Sunday photoblogging: Hebron Road Burial Ground

by Chris Bertram on July 12, 2020

Hebron Road burial ground

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Teachers and Parents

by Gina Schouten on July 10, 2020

In a string of days spent doing great harm to nobody’s benefit but his own, Trump got busy Wednesday rustling up a fight between teachers and parents: Parents want schools to reopen, he says, and so they must reopen, CDC recommendations be damned. And districts that don’t fully reopen will be cut off from federal funding. (A spokesperson for Betsy DeVos confirms that the administration intends to make good on this threat, though it’s unclear whether the president has the power to withhold the ten percent of school funding that currently comes from the federal government.)

These are hard times, and there’s lots of desperation in the camps the president is trying to set at odds. So we may have to concentrate more than usual to see that their fight isn’t really with each other.

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The General Theory and the Special Theories

by John Quiggin on July 9, 2020

The title of my book-in-progress, The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic is obviously meant as an allusion to Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace, and one of the central messages will be the need to resist austerity policies of the kind Keynes criticised in his major work, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. That title, in turn was an allusion to Einstein*, and the Special and General theories of Relativity.
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Book note: Johny Pitts, Afropean

by Chris Bertram on July 7, 2020

Just finished Johny Pitts’s Afropean: Notes from a Black Europe (Penguin). It is a remarkable and highly readable book which I strongly recommend. Pitts, a journalist and photographer from Sheffield in England, embarks on a journey across Europe to discover the continent’s African communities, from Sheffield itself, through Paris, the Netherlands, Berlin, Sweden, Russia, Rome, Marseille and Lisbon. Pitts, the son of an African-American soul singer and a working-class Englishwoman, is a curious insider-outsider narrator of the book which ambles from meditations on black history and (often American) literary forbears to chance encounters with black and brown Europeans in hostels, trains, stations, cafés and universities.

Is there a unity in all this? Hard to say, since as Pitts observes, these different populations, linked by an experience of marginalisation, come to be where they are via very diverse personal and collective histories. Some have come in their best clothes from former colonies to nations they were taught about as the motherland, only to find they had to make their lives in a place that was disappointing or hostile and where the white population — British, French, or Dutch — remain ill-disposed to see their new compatriots as being part of themselves. Others have fled war, persecution and trauma in Sudan or South Africa, only to find themselves exiled on the periphery of Scandiavian social democracy. And then there are the residual African students in a Russia transformed in thirty years from somewhere professing — occastionally sincerely — the unity and equality of all humankind, into a place where it is dangerous for black people to venture out at night for fear of violent attack or worse.

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Sunday photoblogging: Fox

by Chris Bertram on July 5, 2020

This character was very relaxed

Fox at Alderman Moore's allotments-4

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The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic

by John Quiggin on July 4, 2020

That’s the title of a book I’ve agreed to write for Yale University Press (their editorial director) Seth Ditchik commissioned my previous two books, Zombie Economics and Economics in Two Lessons when he was at Princeton UP.

When we first discussed the book, I took the view that most of the writing would have to be done after November, since the outcome of the US presidential election would be crucial to developments in the US and globally. I’m now working on the assumptions that
(a) Biden will be the next president
(b) he will have a workable majority in Congress.
(c) mainstream Democrats recognise the need for radical change, and Biden will align with the mainstream position as he always has done

The first of these assumptions was problematic until recently, but seems safe enough to work on now. The third, I’ll leave for comments.
That leaves the question of a workable majority. Roughly speaking, I mean that the Dems have enough votes in the Senate to abolish or restrict the filibuster and pass the kind of program I’ll be advocating (allowing for a couple of defections, that would be 52 or more). Winning that many seats is still a stretch on current polling, but not out of reach.

The immediate question is that of how to get rid of the filibuster. Doing so pre-emptively would be problematic in all sorts of ways. Biden needs to start with the 2008 Obama playbook of reaching out across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship. But unlike in Obama’s case, once the proffered hand (or perhaps elbow bump) of friendship is slapped down, as it surely will be, Biden needs to point to his electoral mandate and whip up the necessary votes. Obama realised this, to some extent, in his second term, but by then he had a hostile Congress.

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My plan is to teach in person in the Fall.[1] Three classes: a small class for training TAs; a 10-person class (cap is 15, but for reasons that will become apparent I will not be recruiting to the cap) on teaching and learning; a 30-person upper level ethics class. All will be taught under strict social distancing rules (6 feet) and with everyone required to wear masks. [Needless to say, by September perhaps everything will be online anyway, and, regardless, we’ll have to be prepared to go online at the flick of a switch].

So. How will that work? For now, I’ve requested an additional timeslot for the 30-person class, so that I can do the following: one 75-minute meeting a week with all 30 of them which is more lecture/Q&A than I generally like, and then split the students into 2 groups of 15, each of which meets for a more discussion-intensive meeting. Still — even with 15 students it will be a huge challenge to run a discussion under social distancing rules with masks.

The best resource I’ve come across so far in helping think about the problem is this excellent post by Derek Bruff. He’s considering blended classes (in which some students are videoconferencing into the classroom, and others are in person in the classroom), but the suggestions also seem feasible with all-in-person classes. I have not been an enthusiast for the fishbowl in person, just because I tend to be in crowded rooms with poor acoustics and the moving around of chairs and tables makes it awkward. Well — that won’t be a problem this semester! and I can see fishbowls working well. I’m also considering a variant on his suggestion about pair work — Split the class in two, move them to opposite walls, and make them do the pair work by phone with the person they are standing opposite.

I’m going to be on a team to work up suggestions for our campus this fall. (My college’s team on online teaching already reported, and the results, which I think are both excellent and very well presented, are here). The challenge is that, as far as I know, nobody has actually taught under these conditions before. [2] I’m hoping that we will be allowed to convene groups of students sometime in the summer, go into classrooms and find out how things would actually work (and make films to illustrate various strategies for colleagues).

I would really appreciate other resources and suggestions!

[1] Our campus decided to move all large classes online for the Fall, and that the smaller classes would be split between online and in-person (with all classes online after Thanksgiving). Instructors don’t choose their mode of delivery, but my department at least has been able to match instructors preferences with modes pretty well (I was struck by how many colleagues said they would prefer to teach in one mode, but would accommodate to the needs of the department). Being reasonably fit, under 60, and, frankly, missing my students, I volunteered to teach in person.

[2] I have found exactly one picture of college teaching during the 1918-19 flu, and the students are all wearing masks, but are not physically distanced. Even if I’m wrong and plenty of physical distanced instruction during that pandemic, I’m guessing there’s limited social science about it.

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Reappraisals (repost from 2011)

by John Quiggin on June 30, 2020

  • As Princeton has just repudiated Woodrow Wilson, I thought I’d repost this from 2011, which seems relevant to a lot of current discussion*

As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms[1], something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere. So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

What has brought this to mind is running across George Will’s campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who always seemed to be presented in hagiographic terms until relatively recently. Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson: a consistent racist, who lied America into the Great War, and used Sedition acts and similar devices to suppress opposition. His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint[2], and his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

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“Traditional British values” in political science

by Chris Bertram on June 30, 2020

Yesterday, one of those reports was released purporting to reveal some things about British political attitudes. The take-home was that the public were closer to Labour than the Tories on the economic dimension but that things were reversed when it came to social attitudes, with voters being more authoritarian and traditional than their representatives and more closely aligned with the Tories. This, coupled with the claim that the social values dimension is gaining in importance compared to the economic one, looms large in some “political science” explanations of Brexit and Tory success.

Looking at the report, I noticed an odd thing: one of the questions was about “traditional British values” and whether respondents thought young people should respect them more. I imagined, naively that there must be a list somewhere of what these values are, given that they are purportedly what voters have opinions about. But no. Respondents are expected to interpret the question for themselves, so if a person thinks Britain is traditionally open and tolerant and thinks this has gone into reverse in recent years and says “yes”, their response will nevertheless count as a score for authoritarianism. I don’t know how likely my hypothetical case is, but it is at least possible, particularly, perhaps, from a disappointed immigrant who had been sold on a particular image of Britain.

There is, by the way, an official list of British values. It occurs in the case of the British goverment’s “Prevent” strategy, which is supposed to combat extremism. According to that policy, the British values are “democracy”, “the rule of law”, “individual liberty and mutual respect”, and “Tolerance of different faith and beliefs”. If you run an educational establishment, you have specific duties to encourage these. (A nursery for under-5s I’m acquainted with had a little official explainer on the wall, telling its charges that the “rule of law” is about “following the rules”.) I suppose, hypothetically, that a respondent with these values in mind, and thinking of the Brexiteer and Johnson record on them – plans for voter suppression, illegal prorogation of Parliament, frequent abuse of executive power in immigration, racist and Islamophobic diatribes by the man at the top – might regret their demise and say “yes” but be coded as “authoritarian”. Perhaps not so likely, I admit.
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Trumpism after Trump

by John Quiggin on June 29, 2020

Predicting election outcomes is always risky (for example, the People’s Action Party could lose the current election in Singapore), but life involves taking some risks. So I’m going to predict that Trump is going to lose in November, and lose badly*. He is far behind in the polls, substantially further than in 2016. More relevantly perhaps, the resurgence of the pandemic in Arizona, Florida and Texas has ended any chance that the economy will be successfully reopened and the pandemic clearly under control by November, not to mention giving the citizens of those states very personal reasons to vote against him.

What will happen to Trumpism after Trump’s defeat, in the US and globally? Here are some very disorganised thoughts.

A big part of Trump’s appeal is that he is a winner, and a big part of Trumpist mythology comes from wins against the odds, as with Brexit and Johnson and, more periphally, with the re-election of the Morrison government in Australia (which had the good sense to dump most of its ideology for the duration of the crisis, but is now returning to its roots). With that gone, Trump’s support will be much weakened So, the stage will be set for a fight in which the hard neoliberals who controlled the party before Trump attempt to reassert themselves, breaking with Trump’s explicit racism while still trying to keep the Repubs white voting base behind them.

On the other hand, Trump has lots of supporters who will refuse to accept the reality of a defeat (not enough, I think, and particularly not enough in positions of power, for him to stop the election or overturn its result). And there are more competent Trumpists, in the mould of Viktor Orban, keen to push an ethnonationlist, racist and authoritarian policy program without Trump’s clownish demagoguery.

Internationally, a defeat for Trump probably won’t make much difference to the ethnonationalist voting base of the Trumpist right. That base has always been there, ready to turn out whenever some other group can be identified as the enemy. But it will, I think, have a significant effect on the right wing of the political class. Some of them will find themselves outside the bounds of legitimate discussion (this is already happening in a small way in Australia), while others will engage in some quick reinvention.

The big question is whether hard neoliberalism can recover. On the one hand, the financial sector still has huge economic power, which usually translates into political power. And the common-sense economics of the Swabian housewife still retains its grip on many. On the other hand, just about everything that is identified with hard neoliberalism (globalisation of trade and financial flows, the hypertrophic growth of the financial sector, trickle-down economics and more) is massively unpopular. That’s particularly true of those under 40, who never experienced the illusory prosperity of the 1990s, or the crises of the 1970s (minor by comparison with the last decade, but a massive shock to expectations conditioned by the postwar boom).

The best hope for the US right is that Biden and the Democrats are unable to fix the catastrophic mess they will inherit. More on this soon, perhaps.

  • I meant to have a footnote about the possibility of Trump rejecting the election outcome, but covered it with a parenthetical statement.

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The simple but difficult physics of losing weight

by John Quiggin on June 25, 2020

As Eszter said in her post on health living,, everyone has their own story and their own health. That’s true, but we are all subject to the same physical laws. So, here’s my story and some thoughts on the physics.

I managed to lose about 12 Kg over a couple of years, almost entirely through exercise.

The basic physics is simple
(1) weight loss = (kilojoules burnt – kilojoules consumed)*k,
(2) kilojoules burnt = base metabolism + work done

where k ≃ 0.025 is a constant reflecting the rate at which your body converts kilojoules of food energy into kilograms of fat. If you can alter the right hand side of (1) through any combination of diet and exercise then you will lose weight.

The problem is that altering either of these, or even altering while holding the other constant is really hard. Dieting makes you tired and slows your metabolism. Exercise increases your appetite, and also encourages you to flop once you stop exercising. All that’s because your body isn’t evolved to lose weight easily. Hunger and fatigue are both adaptations to stop you doing that. And, even if you can shift (1) enough to lose some weight, (2) puts a limit on how much you can lose. Balance is restored by the fact that your lighter body takes less energy to maintain and move around.

The crucial thing is to find some change for which you have both the willpower to adopt it initially and the willingness to maintain it indefinitely. For me, as I said, that’s been exercise. I aim to burn 4000 kj (about 1000 calories) a day in addition to base metabolism, which implies about 100 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise. That’s logistically feasible for someone with flexible working hours and no kids at home, but very difficult otherwise. And it takes a long while to get to the point where you really enjoy it. That’s why the experts mostly recommend working on diet. But, if you can manage it, I think exercise is the better way to go.

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Danielle Allen wins the Kluge prize

by Henry on June 22, 2020

The New York Times story is here. We ran a Crooked Timber seminar on her book on the American Declaration of Independence. I am delighted to see this prize be awarded not for past achievements, but for someone who is still caught up in doing, thinking and changing the world.

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Healthy living

by Eszter Hargittai on June 21, 2020

This post is about health, weight management in particular. Friends have been asking me to write up my experiences so here it is. It is a personal story and offers no social analysis other than to acknowledge that living healthy is by far not the cheapest option out there, which is of course a problem.

A little over a year ago, my doctor told me that I was pre-diabetic. I had been steadily gaining weight for several years. I didn’t feel good in my body anymore, but wasn’t managing to do much about it. Knowing that my weight gain was having medical repercussions was the final push I needed to start making significant changes. I set out to lose 25* lbs (~11 kg) in three months and eventually lost 30 in four (for illustrative purposes, the books on the right equal that weight). I know many people struggle with similar issues and several friends have asked me to tell them how I did it so I decided to write up some details. I purposefully waited a year to do so as I only wanted to report back if I managed sustained change. I did. I started on June 21, 2019 and I’m 28 lbs below what I was then consistently hovering between that and 30 lbs down (such fluctuation or even a bit more is common).

As a caveat to this post, I want to say that this is not meant as weight-shaming or body-shaming. Everyone has their own story and their own health, this is mine.

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My institution requires a Scholarly Activities Report every year, which includes subheadings for research, teaching, and service. There is no heading for pastoral work — indeed, pastoral work is so unrecognized officially that I don’t know if there is a word for it (“pastoral” is the word they use in Britain; I think ‘mentoring’ is the nearest equivalent in the US, but, for example, the only official recognition of ‘mentoring’ for undergraduates my institution has is an award for mentoring undergraduates specifically as researchers, which is not what I’m talking about here). But pastoral work is an essential component of keeping the enterprise moving — helping prevent students from dropping out, helping them deal with the stresses that inhibit their learning, or distract or demotivate them, and just sometimes being a friendly supportive presence at the edge of their lives.

Of course at American universities over time faculty outsourced a lot of pastoral work to student services professionals. And some of the work – mental health counseling, financial aid counseling, and some academic advising – is so specialized that it would be inefficient for faculty to learn the relevant knowledge and skills.[1] But faculty still have a lot of pastoral work to do – typically, on a residential campus, a teacher is the main adult that a student regularly interacts with, and is the best placed employee to notice if something is going wrong, at least when it is affecting academic performance. And teaching is an intimate activity: successful teaching requires a certain level of individualization and mind-reading that inevitably requires and results in getting to know the student somewhat, and in healthy relationships of that kind students are at least somewhat liable to seek support beyond the academic. If this wasn’t happening at all something would be seriously wrong. And if it is happening, it is time-consuming.

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Mr Dooley, right again

by John Quiggin on June 16, 2020

The decision of the US Supreme Court, that the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was entirely predictable, based on the century old observation of the fictional Irish-American bartender Mr Dooley observed “The Soopreme Court follows the illiction returns.” As I said in 2018

At most, the court constitutes a veto point, able to block legislation that can be represented as violating constitutional protections. But most of the progressive agenda is clearly within the power of the legislature and executive. If the Democrats win the next few elections, the Roberts Court will be as much of a disappointment to its creators as the Warren Court in the 1960s

A decision restricting the interpretation of the Civil Rights Act would have had huge political costs for the Republican majority, without achieving any long term results. In the quite likely event that the Democrats gained control of both the Presidency and Congress sometime in the next few years, the decision would probably have prompted a new and even broader Civil Rights Act, as well as a potential trigger for expanding the court to create a Democratic majority. Even if this didn’t happen, the remaining state-level restrictions would have been chipped away in a series of losing campaigns for the right. From Roberts’ viewpoint the key goal has to be to keep bringing down decisions like Citizens United, which entrench Republican advantages. As for Gorsuch, the advantages are even clearer. His appointment is widely regarded as illegitimate, and a decision showing that “textualism” means “rightwing interpretations of the text” would have entrenched that. As it is, he can present himself as someone who, while conservative, is not a partisan hack.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out on the right. Roughly speaking, I’d expect the hard neoliberals to welcome the fact that this unwinnable fight is over. By contrast, the culture warriors who back Trump will be furious. Apparently, many are expecting a sweeping win in November, in which case they could amend the law.

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