Cosmic Variance

by Kieran Healy on July 18, 2005

“Cosmic Variance”: is a new group blog made up of a bunch of physicists, some of whom — notably “Sean Carroll”: — are already “well-known”: for their writing. I used to hang out with a bunch of physicists in college. Never have so many smart people been concentrated in such a brutal job market. On the other hand, they get to have good job titles and cool-sounding research interests. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be in the “Theory Group at Stanford Linear Accelerator”: studying “heavy flavor physics”? “Today we will accelerate a particle of this 1989 Château Haut-Brion to very high speeds and smash it into a stationary matrix composed of this bar of “Michel Cluizel”: single-plantation chocolate, in an effort to produce an entity predicted by Larousse but hitherto unobserved, the Michelin 4-star boson.”

The Moor by a Length

by Kieran Healy on July 18, 2005

Via “Gillian Russell”: I see that the “results”: of the BBC’s “Greatest Philosopher” poll are in. The winner — with 28 percent of the vote, more than twice the share of the philosopher in second-place — was Karl Marx. David Hume is next (just over 12 percent) and Wittgenstein third (6.8 percent). If you are upset that your favorite philosopher didn’t win (or angry over who did), why not listen to Randy Newman’s “The World isn’t Fair”:, which also has a lot of useful information about Marx.

Layering and Drift

by Henry on July 18, 2005

I’ve been reading Wolfgang Streeck and Kathy Thelen’s edited volume, “Beyond Continuity”: over the last several days – Jacob Hacker’s chapter, “Policy Drift: The Hidden Politics of US Welfare State Retrenchment” is particularly good (a draft version is available “here”: ; a closely related article appeared in the _American Political Science Review_ last year). Leftwingers are sometimes entirely too sanguine about the durability of entitlement programs like Social Security; Hacker lays out reasons why this confidence is misplaced. In a political system like the US, it’s extremely difficult to get large scale changes through, such as abolishing programs, because there are so many veto points in the decision making process. It’s even more difficult when the program has an active constituency, which will be unhappy at any changes that disadvantage them. This helps explain, for example, the problems that Bush’s proposed Social Security reforms have run into. But there are still ways in which a program can be dismantled piecemeal. First is what Hacker (and the others writing in this edited volume) call “drift.” As society changes over time, programs are likely to become increasingly badly calibrated to the needs that inspired their creation. But updating these programs may be difficult, especially given that conservatives can use the many veto points to block change. Thus, one may expect to see social programs becoming increasingly unmoored from society’s needs over time – and hence less politically defensible – as attempts to reform them and make them more relevant are blocked. Second is “layering.” When faced with highly popular programs such as Social Security, conservatives have had difficulties in making head-on attacks, so that they have instead sought to create an alternative institutional framework that will attract defection and undermine these programs’ rationale over time. As Hacker concludes:

bq. in a context where social risks are changing and policy drift is ubiquitous and consequential, _conservatives have not had to enact major policy reforms to move toward many of their favored ends_ (emphasis in original). Merely by delegitimizing and blocking compensatory interventions designed to correct policy drift or ameliorate intensified risks, opponents of the welfare state in the United States have gradually transformed the orientation of social policy. The struggle over the welfare state has not simply been concerned [with] whether programs will be cut or scrapped; it has also concerned the degree to which social policies will uphold long-standing goals and adapt to the world around them. We vastly underestimate the strength of the welfare state’s opponents if we do not see the extent to which they have succeeded in this latter debate.

On all of this, see also “Mark Schmitt”: If Hacker is right, and I’m pretty sure that he is, the implications are clear. Turning back the right-wing assault on Social Security isn’t enough. What’s needed is a comprehensive program that seeks to update the welfare state to address the massively increased burden of risk that ordinary individuals are expected to bear today. There’s also a strong rationale for increasing the role of the state substantially in such a program – as Hacker notes, programs which seek to deliver the welfare state indirectly, through tax incentives and the like, are substantially more vulnerable to drift than directly administered programs (health insurance being the obvious test case). I presume that the chapter is a taster for Hacker’s forthcoming book on the politics of risk and insecurity; I’m looking forward to seeing how he links his analysis of the parameters of institutional change to the prospect of introducing substantial new reforms.


by Henry on July 18, 2005

Two addenda to posts I wrote last week.

First, the “New York Times”: picks up on the “OSHA sting”: story; it appears that the immigration officials responsible are getting a lot of flak, as they should be. Thanks to Matthew Lister for the tip.

Second, Sean Carroll provides contact details for WBEZ, the radio station which “cancelled Odyssey”: last week. Anyone who wants to suggest politely that they reconsider this decision should contact:

Torey Malatia
General Manager, WBEZ
848 E. Grand
Chicago IL 60611

Sean and a group of other physicists have just started a new group-blog, “Cosmic Variance”: Looks good.

War and its consequences

by John Quiggin on July 18, 2005

Chris’s post on responsibility got me started on what I plan to be the final instalment of my attempts to analyse the ethical justification for war. It’s not quite Holbovian in scale, but quite long enough. Comments much appreciated.
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