From the monthly archives:

October 2005

The neoliberal imagination

by Henry Farrell on October 31, 2005

It’s all, all of the time at the Volokhs today; Todd Zywicki chimes in with his little “bit”:

bq. For those like myself (and I hazard to guess Scalia, Alito, and Thomas) conservatism is attractive because it now seems to be the party of meritocracy where one is judged on your character and ability, and not on your connections or demographics. As the doors of schools such as Princeton and Yale Law School (in Alito’s case), and the professions themselves have been thrown open to Italians, Poles, Irish, etc., individuals such as Scalia and Alito have had the opportunity to prove themselves. Among other things, I think this cultural upbringing reflects itself in a skepticism about racial preferences in college admissions and hiring. It is difficult to say, from what I can tell, that Sam Alito’s ascent to the Supreme Court came about through some sort of unfair advantage, money, or family connections. In the legal arena, I think this cultural temperament may reflect itself in a anti-elitist streak rebelling against the arrogance of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary and a humility in the face of the common-sense of citizens as reflected through democratically-elected legislatures.

The best rejoinder to this conservatism-as-meritocracy trope that I’ve seen is Walter Benn Michaels’ brilliant little essay on the neoliberal imagination for “N+1 magazine”: (not available online – but see “here”: for a shorter version). Michaels’ essay is devastating as a critique both of liberal and neo-liberal/conservative attempts to brush the issue of class under the carpet. When conservatives claim that in the absence of formal discrimination, merit will out, they’re making a claim that isn’t any better justified by the empirics than the liberal notion that a carefully metered dose of ‘diversity’ makes up in any substantial sense for a system that’s overwhelmingly skewed against the poor. [click to continue…]

Keep your eyes off my content

by Eszter Hargittai on October 31, 2005

Ed Felten quotes a disturbing snippet from an interview with SBC CEO Edward Whitacre concering traffic flowing through SBC pipes:

Q: How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google, MSN, Vonage, and others?

A: How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

Ed (Felten that is) rightly notes that calling the service free is hardly correct when SBC customers (me being one of them) pay monthly fees for it. He then goes on to discuss some other problems with the quote. But I want to focus on one particular issue having to do with SBC’s status as a common carrier.

Randy Zagar correctly points out in the comments to Ed’s post that common carriers are legally prohibited from monitoring the content of the traffic that flows through their pipes, which means that they cannot legally discriminate among content the user requests. So how could they do what CEO Ed Whitacre is suggesting? I’m not a legal scholar nor am I up-to-date on possible recent developments, but I am quite sure this law is still in effect. I welcome clarification.

The conversation on Ed’s blog regarding this matter seems to focus mostly on prices and commercial considerations. But how about political ones? What if an Internet service provider company had a leadership that was especially supportive of a certain political view (whether backing a particular political candidate or taking a certain side in a debate over, say, abortion or gay rights). Let’s say the leadership in said company was aligned enough with a particular perspective that they did not care if restricting access to certain content perhaps even led to lost revenues (in the short term or long). Let’s assume they were more interested in pushing a certain political perspective and decided to block access to Web sites that disagreed with these views. What then? If there are several players in town then the user can perhaps switch providers. That said, blocking usually happens in a way that doesn’t make it at all clear to the user what happened and why a certain site is inaccessible. So it is not clear that the user will know what alternative route to take to access the desired content.

The reason I decided to get DSL at home instead of cable is precisely because of the law concerning common carriers and their neutral stance with respect to content. I don’t want my provider to discriminate among the types of material I request. I went so far as to bother getting a land line installed just for my DSL connection despite the fact that I am already paying for basic cable anyway as part of my building’s assessment fees and so getting Internet access on cable would have been easier (and possibly cheaper). I realize this level of obsession with having guaranteed access to different types of content is probably not common, but I believed it to be an important enough distinction to bother. But what was the point if the CEO of my common carrier believes in what is articulated in the above quote?

Do head over to Ed’s post for more on problems with Whitacre’s comments.

UPDATE: I just came across this piece that points to a draft of the new broadband legislation. Among other things, it “[e]nsures network neutrality to prevent broadband providers from blocking subscriber access to lawful content.”

Cliopatria Awards

by John Holbo on October 31, 2005

Go nominate some deserving soul, or souls, for best history blogging in various categories.

got up with the sun (as ’tis called)

by John Holbo on October 31, 2005

My last post was about E.S. Turner‘s Roads to Ruin, the Shocking History of Social Reform. One of the chapters is about daylight savings, a timely topic, so I’ll make it a two-part series. Here are a few choice samples of arguments against the pernicious practice.

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Hyperion copyright case

by Chris Bertram on October 31, 2005

Today’s Guardian “editorial”:,3604,1604944,00.html concerns the recent legal case involving “Hyperion Records”: . Hyperion are best know for their wonderful series of Schubert song recordings — Ian Bostridge’s Die schöne Müllerin being a case in point. Their survival is now threatened because the editor of the works of a rather obscure French composer was successful in “an action claiming musical copyright in the work”: . I offer no opinion on the legal merits of the case, though it is claimed that this effectively lowers the threshold on what counts as an original work. Hyperion will probably face small damages, but they must now meet their own and the plaintiff’s enormous legal costs. They are “appealing for donations”: .

Million dollar baby

by John Q on October 31, 2005

Feeding into this calculation applet, it’s estimated to be worth $928,668.30, using the same link-to-dollar ratio as the AOL purchase of Weblogs Inc deal for a rumoured $25 million. Toss us a few more links and we’ll all be millionaires[1]

fn1. Or rather we’ll be worth one virtual million between us based on the imputed value of hypothetical ads.

Sorry this has been a few days in coming, I’ve been tied up. So anyway, is he going to jail or not? My summary advice to both sides would be, don’t get your hopes up. I am getting a clearer picture of what actually went on between 1999 and 2001 with respect to Galloway, Iraq and oil, but there is still a big murky patch of uncertainty. I would also submit that Galloway is correct on one important point; despite the great big smile all over his face on the news, the Presidential hopes of Senator Norm Coleman are probably dead and buried and can’t be redeemed by getting Galloway – the secret is out that he is a flat-track bully who falls apart under pressure and anyone facing him in a debate from here to the end of time will know that. But anyway, what is the new news in the Senate Report [1]?

[1] Actually the majority (ie Republican) staff report from the committee but I do not think this detail is important.
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by Kieran Healy on October 30, 2005

I just finished reading Doormen, by “Peter Bearman”: It’s a study of the residential doormen who work in the building’s of New York’s Upper West and East sides. A fairly restricted topic, to be sure, but the book is a small gem: the kind of sociology that takes a particular job and investigates it in a way that derives quite general lessons even as it delves into the specifics.

Appropriately, _Doormen_ was featured in the New Yorker recently, though the article didn’t convey the flavor of the book all that well. To get a better sense of it, you can “read an excerpt”: from the chapter about the twists and turns surrounding the all-important Christmas bonus. In _Micromotives and Macrobehavior_, Thomas Schelling remarks that “not all ellipses are circles,” meaning that not all systems of interdependent, decentralized interaction are markets. He uses the example of people trapped in a cycle of Christmas-card sending. Figuring out the bonus is one of life’s ellipses, too, though a more complex one:

The optimal position for each tenant in the bonus sweepstakes is right at the top of the pile, but within close range of the others’. Little is gained from being in the middle; aside from avoidance of the bottom. The bottom quartile of the distribution is obviously exactly where tenants do not want to find themselves. The dilemma is that it is impossible to know how to position oneself without learning about the expected behavior of the other tenants. And this is why, around Thanksgiving, tenants start to position themselves to learn what their fellow tenants are intending to do. Eventually, they will have to start talking.

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Here’s Your Reading List, Tony

by Tom on October 30, 2005

I’ve just picked up Brian Barry’s new book, Why Social Justice Matters, and despite having very high expectations based on the man’s track record, I’m not in the least disappointed so far. Barry’s work always combines extraordinary clarity and patience in argument with enviable command of the relevant chunks of social science. ‘Why Social Justice Matters’ is no exception – the chapters on the effects of growing inequality in the US and the UK on the health and education of the worst-off are fantastically useful distillations of what I presume are massive literatures. I shall hope to blog about some of Barry’s ideas about responsibility when I’ve mulled them over properly.

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Sophie Scholl

by Chris Bertram on October 30, 2005

I went to see “Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage”: (film website “here”: ) last night, and came away with ambivalent feelings about it. On the one hand, it is good to see this extraordinary moment of heroism get a cinematic treatment, but on the other, it didn’t work especially well as a film. The film is supposedly based on Gestapo transcripts — but can it be true that Scholl and her interrogator engaged in lengthy speechifying against (and in defence of) the Nazi regime? These were the sort of exchanges that might work well in a stage play, but seemed stilted and artificial on the screen. There was also the matter of the film’s focus on Sophie as an individual rather than on her brother Hans when, from the point of view of their heroism, there seems little to choose between them. That seemed to exploit a tacit assumption that there was something specially noble about a woman resisting rather than a man. The film was good in bringing out their religious convictions, and the importance they had in motivating their acts. Certainly a film very much worth seeing for its moral and political qualities, but perhaps not for its aesthetic ones.

Pogrom meme

by Chris Bertram on October 30, 2005

I got quite a bit of flak in “comments last week”: for using the word “pogrom” to allude to the parallels between the rumour-driven riots in Birmingham and the persecution of Jews in 19th-century eastern Europe. Insofar as “pogrom” suggests some kind of official sanction, the word probably had slightly misleading connotations. But I see that both the “conservative columnist Theodore Dalrymple”: and the “Observer’s Nick Cohen”:,6903,1604791,00.html have also noticed the echoes. Dalrymple wrote:

bq. The rumour that a 14-year-old black girl had been caught shoplifting by a Pakistani shopkeeper in the Lozells area of Birmingham, and subsequently raped in revenge by a score of his compatriots, is highly reminiscent of the blood libels that used to sweep through Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th century and led to vicious pogroms.

And comments:

bq. Of all the paradoxes of the situation, none is greater than that the Muslim traders of Lozells, among whom an unthinking anti-Semitism is probably widespread, should now find themselves in the position of the petty-trading Jews of Tsarist Russia, Moldavia and Romania.

And Cohen refers to Dalrymple and then generalizes the the work of Amy Chua:

bq. In World on Fire, published two years ago and which deserved far more attention than it received, Amy Chua showed how globalisation had created an explosion of racism in the anti-semitic tradition. The new wave of capitalism had raised the living standards of ordinary people by a little and the rich by a lot, her argument ran. The supporters of free markets and democracy thought everyone was benefiting and hadn’t noticed that their ideas helped fuel resentments in those countries where ethnic minorities dominated business.

Thoughts that are outrageous on Crooked Timber on Monday, are conservative talking-points by Wednesday and the conventional wisdom of the “decent” left by the following Sunday. Maybe I should be worried about that!

And while we’re on the subject of Newspeak …

by Henry Farrell on October 28, 2005

Hugh Hewitt’s “outing”: for the New York Times today is very funny.

bq. The right’s embrace in the Miers nomination of tactics previously exclusive to the left – exaggeration, invective, anonymous sources, an unbroken stream of new charges, television advertisements paid for by secret sources – will make it immeasurably harder to denounce and deflect such assaults when the Democrats make them the next time around.

Ghosts and teddy bears

by Eszter Hargittai on October 28, 2005

In the spirit of Halloween here are two games for your weekend amusement. (Warning: both come with audio on.)

Time Sink!

  • Dark and Stormy Night starring ghost Jinx – very basic, but still cute and fun (and should be especially enjoyable for kids)
  • Transylmania – vampire with a teddy bear, very cute


Newspeak, how are ya

by Henry Farrell on October 28, 2005

When your essay uses Orwell’s “complaints”: on the decline of the English language to defend this:

bq. “The dictionary was my response to the market need to educate journalists and students about economic jargon that seemed very frightening to them,” Ms. Vainiene said in a phone interview. “It explains the concepts in simple words. But also”–and this is crucial–“explains them correctly.” The book notes, for example, that “social ‘justice’ is always related to the unjust redistribution of wealth, and ‘fair competition’ is almost always related to unfair government intervention in the economy.” In other words, Ms. Vainiene is trying to educate but also to eradicate the misleading and contradictory doublespeak that infects much economic language, especially as it is used in Europe.

either you’re trying to be a very funny fellow altogether, or you’re writing for the “Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Page”: Or both, perhaps (I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine that even the most debased of hacks couldn’t be aware of the ironies here).

(via “Best of Both Worlds”:

Stockpiling medicines

by Henry Farrell on October 28, 2005

Jamie Love has an FT op-ed with an “interesting suggestion”: (behind paywall) about solving the incentive problems for anti-flu drugs and similar.

bq. The proposal is to permit governments to acquire medicines freely for stockpiles from generic suppliers, on the condition that if the medicines were used to treat people, the patent owner would receive royalties. This makes it much cheaper to acquire the stockpiles, but also increases the value of the ­patented invention, as long as there is some probability that the emergency use will occur. The price of medicines is related to their expected benefit. But this assumes a nearly 100 per cent probability that someone will actually use them. In the case of stockpiles, on the other hand, there is often a fairly low probability of use. Indeed, the lower the risk of the emergency, the lower the expected benefit of the stockpile. As long as the prices for the medicines are above marginal costs and the ­patent owner insists on a price related to the price of the drug when used, stockpiles will be small. But if governments could freely obtain stockpiles at marginal costs, with only a liability to remunerate the patent owner in the event of use, the incentives to match costs and benefits will be far more efficient.

bq. The amount of royalties to pay in such a system should be generous for higher income countries and much smaller for countries with poor populations. As noted, this works best when the medicine has a parallel commercial market for non-emergency uses. For those drugs that would only have a market in the case of an emergency, such as an anthrax or small pox vaccine, the liability rule could also be used, but in combination with other incentives, such as the medical innovation prize fund approach now being considered in the US, which provides for large cash rewards for developers of new drugs.

I can’t see any very obvious problems with this suggestion – it seems to provide an excellent means of addressing short term crises while solving the problem of long term incentives. Any disagreement?

(slight revisions following comments).