Nobel Prize for Literature

by Chris Bertram on October 13, 2005

MEG: Have you got your paper?

PETEY: Yes thanks.

MEG: That’s nice? Anything interesting?

PETEY: Not really.

MEG: That’s nice.

PETEY: “Someone won a prize”: .

MEG: That’s nice. Who?

PETEY: I don’t think you’d know him.

MEG: What’s his name?

PETEY: Harold.

MEG: I don’t know him.


Backlash insurance

by Henry on October 13, 2005

“Kevin Drum”: poses a challenge to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, who are guest-blogging with him this week.

bq. it’s true that the activist base of the Republican party is pretty far distant from the middle of American politics, and George Bush recognized this in his first term, mostly steering a center-right course. However, in his second term it’s all falling apart, just the way conventional political science suggests it should. The more that Bush panders to the Republican base (Social Security, Terri Schiavo), the more he loses the support of Middle America. At the same time, the more he tries to tack to the center (Katrina, Harriet Miers), the angrier his base gets. Centripetal forces are tearing the Republican coalition apart, and suddenly Beltway buzz suggests that Republicans might actually lose Congress in 2006. This suggests two possibilities to me. The first is that conventional political science still has it right. It took a few years, but the radicalism of the Republican base is finally putting a stake through the heart of the party, just as you’d expect. The second possibility is that we wouldn’t even be talking about this if it weren’t for 9/11: Bush would have long ago lost control of his coalition and would have gotten clobbered in 2004. What we’re seeing today really is a special case, not a permanent realignment.

There’s an important point here – as I mentioned in my “review”: of their book, I think that Hacker and Pierson overestimate the internal cohesiveness of the Republican coalition. And as Ed Kilgore “notes”: today, many of the important “New Power Brokers” that hold the coalition together have been sorely damaged by the various scandals swirling around the Republican party. But there’s also an important part of Hacker and Pierson’s account that I didn’t really talk about in my review – the way in which the Republicans have successfully changed the rules of the electoral game through redistricting, and the more general way in which both Republicans and Democrats have shored up incumbent advantage and limited the number of genuinely competitive races. As this “NYT article”: acknowledges, winning back the House is at best going to be an uphill battle for Democrats, and winning back the Senate is going to be harder still, even if the public are unhappy with the Republican party. This seems to me to provide a partial answer to Kevin’s point – even if the Republicans start to squabble among themselves, and even if the public aren’t happy with them, this won’t necessarily translate into the political sea-change that would be necessary to see them removed from power, precisely because of the kind of backlash insurance mechanisms that Hacker and Pierson talk about.

Dworkin on democracy and judicial review

by Chris Bertram on October 13, 2005

Reading Ronald Dworkin’s chapter “Political Equality” from “Sovereign Virtue”: and James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”: back to back was a rather odd experience. I first read Dworkin as saying something like the following.

bq. Leaving things up to the electors is all very well for issues where what the right answer is actually depends on what people want. But lots of issues, especially one’s of basic justice, aren’t like that. There’s not special reason to think that ordinary people are much good at those questions, so better to put them in the hands of people like me the justices of the US Supreme Court.

Aha! I thought, after reading Surowiecki. Maybe Dworkin goes too quickly in assuming that a panel of experts is better than the electorate is at deciding such questions. Let’s go back and see what he says. But apart from a bit of handwaving in the direction of Condorcet (inconclusive according to Dworkin, and mentioned by name by neither D nor S) there isn’t really any argument. And Dworkin’s positive claims end up looking really elusive. Like this:

bq. For some matters where the right answer is independent of what citizens want it might , sometimes be better to have judges decide (though “it would be outrageous to suggest that only lawyers and moral philosophers should be allowed a vote on choice-insensitive matters” (p.207). And, by the way, judicial review doesn’t impugn equality of the vote “because it is a form of districting” (p. 209).

So I’d be grateful if someone out there can formulate a nice crisp thesis about these matters that I can pin on Dworkin with confidence and which doesn’t contain so many qualifications and get-outs as to be nearly worthless. I also wonder, insofar as my first attempt at a summary is an accurate rendition of what Dworkin really thinks, whether the impending Republican majority on the Supreme Court will give him cause to regret and retract his view.

What’s wrong with game theory

by John Quiggin on October 13, 2005

The latest Nobel Prize award to Aumann and Schelling has generated a bit of discussion about the value or otherwise of game theory. Generally speaking, economists are enthusiastic about game theory and other social scientists less so. Although I admire the work of Aumann and (even more) Schelling, as economists go, I’m a game-theory sceptic, for a fundamental reason I’ll try, probably unsuccessfully, to explain.

[click to continue…]

A gene for religion?

by Chris Bertram on October 13, 2005

Robert Winston “writing in the Guardian”:,3604,1590776,00.html :

bq. While nobody has identified any gene for religion, there are certainly some candidate genes that may influence human personality and confer a tendency to religious feelings. Some of the genes likely to be involved are those which control levels of different chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain. Dopamine is one neurotransmitter which we know plays a powerful role in our feelings of well-being; it may also be involved in the sense of peace that humans feel during some spiritual experiences. One particular gene involved in dopamine action – incidentally, by no means the only one that has been studied in this way – is the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4). In some people, because of slight changes in spelling of the DNA sequences (a so-called polymorphism) making up this gene, the gene may be more biologically active, and this could be partly responsible for a religious bent.

Well I’m quite open to the idea that those specially drawn to religion have a chemical imbalance in their brains, but this thesis surely has to contend with the startling temporal fluctuations in religiosity that different societies undergo. The Irish and Italians, two name but two, don’t seem especially religious at the moment, but go back a generation or three …. I doubt very much that their genetic stock has changed that much.