From the monthly archives:

December 2004

It’s MLA Season!

by John Holbo on December 28, 2004

Tis the season. Open season! On the MLA! I see the NY Times has taken the first potshot. And so I give MLA bashing its first comment box! I must say, I don’t even think we need Chun to tell us this effort is not very impressive. (Scott McLemee‘s "Provokies" were much funnier. I think perhaps he was wise to get out of this business while the getting was good.)

Tragic hipness, multicultural agendizing and an almost abject embrace of low/popular culture converge in titles like " ‘Dude! Your Dress Is So Cute!’ Patterns of Semantic Widening in ‘Dude,’ " an entire session dedicated to papers on Mel Gibson’s "Passion of the Christ," "Urban Expressionism: Theater, Ritual, and the Hip-Hop Generation’s Black Arts Movement," "Utopia in the Borderlands; or, Long Live El Vez the King" (El Vez is a Latino Elvis impersonator), and "A Pynch in Time: The Postmodernity of Prenational Philadelphia in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon and Mark Knopfler’s ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’ " (Mr. Knopfler is a rocker best known for wanting his MTV). The clunkiness of all this suggests that eggheads are still nerds, but it that some of them are terribly self-conscious about it now.

The trouble is that the author is so sure it’s all nonsense that he is lazily lumping the patently silly and the just possibly serious. (No, really, when the target is this big you should really try for a clean hit.) What is necessarily wrong with having a panel discussion of "The Passion of Christ"? What is specifically ‘clunky’ about it? (Unless, as seems grammatically possible, the panel is actually called ‘Dude! Your Dress Is So Cute!’ But I sort of suspect that’s not the case.) Also, calling English profs ‘eggheads’? Who calls anyone an ‘egghead’? (Sounds like Foghorn chuckling about widdah Hen’s genius kid.)

I have ever so much more to say but I’ll just declare this an open thread. I welcome reports from actual attendees of the conference. Be more informative and entertaining than the NY Times, if you please. (OK, here’s a specific question for discussion. If it’s alright for bloggers to give their posts very silly titles – which I mostly do – could the MLA solve all its problems, cross that fine line between stupid and clever, just by turning all the conference papers into blog posts?)

Tsunami in the Indian Ocean

by Chris Bertram on December 26, 2004

I’ve just been watching the news of the terrible disaster unfolding in the Indian Ocean region. Thousands upon thousands dead, and reports still coming in. One expert on the BBC just spoke about the displacement of millions of cubic kilometres of water. How powerful, unpredictable and savage nature can be. An awful day.

Merry Christmas!

by Belle Waring on December 25, 2004

I wanted to wish a Merry Christmas to all our readers. As per my last post, I have been slacking off shamefully around here. I plead excessive holiday activity of the sort which precludes sitting in front of the computer. Like, um, all of it. Nonetheless I want to emulate the Corner yet further by asking you all to do the work. OK, it’s a “bleg”, fine, I said it (God, as if the word “blog” isn’t bad enough. I don’t know why we don’t just change the word “post” to “smegma” and have done with it.) I am going to Sri Lanka for a week in January and I wondered if we had any readers there or expats who want to give me advice. Anyone? Marvellous tales from the Isle of Serendib?

UPDATE: As John has noted in the comments, this request has taken on a rather different and most unserendipitous cast in light of the tragedy in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. My deepest sympathy to all those affected. It looks as if I won’t be going to Sri Lanka on the 10th of January, but I plan to go another time soon; I am just changing the dates of my ticket. They can surely use the money. And so, any wisdom is still appreciated.

Christmas in Manoguayabo

by Brian on December 24, 2004

Since it’s the season for spreading good news stories, here’s a “delightful story about Pedro Martínez”: and the resources he’s put back into his home town of Manoguayabo. It’s easy to feel jealous (or worse) towards sports stars for all the money they earn, but these feelings are hard to maintain when the star does so much good with the money.

For years Pedro has been my favourite player on my favourite (non-Australian) sporting team, and it was rather sad when he left so he could get more money from the New York Mets. But it’s hard to feel bad about Pedro getting the extra $13 million or so the Mets were offering when so much of it will be returned to Manoguayabo.

The most difficult quiz

by Chris Bertram on December 24, 2004

With it being Christmas, the Guardian has again published “the world’s more difficult quiz”:,3604,1379479,00.html as given to the pupils of King William’s College. A first scan leaves me with a single-figure score, but I bet Kieran would do much better….

UPDATE: Mark D. Lew has posted “an annotated list of answers”: (179/180).

Christmas as usual

by John Q on December 24, 2004

Since Christmas never changes (and a good thing too!) I’m reposting my Christmas Eve post from my blog last year. I did plan more work on it, but haven’t done any (story of my life). Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

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Social capital and end-oriented networks

by John Q on December 24, 2004

I’m just about to knock off for Christmas[1], but I have to get ready for a conference at Queensland Uni of Technology early in the New Year where Larry Lessig will be the main speaker. I’m giving a very short presentation, and struggling to improve my understanding of all this, in particular the relationship between the technology of the Internet and notions of social capital. I haven’t come up with anything earthshattering, but I have had some thoughts on which I’d welcome comments.

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Sinful Inequalities

by Henry Farrell on December 23, 2004

John DiIulio of ‘Mayberry Machiavellis’ fame has a short article on ‘Attacking “Sinful Inequalities”‘ in the current issue of “Perspectives on Politics”:

bq. Bible-believing Christians are supposed to heed the call to “be not afraid” of any worldly challenge. Whether you are a person of whatever faith or no faith, if you believe that inequality is a moral problem, and you are convinced that it is a real problem in America today, you should not be afraid to say so – and not be afraid to recommend whatever policies or programs you believe might make a real and lasting difference. In the post-1980 debate over inequality, at least as I have experienced it, it is liberals, not conservatives, who have normally lacked the courage of their true convictions, some for fear of being accused of favoring “big government” or having other thoughts out of season.

A real life ticking bomb problem

by John Q on December 23, 2004

A while ago, I looked at the ticking bomb problem and concluded that, whatever the morality of using torture to extract life-saving information in emergencies, anyone who did this was morally obliged to turn themselves in and accept the resulting legal punishment. Reader Karl Heinz Ranitzsch has pointed me to a real-life case, reported by Mrs Tilton at Fistful of Euros. The case involved a threat of torture, rather than actual torture, and the deputy police commissioner involved was convicted and fined. Without detailed knowledge of the circumstances, I tend to agree with Mrs T that this was about the right outcome.

Person of the year

by Henry Farrell on December 22, 2004

Spotted in Toronto, where I spent part of last weekend – while George Bush is Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”:, Time Canada’s “Newsmaker of the Year” is “Maher Arar”: It makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

No special favours

by Maria on December 22, 2004

Smoking gun or no smoking gun, the line going around in Ireland about David Blunkett’s resignation is; ‘Jesus, a Minister who didn’t sort out a visa application for someone he knew should have to resign.’

Plus, is anyone else irritated that the same Jacques Chirac who lazed by the pool while thousands of elderly Parisians baked to death last year ditched his Moroccan holiday for a photo opp with the released hostages Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot?

My article in The Economists’ Voice

by John Q on December 22, 2004

My article The Unsustainability of U.S. Trade Deficits has just been published in The Economists’ Voice along with a piece on government deficits by Ronald McKinnon. Although relatively new and oriented to a general audience, EV looks like being a high-powered journal, having already published Stiglitz, Posner and Akerlof among others, so I’m pretty pleased to have made it into volume 1. Thanks to everyone here and on my blog who helped me to sharpen my arguments on this topic.

Update One point in my piece that I thought was at least modestly novel was my observation that the US government has been shortening the term of the Treasury securities (bonds, notes and bills) it issues. Now, via Brad DeLong, I see that Nouriel Roubini has just covered the same issue in a lot more detail, offering what he describes as “A Nightmare Hard Landing Scenario for the US $ and the US Bond Market..”. And you all thought I was bearish.

Saving Christmas

by Henry Farrell on December 21, 2004

“China Mieville”:, on whom there will be more in this blog in the New Year, tells us how the Socialists saved (will save) Christmas.

The Institutional Economics of Plagiarism

by Henry Farrell on December 21, 2004

‘Angry Moderate’ made a comment on my post on plagiarism last week, which I’ve been meaning to respond to.

bq. Richard Ellickson’s marvellous book, Order Without Law, notes that the first and usually most effective sanction against violators of a community norm is, “truthful malicious gossip.” In my experience, this is quite common with regard to plagiarists – and the worst plagiarism is not copying off some web-site but stealing other scholars’ ideas and/or empirical material before they publish it – and quite appropriate and quite effective. The only problem is the equally large circulation of untruthful malicious gossip.

This seems to me to be the beginnings of an interesting take on the problem of plagiarism – like Robert Ellickson’s cattle ranchers in Shasta county, we could resolve the problem of plagiarism informally, if only we had an effective means of spreading truthful malicious (as opposed to untruthful malicious) gossip about who has plagiarized. The problem is, of course, that the informal personal networks of academia don’t seem up to the task – as the “Chronicle”: reported, even the department chairs of some offending academics don’t seem to know that they have plagiarized. Thus, part of the problem is poor communications among academics. Here, the new institutional economics suggests that centralized communications can play an important role. Work by game theorists suggests that a centralized communications structure in which one actor is an “honest broker” of information about who has behaved badly and who hasn’t, can support honest behaviour among a much larger group of participants than a decentralized structure which relies on one-to-one gossip alone. As Avner Greif, Paul Milgrom and Barry Weingast have pointed out, this was one of the key functions that guilds played in the late mediaeval period – they had centralized communications systems policing the behaviour of guild members to ensure that they all played by the rules. Any member of the guild who broke the rules (by trading with someone who the guild was boycotting) would find that he was boycotted himself by other guild members.[1]

Of course, in academia, the closest equivalent to guild structures – the various professional associations – don’t play this role. As the Chronicle documents, they seem loath to discipline their members – and even more loath to publicize their disciplinary actions when they take them. Clearly, they don’t have the powers to punish plagiarists themselves. But by identifying and publicizing incidents of plagiarism they could do a lot to solve the problem, leaving the actual enforcement to one-to-one interactions among academics themselves, so that identified plagiarists would find it difficult to get jobs and grants. The current situation in which it’s difficult to distinguish ‘real’ incidents of plagiarism from malicious gossip, is in many ways the worst of all possible worlds. Of course this wouldn’t be a complete solution – some of the kinds of plagiarism that ‘Angry Moderate’ identifies would be hard to police – but it would go a fair way towards remedying the problem.

fn1. Greif, Avner, Paul Milgrom, and Barry R. Weingast. “Coordination, Commitment and Enforcement: The Case of the Merchant Guild.” in Explaining Social Institutions. eds. Jack Knight, and Itai Sened. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995

Government moves on private schools

by Harry on December 21, 2004

I see from the BBC that the Charities Bill is really going to force private schools to prove that they are charities in order to claim charitable status. I had heard about this before, but never imagined it would get this far. The story says that:

bq. The Charities Bill says schools charging fees will have to demonstrate how their activities help the public. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) said its members saved the tax payer £2bn a year in education costs. Independent watchdog the Charity Commission will decide on the parameters of the term “public benefit”.

Good for New Labour….