From the monthly archives:

July 2003


by Brian on July 31, 2003

I’m very glad Jacob Levy is back posting on the Conspiracy.

bq. I’ve heard that there are institutions on the east coast where as many as a _hundred_ students sit in a big room and watch the professor, or not, as their fancy takes them, as if they were watching television. If true, _this_ is the real scandal!

Heh. I actually quite enjoy teaching those big lecture classes. Sometimes getting to perform on a stage is fun, even if my material isn’t exactly Shakespeare. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for the students.

I hope Jacob will be pleased to know that Brown is moving to be more like Chicago, with a stronger emphasis on seminar style teaching, especially at freshman level. I think we think tv style lectures are scandalous too.

Comfort Reading

by Henry on July 31, 2003

I settled down last night to re-read _Firebreak_, Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake’s) last-but-one Parker novel, which begins with the sentence.

bq. When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.

This induced a feeling of complete comfort in me, which is rather odd when you think about it. Why is it that so many people find it relaxing to read about murder and violent crime?

[click to continue…]

Cohen on facts and principles

by Chris Bertram on July 31, 2003

I’ve spent this morning puzzling through Jerry Cohen’s “Facts and Principles” from _Philosophy and Public Affairs_ (31:3 Summer 2003). It is, as I and others have intimated already, an important article and I can’t be confident that I’ve “got” it yet. I do think, though, that I can say that his thesis is not quite the threat to naturalism that I took it to be, unless it is coupled with some further commitments (although, as it happens, those dangerous further commitments are ones I accept). The basic argument Cohen puts forward is a really simple one, claiming that where people seek to ground their moral commitments on principles, some of those principles must hold independently of the way the world happens to be (“the facts”).

[click to continue…]

Staying regular

by Henry on July 31, 2003

“The Economist”: (subscription required) has a rather silly editorial this week, deploring Congress’s efforts to push back FCC deregulation of the media industry. If you believe the _Economist_, the FCC was a disinterested champion of economic stability, while its “interested opponents” were shouting nonsense “about “grave threats to diversity of opinion in America, and even democracy itself.” Worse, the decision is a symptom of a wider malaise; “political meddling in regulatory policy is on the rise,” and the real problem is that “regulators, far from being unduly immune to the business of politics, are not sufficiently independent of the politicians.”

Even by the _Economist’s_ bombastic standards, this is a fact-deficient piece of free-market puffery – its account of the politics behind the FCC battle is laughably inaccurate. But that’s by the way; what’s interesting is the broader lesson that the Economist wants to draw from the affair. It claims that politics and regulation shouldn’t ever mix. In making this argument, the _Economist_ demonstrates a profound incomprehension of the actual relationship between politics and regulation. In fact, Congress’s 400 to 21 vote to smack down the FCC is a perfect example of how politics _should_ work to correct regulators. But to see exactly why, it’s necessary to trudge through a little political science.

[click to continue…]

Dumb it up, Tyler!

by Daniel on July 30, 2003

Tyler Cowen’s got more of his Macroeconomics series up. It’s nothing like as bad as the monetary economics post that I objected to yesterday. Part Three on fiscal policy is OK ..ish. I don’t agree with him on Keynes, and think his comments on deficits and interest rates are naïve (I include by citation Brad Delong posts on this subject passim ad nauseam), but I can see how others would class my disagreements with it as probably political rather than technical. And Four on open economy macroeconomics is actually quite good, although the omission of any discussion of optimal currency areas is a bit of a lacuna. Part 2 has one very serious error, but in being bad, it is actually good, because it’s clued me into what went wrong in the train wreck which was Part One.

[click to continue…]


by Brian on July 30, 2003

I’d like to say that LanguageHat has a grouse post about Aussie slang for you bludgers to go have a perv at next smoko, but sadly a few of those words are neither in my idiolect nor the Officially Approved Idiolect of Crooked Timber.

Ethical Naturalism reredux

by Brian on July 30, 2003

A long and winding post responding to some issues about morality and naturalism.

[click to continue…]

Ethical naturalism redux

by Chris Bertram on July 30, 2003

In a comment to one of Brian’s earlier posts on ethical naturalism, I mentioned that Jerry Cohen’s argument that ethics must (ultimately) depend on fact-insensitive principles seemed to me to threaten the naturalist position (at least as Brian had formulated it). Larry Solum – who started this whole conversation – now has an extensive discussion of Cohen’s view (scroll down) as expressed in the latest Philosophy and Public Affairs. Larry thinks that even if Cohen is right, an Aristotelian naturalism might survive. I’m not sure what to think about that yet. One thing worth noticing about Cohen’s view is that even though most of the discussion is about ethics, it applies to normative principles quite generally. This being so, it ought to apply to such principles in other domains (including epistemology and the theory of rational action) and that if it threatens naturalism in ethics it also threatens naturalistic programmes in those areas.

Frustration is not a Strategy

by Kieran Healy on July 29, 2003

Kevin Drum reports an exchange he had with Michael Totten. In a TechCentralStation column Michael says “The Palestinian Authority should be given one last chance to eliminate terror.” If they “fail,” the U.S. must classify the PA as a terrorist organization, “Declare ‘regime change’ in the West Bank and Gaza the official United States policy” and basically get rid of everybody:

bq. The first phase would not be complete until the enemies of peace are defeated, deported, imprisoned, or killed. These include Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It may also include the Palestinian Authority.

Kevin complains that, despite paying lipservice to the complexity of the problems, hawks often backslide into these kinds of kill-em-all policy proposals. Having grown up in Ireland, I can sympathise with the “Scorch the Earth and Salt the Fields” reaction. It’s a natural expression of justifiable anger and frustration. But the hawks never seem to pause to think how they might react if they and their kin were the targets of the kind of policy Totten advocates.

[click to continue…]

Babel, Software, Work

by Tom on July 29, 2003

Here’s a bit I rather liked in Fred Brooks’ classic essay on the management of software engineering projects, The Mythical Man-Month:

According to the Genesis account, the tower of Babel was man’s second major engineering undertaking, after Noah’s ark. Babel was the first engineering fiasco.

The story is deep and instructive on several levels. Let us, however, examine it purely as an engineering project, and see what management lessons can be learned. How well was their project equipped with the prerequisites for success? Did they have:

A clear mission? Yes although naively impossible. The project failed long before it ran into this fundamental limitation.

Manpower? Plenty of it.

Materials? Clay and asphalt are abundant in Mesopotamia.

Enough time? Yes, there is no hint of any time constraint.

Adequate technology? Yes, the pyramidal or conical structure is inherently stable and spreads the compressive load well. Clearly masonry was well understood. The project failed before it hit technological limitations.

Well, if they had all of these things, why did the project fail? Where did they lack? In two respects – communication, and its consequent, organization. They were unable to talk to each other; hence they could not coordinate. When coordination failed, work ground to a halt. Reading between the lines we gather that lack of communication led to disputes, bad feelings, and group jealousies. Shortly the clans began to move apart, preferring isolation to wrangling.

[click to continue…]

Brit/US Philosophy

by Harry on July 29, 2003

Chris Bertram pointed me to the Chronicle piece which Brian discusses below on the difference between US and UK Philosophy. One passage that struck me was the following

There are two broad models of how such engagement might best be achieved: what I call the participatory and the contributory. In the participatory model, academics engage in real-world problems by becoming members of the institutions that are directly involved with those problems. In the contributory model, academics remain in academe, but issue documents, books, and papers that are supposed to contribute to public life

Baggini claims that the ‘participatory’ model is in the ascendance in Britain, whereas in the US philosophers just write wise things as pieces of advice. This is very misleading, although I can see why it might look that way. One reason that it looks that way is that whereas philosophers can enter the British upper house as a result of patronage, the US upper house is reserved for multi-millionnaires who are willing to devote their fortunes and lives to running for office — not a mechanism likely to suit academic philosophers, even successful ones.

But if, as Baggini suggests, sitting on government bodies counts as participation, US philosophers are at it all the time. Norman Daniels and Dan Brock were on the famous Hillary commission on health care reform; my former colleagues Dan Wikler and Allen Buchanan both served time in the Federal Department of Health (and Wikler has spent a good deal of time at the WHO). Wierdly enough, the aestheticist Myles Brand is now head of the NCAA. There are more numerous examples at less exalted levels of government on advisory bodies. And, more shamefully, Bill Bennett (of gambling fame) and Irwin Silber (candidate for Governer of Massachussets, and fervent supporter of the Contras)are both trained and formerly mediocre academic philosophers. I suspect it is ignorance of the situation in the US that drives the distinction.

But there is another fact that makes US philosophers look less participatory than the Brits. The kind of political outlook found in the mainstream of analytical philosophy is left-of-center, and so far off the American political map that it is hard to engage. Baggini cites the famous ‘Philosopher’s Brief’ on assisted suicide as an example of the contributory model. But in other times, and certainly in other countries, Ronald Dworkin would have been a likely Supreme Court candidate, and hence a participant — he has been ineligible because his political outlook is completely out of the mainstream of politics. By contrast those very same views are though of as part and parcel of political debate in the UK, so that people with them have potential access to political processes.

A Young Person’s Guide to Economics

by Daniel on July 29, 2003

I am somewhat uneasy about writing this, as it is about the fourth post in recent weeks having a go at the Volokh guys, and one of quite a few on Tyler Cowen specifically, but I simply could not let this post pass without comment. It’s part one of a “Guide to Macroeconomics in Five Easy Lessons”, on monetary economics. I wholeheartedly support the idea of someone producing such a guide, but the actual statements made about monetary economics seem to me to be horribly confused. So much so that I’ve been reduced to commenting on it line-by-line; I wanted to write a proper response, but grew worried that by concentrating on my main disagreements, I would be implicitly endorsing some of the errors I didn’t single out.

I’ve edited this twice to moderate some of the more temperamental remarks, but the tone is still pretty angry, as I’m genuinely annoyed that this is being fed to laymen. As a result, I have perhaps been excessively inclined to pick nits; that’s how I get when I’m angry. I will accept the judgement of Brad DeLong as definitive on the question of whether I have been unduly harsh and will post an apology here if he thinks I have been. I pre-emptively apologise to Mr Cowen for the lack of civility inherent to the “fisking” genre; as I mention above, I tried and failed to come up with alternatives.

[click to continue…]

Norman Geras

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2003

I see that Norman Geras has joined the blogging community. Norm was involved in some of the early discussions around Crooked Timber and even suggested the name. He’s the author of many books on subjects as wide-ranging as Rosa Luxemburg, the holocaust, and cricket and he’s also been a contributor to one of my other collaborative projects, Imprints, which featured an interview with him recently (the current issue has his take on Polanski’s The Pianist). I’m sure that Norman’s blog will be one of my regular visits and I already see plenty to argue with, including his inclusion of Jules et Jim in his list of 20 best films when, as any fule kno, Les 400 Coups is superior. (Norman goes straight into the academic part of our blogroll under political science/political theory).

Cities, buildings, architecture 1

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2003

I’ve been interested in buildings, architecture and cities for about ten years now. Truth be told, probably for much longer than that: but I’ve been conscious of it as an interest for that time. It is an enormously interesting and absorbing subject in more ways than are worth enumerating here. But one of the aspects that has interested me as a philosopher and borderline social scientist is the way in which buildings and cities are records of human reason in the face of all kinds of practical problems (social, topographical, economic, weather-related, material related) at the same time as being items of great aesthetic importance. Form, style, design are all products of human trial and error and what emerges is often striking and beautiful. Sometimes the product of an individual’s vision; at others the result of the accumulated strivings of numbers of people working without any general conception. (Often, for cities at least, the best results have come when humans have worked blind; and the worst when some architect of other has been given free rein.)

[click to continue…]

The bingo amendments

by Micah on July 29, 2003

I think “Henry’s post”: below about Will’s arrogance concerning EU constitutionalism is spot on. I was only planning to comment (again, see below), but I can’t resist piling on. Noting that the EU draft constitution contains language saying that “preventive action should be taken” to protect the environment, Will asks, “what in the name of James Madison is it doing in a constitution?” Of course, the obvious answer is that a constitution is, in part, an aspirational document. And aspiring to protect the environment is a legitimate goal of every state–and not merely a fleeting policy preference.

But, in fairness to Will, surely he could have picked some better examples. To find some, he might have turned to American state constitutions. Here are two of my favorites. The Oklahoma state constitution specifies the “flashpoint of kerosene”: But if EU politicians think that’s a bit too mundane, they can always look for inspiration to the “287 sections and 706 amendments of Alabama’s constitution”: In particular, they might want to check out “Amendment 612: Bingo Games in Russell County”:, or, of course, the bingo amendments for “Jefferson”:, “Madison”:, “Montgomery”:, “Mobile”:, “Etowah”:, “Calhoun”:, and “St. Clair”: Forgive me for leaving off the links for Walker (549), Covington (565), Houston (569), Morgan (599), Lowdnes (674), and Limestone (692) counties. If you read the Alabama state constitution carefully, you’ll find that you’re allowed to play bingo in those counties, too. Oh, and don’t forget about the the “City of Jasper”: