The Overton Window As Metaphysics

by John Holbo on January 31, 2018

Eric Schwitzgebel informs me that, annoyingly, the Overton Window turns out to be, like, something a libertarian dude published after he died. But, you know, there is actually a lot of plausibility to it. Eric is thinking about how, in philosophy, ideas migrate from unthinkable to sensible to popular. Maybe even policy! It would be fun to write a history of philosophical common sense. Try to trace shifts in what people have thought is obvious vs. weird. Eric is thinking, specifically, about local, recent shifts in attitudes towards panpsychism. Pretty wild idea, panpsychism! But if it moves from unthinkable to merely radical, probably notions like plant cognition and group cognition move from radical to … acceptable?

But here’s the thing. He’s burying the lede, my old poker buddy Eric is. (Or maybe he’s just playing his cards close to his chest.) If panpsychism is true, the universe could, like, BE an Overton Window. It started as unthinkable. Then there was that Big Bang moment when it passed from unthinkable to radical, and rapidly moves from there to acceptable, sensible. I would say that the existence of the universe is a very popular policy, in space and time, at present. It just makes sense, and the thought of nothing actually seems the radical option, by contrast.

Perhaps you would also like to subscribe to my metaphysics of cognitive bias newsletter: The World As Willed Misrepresentation.


Democracy Is Norm Erosion

by Corey Robin on January 29, 2018

Two or three weeks ago, I had an intuition, a glimpse of a thought that has kept coming back to me since: The discourse of norm erosion isn’t really about Trump. Nor is it about authoritarianism. What it’s really about is “extremism,” that old stalking horse of Cold War liberalism. And while that discourse of norm erosion won’t do much to limit Trump and the GOP, its real contribution will be to mark the outer limits of left politics, just at a moment when we’re seeing the rise of a left that seems willing to push those limits. That was my thought.

And now we have this oped by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zilblatt, two of the premier scholars of norm erosion, about the dangers of norm erosion. Nowhere in it will you find the word authoritarianism, though there is a glancing reference to “Trump’s autocratic impulses.” What you find instead is concern about “dysfunction” and “crisis.”

What you find is this: [click to continue…]


Renationalisation: How to get there from here

by John Quiggin on January 29, 2018

My latest Guardian article is headlined The core of the argument is that, to make a success of renationalisation, we need to do more than buy back privatised enterprises, and run them as publicly owned corporations. We need a different model. A starting point would be the statutory authority model used in Australia with great success, before the Hawke-Keating government adopted the corporatised model as a step towards privatisation.


Should academic books exist any more?

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2018

Ingrid wrote a post about academics writing “trade” books. I’m not all that keen on such categorizations, but the idea seems to be that these are books that are and aim to be accessible to a wider, non-academic, public. In the past, of course, may scholarly works by academics have spoken to such wider publics, and some still do. To give some examples from off the top of my head E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Barrington Moore’s The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Bernard Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and John Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, were all works of scholarship and rigour that were sold to and were read by people other than specialists with academic jobs. In my own area, political philosophy, one could argue that taking seriously one’s democratic commitments even requires that arguments are shareable with an educated public (as I argued long ago … ironically behind an academic paywall).

More mysterious to me is the continued existence of purely “academic” books, written for specialists by specialists. Except for those written by a few megastars or academics with crossover into nearby disciplines, there are few purely academic volumes that are likely to sell enough copies to be commercially viable at the price they need to break even. So why do they continue to exist as bound paper entities (which is what I’m talking about) ? Two reasons, I guess. First, we continue to supply them and tenure and promotions committees continue to be impressed by them (so they are a professional necessity in many fields), and second the demand for them is heavily subsidized by buyers such as university libraries (presumably libraries are the only purchasers of many of the theses that publishers like Routledge recycle into books). None of this is necessary any more for intellectual exchange and argument. Exactly the same content (too rigourous or dull for the lay reader) could be supplied at the same length free of charge and online. Only prestige and subsidy is keeping purely academic books alive.


Sunday Photoblogging: Chicago, L

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2018

On the L


Economics Textbooks

by Harry on January 27, 2018

Henry will enjoy this piece by our friend Laura at the Atlantic, about the way that textbook companies (and authors) are succeeding in extracting rents from students. Especially this bit:

Greg Mankiw’s class, “Economics 10a: Principles of Economics” is Harvard’s most popular course among undergraduates, attracting 633 students this past fall. As is the case in many introductory classes, students attend a combination of large lectures and smaller sections led by graduate assistants and visiting faculty. Mankiw, who himself only gives a handful of lectures per semester, assigns readings from a loose-leaf version of his own extremely lucrative textbook, Principles of Economics, donating royalties from books purchased by Harvard students to charity.

In 2016, he started requiring students to purchase both the textbook and a code that gives them access to a digital platform known as MindTap. There, students complete their homework assignments and take exams, which are graded automatically on the publisher’s website. Students pay about $130 per year for the book and code, a discounted cost Mankiw negotiated with publishers for those at Harvard.

It was nice of him to negotiate on behalf of Harvard students who are, no doubt, among the neediest. And donating the royalties he continues to make specifically from their purchases to charity is awesome. (Maybe that’s why he didn’t negotiate a better deal for them by giving up royalties altogether on Harvard-student-purchased codes). Personally, with my students, given what I know about their circumstances and an eccentric attitude of respect, I wouldn’t feel great about donating money I had extracted from them to the charity of my choice, but, like so many students who pay full price for Mankiw’s codes, they are not Harvard students; maybe I’d feel differently if they were.

Actually this story hit home to me because I am, this semester, assigning my own new book (on which more in later post) in class for the first time (first time I’ve assigned one of my books). Its under $30 and not a text book, but still I felt that I should give them each a $1 which represents the royalty I’ll make on the book (there are three other authors), and couldn’t feel comfortable otherwise. (They think I’m ridiculous. I had a bunch of them over for dinner last night, with chocolate cake and treacle tart—they don’t think that’s ridiculous, and were very pleased by my son’s eerily accurate Trump impressions).

I have a rough rule: my undergrad students shouldn’t have to spend more than $75 on books for my classes: and, normally, it is much less (my large lecture class it is usually nothing). Philosophy is easy because we rely heavily on reading primary texts rather than textbooks, and most contemporary philosophy is done in journals not books, so we can put articles on the course page for downloading for free. My TA this semester has wisely requested that I insist that they print out papers to discuss in section (because of the no-laptop policy).

It must be so much more difficult in Economics. Because unfortunately a fantastic team of economists and communicators have not bothered to spend immense amounts of time in producing a stunningly valuable and well test, user-friendly, open access, online and free textbook with numerous curricular materials, underwritten by HM Treasury, The Bank of England, the Teagle Foundation, Azim Premji University, Science Po, the International Economics Association, Friends Provident Foundation, Santa Fe Institute, Open Society Foundations, UCL, the Institute for New Economic Thinking and the Nuffield Foundation. If some high powered team ever gets round to doing that, it will seriously mitigate the problem Laura’s written about. And Mankiw’s students will be able to decide for themselves whether, and how much, to donate to whichever charity they choose.


Clancy Sigal

by Harry on January 27, 2018

A couple of friends just gave my daughter a lovely-looking edition of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (which I have never read, but will do now if she forgets to take it away with her) for a graduation present. Seeing it made me look up Clancy Sigal, and I see that he, sadly, died last summer. I didn’t know Clancy well, but i knew him well enough to have a little story about him.

I started listening to Saturday Night Theatre (Saturday nights on Radio 4—and presumably, before that, The Home Service) before I went to infant school, and used to demand to be allowed to go to bed early on Sat nights so I wouldn’t miss it. If it wasn’t a thriller or a ghost story I would fall asleep, but if it was I’d be up till the news and often late enough to listen to the rambling talk show that Brian Redhead presented late night called A Word in Edgeways. 4 guests would just talk about whatever they felt like talking about, for 45 minutes, guided by Redhead. I don’t know how Clancy got on the show, but he was a regular and, to me, particularly fascinating probably because he was American and therefore had an accent (we didn’t have a telly, and there weren’t many Americans in small villages in Monmouthshire) but also because he was funny, an ex-communist and seemed to have read everything that had ever been written. I know A Word in Edgeways lasted many years, and maybe I stopped listening in college, but I am pretty sure Clancy stopped appearing sometime in the late 70’s.

After a couple of years as a graduate student at USC in the second half of the 80’s, I became friends with a journalism student who told me about this amazing journalism professor Sigal, and I twigged at a certain point that it was my (as it were) Clancy Sigal. At her behest he started turning up at political meetings I was organizing for the group I belonged to, often accompanied by other ex-communists also from LA. We were not, I hasten to add, stalinists, or in any way sympathetic to stalinism, but Clancy was ecumenical, and we became.. well, not friends… but very friendly acquaintances. I was impressed with myself at the time that I never let on how in awe of him I was, although I did, at some point, tell him that I grew up listening to him on the radio.[1]

He once wrote a terrific piece in the LA Times about the Young Americans for Freedom on campus at USC. He first noticed them at anti-apartheid rallies, which they loyally attended, despite the early morning starts, to counterprotest. Like Clancy, to be honest, I rather liked them, because they were genuinely interested in ideas and in politics and, like the lefties on campus, knew that they didn’t belong, either politically or culturally (the two that I knew were, like a lot of the handful of lefties, not from the social class that a lot of the other undergraduates were). Clancy understood all this, and identified with them: his piece (here) was a lesson to me in how to see—and treat—people with whom you are at odds politically.

USC was a very conservative campus—nearly the most conservative in the area—so it was a surprised that on the day that gulf war broke out it hosted the largest demonstration in Southern California—about 1500 people. This was newsworthy, and Clancy wrote a piece in the LA Times about how it happened. But his story didn’t tell the whole truth.
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Academics writing trade books: what should they know?

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 27, 2018

A befriended academic has written a non-scholarly book, and has been approached by a publisher who picked it up and wants to negotiate a contract. She asked her FB-friends for advice, and almost everyone suggested to get an agent. I suspect that very few academics know how to publish smartly outside academia, and whether one should get an agent (and if so, where to get one, and what to know). I confess I know nothing about this myself when it concerns the English-language publishing world—but would be interested to learn more about this too.

Since this blog has a wide readership, perhaps we can call on the collective wisdom and experience here: what should academics who want to publish a (non-academic) trade book know? It would be great if some agents, those who’ve worked with agents, publishers, as well as authors who have traveled this path can share their views and advice.


FT Alphaville has a really insightful interview with Jarrett Walker on public transport, cities, space, geometry and elite projection. The pleasure of reading this is the one you get when you encounter someone who is really smart, who knows some really detailed empirical stuff, who is not a “theorist” in an academic sense, but who can illuminate things about the world in a way that good theory sometimes can. The basic messages: that getting people from A to B ultimately involves dealing with physical space and you can’t change that; that cities have to work for everyone in order to work for anyone (because even if you are privileged you still need the underlings you depend on to turn up); and that elites tend to project fantasy solutions without considering how untypical they are of the general population. There’s bonus discussion of Elon Musk towards the end, which underlines a point Harry made in comments on my Smith post, namely that the entitled wealthy are the real snowflakes who are very resistant indeed to people challenging their opinions and preconceptions. Read the whole thing.


Futures of the Past

by Henry on January 24, 2018

I’ve wanted for a while to encourage people to buy John Crowley’s Totalitopia, which was published as part of Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Authors series at PM Press. It’s a great series of short books, each containing stories, essays and interviews. I also recommend Eleanor Arnason’s Mammoths of the Great Plains – if you liked what Le Guin did with anthropology, you will probably love Arnason -, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Lucky Strike). The e-books are now on sale, along with all the e-books at PM Press, for a dollar each (go to their website, pick the books you want and enter BUCK into the coupon field), except for those, like Robinson’s, which are free. I’ve spent the morning stocking up on Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Ken MacLeod, Elizabeth Hand and others.

But Crowley again – Totalitopia has many good things. Perhaps the best is the lovely short story “This Is Our Town,” which approaches a 1950s Catholic childhood, with saints, miracles and mysteries, through the structure of genre, turning it into a self-contained universe which is both a fantasy and not, depending on whether you are looking from without (as Crowley now is), or within (as the child that Crowley was once did). His essay on the criminally underappreciated Paul Park is also very fine. The title essay, Totalitopia, is a non-fiction sequel to his novellas “Great Work of Time” and “In Blue,” talking about how every present generates its own impossible, contradictory futures, which quickly become antiquated, alien and lost.
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Ursula Le Guin has died

by Henry on January 23, 2018

She was a wonderful, vexing, intelligent writer, and great humanist. I was lucky enough to be able to tell her once how much her work had meant to me (via email – we had been talking about doing a Crooked Timber symposium, which she decided in the end she didn’t have sufficient time to commit to). There are a very few books that I’m simply not able to talk about coherently, since they’ve shaped me so deeply that I can’t think straight about them. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are among them.


Bitcoin’s zero-sum game

by John Quiggin on January 23, 2018

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story. Nothing that will surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to what I’ve written on this, so I’ll just cite the conclusion

Since bitcoins are not useful as a medium of exchange, or desirable in themselves, their true value is zero. The highest price at which bitcoins have traded is around $20,000. At the time of writing, the market price is halfway between that level and zero. Pay your money (or not) and take your chances.


Adam Smith against nativist immigration policy

by Chris Bertram on January 21, 2018

Paul Sagar has a very nice piece at Aeon about Adam Smith, his legacy, and his contemporary relevance. Towards the end of his essay, he quotes a famous passage from Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments:

[The man of system] seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chessboard have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

An arresting passage when considered against the background of the nativist immigration policies of countries like the United Kingdom and the United States and one that underlines the utopian (in a bad way) nature of natonalist projects. At present our governments are conducting a war against migrants. In the UK, “foreign criminals” (who may or may not have been convicted of actual crimes) are deported to countries they may be utterly unfamiliar with, landlords and employers are threatened with fines if they house or employ people without the right of residency (and deprive many others of opportunities because they look or sound as if they might be “foreign”), asylum seekers are deported to war zones like Afghanistan (a “safe country”) and thousands of people are separated from partners or children because they don’t earn enough for a spousal visa. Brexit Britain has now cast this shroud of insecurity over EU nationals too. In the United States, Trump is still going on about his wall, thousands of young people who are functionally Americans can’t rest secure because politicians can’t agree how to regularize their status, whilst others who came as children are ripped from their families and deported.

And yet we will win. The “game” is going on “miserably” and human beings who have principles of motion of their own, altogether different from those that polticians seek to impress on them, will carry on moving, fleeing, working, associating, trading with, and loving those of nationalities other than their own, because human beings always have and always will. When we talk of freer movement, of more open borders, of a global order that works for everyone and isn’t just in hock to nativist anxieties in wealthy countries, the conventional wisdom is that this is unrealistic and utopian. Yet the true unrealism and utopianism is the project of keeping human beings in self-contained political orders with others “like them”.

My book, Does the State Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants, comes out with Polity on May 25th.


Istanbul - Medusa Head in the Basilica Cistern


A taxonomy of never-Trumpers

by John Quiggin on January 21, 2018

I’m a sucker for taxonomies, and Ross Douthat has quite a good one in the New York Times

Like any strange and quarrelsome sect, the church of anti-Trump conservatism has divided and subdivided since Donald Trump’s election. Some members have apostatized and joined the ranks of Trumpists; others have marched leftward, with anti-Trumpism as a gateway drug to wokeness. There is a faction that is notionally skeptical of Trump but functionally anti-anti-Trump, a faction that insists it’s just calling “balls and strikes” and a faction screaming that the president rigged the game and needs to be thrown out.

What’s interesting is that, from my observation, he has the factions about right in order of size. The group who have gone left is probably smaller than its ranking suggests, but contains most of what was left of serious thought on the conservative/libertarian side of politics. The smallest group, and the one treated most dismissively, consists of those who have remained politicaly conservative while being unremittingly hostile to Trump. Its members are either out of active politics already (like the Bushes) or are kicking Trump on the way out (like Corker and Flake). By 2020, it will probably be an empty set. That obviously raises the question of what will remain of the conservative movement when and if Trump is defeated.

A point of purely sporting interest is to classify Douthat himself. I’d say, some mixture of “anti-anti-Trump” and “balls and strikes”. The main part of his column, arguing that Trump is more of a joke than a menace, is consistent with this, I think.