea of social membership is a common thread in many of these arguments. Moreover, my theory of social membership is not presented as a full account of why immigrants are morally entitled to legal rights. I contend that immigrants also have claims to legal rights based on the duty of every state to protect the human rights of anyone within the state’s jurisdiction and based on other considerations like reciprocity and proportionality as well. I think that this way of doing political theory “from the ground up” differs from the approach of some of my interlocutors, especially Kieran and Ryan. My approach is likely to be less systematic and involve more balancing of competing considerations, but I think that it is more closely connected to ordinary moral views, even when, as in the open borders chapters, it leads to radical conclusions.
[click to continue…]

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Over the last year, there’s been a lot of writing about Edward Snowden (I’ve contributed a fair amount to the genre myself). Most people have discussed either the question of (a) whether domestic NSA surveillance in the US is appropriate and whether it is breaking US law, or (b) the purely political consequences of international surveillance. There’s been relatively little discussion of whether there is a problem in principle with international surveillance, and most of what there has been has concerned the question of whether or not privacy is a universal human right. But the recent Der Spiegel revelations combined with some earlier material points to a narrower but very troubling set of problems for liberal democracies. Cross national cooperation between intelligence services has exploded post-September 11. This cooperation is not only outside the public space but, very often, isn’t well known to politicians either. Such cooperation in turn means that intelligence services are in practice able to evade national controls on the things that they do or do not do, directly weakening democracy. [click to continue...]

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