The generation game

by John Q on December 17, 2003

The current fad in Australian political and social discussion (and a recurrent fad elsewhere) is to pose issues in terms of generations (Baby Boomers, X, Y etc). I’ve been arguing for a while that this is little better than astrology, and I develop the point further in today’s Australian Financial Review (subscription required) where I have a fortnightly column. Here’s the piece, with some cuts (made for space reason) restored, and hyperlinks added.

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Famine in Ireland

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2003

I’ve just reached Amartya Sen’s chapter “Famines and Other Crises” in “Development as Freedom”: . He has some discussion of the great famines that depopulated Ireland from 1845 onwards. The potato blight had destroyed the crop but the Irish peasantry lacked the resources to buy alternative foodstuffs which continued to be exported:

bq. ship after ship — laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter — sailed down the Shannon bound for well-fed England from famine-stricken Ireland. (p.172)

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Return of MEChA

by Ted on December 17, 2003

During the California recall, Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante was harshly criticized for his refusal to renounce his involvement as a student in the Chicano student group MEChA. Critics frequently called MEChA a hate group, the equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan, or “fascist hatemongers”.

Bustamante handily lost the election, and MEChA as an issue didn’t seem to make much of an impact and many voters. But MEChA as an organization is still a presence on over 300 campuses.

There was much debate here on LoserNet about the truth of the accusations against MEChA. (Lots of background from me, Pejman, and Tacitus. In short, I thought that they were being unfairly accused, and Pejman and Tacitus thought that they really were a racist group.) We spent a fair amount of time going back and forth about the documents we could find using Google. But I thought that the debate suffered from a lack of input from or contact with actual MEChA members. Few people had had any direct contact with MEChA. (A few exceptions: Kevin Drum had a MEChA chapter at his high school, and Sappho had a personal experience at college.)

About a month ago, I thought that I’d try to contact some actual, current members of MEChA to see how they would respond to some of the controversies about their group. I sent out a lot of emails, mostly to dead email addresses culled from infrequently updated chapter web pages. Unfortunately, I’ve only ended up getting two complete responses, but they’re good ones. The first is from the MEChA chapter at New Mexico State University. (UPDATE: Not all responses are from NMSU; the questions were distibuted to other chapters as well.) A representative of the chapter distributed my long list of questions to members and assembled the responses, so it’s not any one person’s response.

The second response is from an individual who started his email by saying:


I’ve edited these responses slightly for spelling and typos, but I haven’t added or deleted anything. I have no independent ability to fact-check these responses.

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New books in political philosophy

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2003

A few new books in political philosophy have crossed my desk today either in the form of physical copies or publishers’ announcements. First among them is a new collection called “Social Justice”: edited by Matthew Clayton (Warwick) and Andrew Williams (Reading) which contains an excellent selection of readings for an undergraduate course (and I’ll be recommending it to my charges). Second, my former PhD student Colin Farrelly (Waterloo, Canada) has a textbook — “An Introduction to Contemporary Political Theory”: — and an accompanying reader: “Contemporary Political Theory: A Reader”: . Finally, my friend Axel Gosseries (Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium) has a new book out on intergenerational justice: “Penser la justice entre les générations”: which addresses some of the topics we’ve been discussing on CT recently including pensions and demography.


by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2003

A “piece in the Financial Times”: contains the following startling claim:

bq. Webroot, a small US security software company that provides spyware blocking software for Earthlink, estimates up to 18 per cent of computers could be infected with keystroke loggers or RATs. Its estimate is based on results from 300,000 people who in November used its “spyware audit”, a free internet-based program that detects whether a computer has been infected.

18 per cent sounds like a crazily high number to me — the sort of number people come up with when they have a commercial interest (you know, “piracy is costing the music industry $40 trillion per nanosecond”). But it would be interesting to have some indication of how widespread the problem really is.

Seasonal fisking

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2003

It isn’t just “the season to be girly”: , but also the one of good will to all men (and women). Which ought to provide ample opportunity for critical reflection on the various stories, lyrics, symbols and so forth that we encounter at Christmas time. I’m sure that many readers have already encountered this “libertarian reading”: of Dickens’s _A Christmas Carol_ (sample quote “Nowhere in the story does Dickens endorse welfare. Rather, he suggests that charity and hard work in the business world are how best to combat poverty.”) There are surely other possibilities. “Good King Wenceslas”: for example, as discussed on a blog’s comments board:

bq. We just aren’t told how the “poor man” came to be living a good league hence (which is a serious omission in a work of this nature). How about some rigorous comparisons with others in the kingdom? And for all we know he was poor because _he chose_ to live near St Agnes Fountain (which was a pretty stupid thing to do). Why was King Wenceslas — who as king should have been safeguarding property rights and looking after national defense — wasting our taxes on flesh, wine and logs for someone whose lifestyle is _no business_ of the state?!

Other suggestions?

Nozick and taxes

by John Q on December 17, 2003

My post on equality of outcomes and opportunity produced a huge comments thread, much of which focused on the question of the original acquisition of rights, a big problem for Locke and Nozick. Rather than dive into the thread, I thought I’d point to an argument I put forward a few months ago, and repost a bit of it:

Nozick claims that libertarianism is right not because it produces good outcomes (he doesn’t argue one way of the other on this) but because a requirement for just process implies that property rights should be inviolable. Nozick’s position has been criticized in various ways, often focusing on the fact that he never specifies a just starting point. I want to present a different argument: that given any plausible starting point, Nozick’s approach leads to the conclusion that the status quo, including taxes, regulations and other government interventions is just. I illustrate this point with a story.

You can read the rest here

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