Sociology and Political Philosophy

by Kieran Healy on May 2, 2006

I mentioned in posts or a comment a while ago that I was writing a survey piece on sociology and political philosophy, and several people expressed an interest in seeing it. Well, here’s a draft. I was invited to write it for the second edition of _A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy_, which is being edited by Bob Goodin, Philip Pettit and Thomas Pogge. Like the “first edition”:, there will be chapters on the relationship between political philosophy and disciplines like political science, economics, law, and so on, together with essays on problems, ideologies and debates in the field itself. The disciplinary essays are supposed to strike a balance: not too boringly encyclopedic (it’s a Companion, not a Census), but still informative to those unfamiliar with the field. I guess it’s also not supposed to intrude too much on the substantive terrain of other essays, such as those on “Power” or “Trust” or “Feminism” or “Marxism” and what have you. I also wanted to convey what’s distinctive about sociology when compared to disciplines like political science or economics.

Meeting these requirements made for a paper that was quite difficult to write. I’d very much welcome any comments, especially from the prospective audience of political philosophers. Please bear in mind that I’m not a political philosopher myself, so try not to wince too much when you see me wander way out of my depth into exciting areas of interdisciplinary inquiry.

Journalists v. bloggers

by Henry Farrell on May 2, 2006

“Josh Marshall”: talks about the hostility that many journalists have towards bloggers.

bq. It’s really astonishing the amount of self-pity and silliness one hears along these lines today. Not long ago, for instance, I sat down for an interview with a particularly disagreeable interviewer who seemed to want to catch me out and pin me down on every conceivably problematic point about blogs. At one point he suggested that the blogs were pulling away or threatening to pull away the ad revenue streams necessary to support the reportings staffs required for a quality news outlet. Agreed — I didn’t know quite what to make of that one either. I’m happy with my life. And my company is able to pay three salaries and benefits in addition to mine. But to say that we’re more than a financial fleck in the eye of even the smallest mainstream news organization is a really a grand understatement.

This reminded me of one of the weirder undercurrents at the National Press Club bloggers-meet-journalists “event”: that I was at a couple of months ago. Halfway during the lunch, someone asked a question about the problems that newspapers face given budget cuts, lack of interest in funding investigative reporting etc etc, and the organizer (an ex-media type from the Shorenstein center) and other journalists jumped onto this, and made it the main topic of the second half of discussion, despite the fact that it was precisely irrelevant to the purported purpose of the lunch – a conversation about the relationship between blogging and journalism. This really struck me as something quite strange. My best interpretation of this was that journalists feel under threat on the one hand from the collapse in advertising revenues (which is about Craigslist and, not bloggers), and on the other hand from bloggers (who don’t threaten their revenues, but certainly threaten their professional prestige) and that they’ve got a tendency to blur these two quite different threats together into one because they’re both Internet phenomena. I don’t have much contact with journalists, so this impression may fly well wide of the mark – but given Marshall’s interviewer, it seems to me to be at least plausible as an explanation for the weird comments that some journalists have made about bloggers and blogging.

For the last decade or so, most of the English speaking countries have been running large and generally increasing trade deficits, and therefore running up increasing foreign debt. At the same time, until recently, both real and nominal world interest rates have been falling, which has made debt more affordable. This has produced a sense of security which is about to be reality-checked.

Short-term interest rates have been rising for the last couple of years, and now long-term rates are rising as well. The US 10-year bond rate is now 5.1 per cent, and has been rising fairly fast in recent weeks. The effect is to add a rising interest bill to a large and growing trade deficit. Brad Setser does the math for the US and it isn’t pretty.

If the average rate [on private and government debt] should rise to 6% — roughly the interest rate the US paid back in 2000 — the 2008 US interest bill would reach $420b. That is more than three times the 2005 interest bill.

Unless the trade deficit starts turning around fairly sharply, this would imply a current account deficit close to 10 per cent of GDP, which no country has ever sustained (please point out exceptions in comments).

The story for Australia is broadly similar, though the picture is complicated by the effects of commodity prices, which still seem to be generally rising. As long as that continues, our trade deficit should decline. But, high commodity prices have rarely been sustained for more than a few years at a stretch.

Apple meets the enemy

by Henry Farrell on May 2, 2006

“Austan Goolsbee”: writes in the _NYT_ that France’s efforts to make iTunes inter-operable with non-Apple music players is a bad idea.

bq. In iTunes War, France Has Met the Enemy. Perhaps It Is France.

bq. … The legislature paid no mind to such analysis and seems not to have considered innovation at all. Therein lies the danger. Apple largely created the online market for legal music. The record labels’ own attempts flopped embarrassingly. Until iTunes, virtually no one paid for online music. Since then, iTunes has sold more than one billion songs. Its success comes largely from two crucial innovations. First, Apple’s music store is simple and works extremely well with the iPod. Find the music. Click “Buy It.” Drag the files onto the iPod icon. That’s it. Experiences with other players and music stores are far more complicated. Further, iTunes keeps getting better. Apple has added video capability, celebrity play lists, exclusive music, the ability to convert home movies into iPod format, and many other features — all free. Second, iTunes has lots of music. Largely because of the innovative iTunes FairPlay copy protection and digital rights management software, Apple persuaded major record labels to let them sell much of their best content online. The combination of simplicity and variety proved a huge winner. … If the French gave away the codes, Apple would lose much of its rationale for improving iTunes. … Opening the codes threatens that link. Apple would need to pay for iTunes features with profits from iTunes itself. Prices would rise. Innovation would slow. Even worse, sharing the codes could make it easier for hackers to unravel Apple’s FairPlay software. Without strong copy protection, labels would not supply as much new music.

The issue is moot – it appears that the French proposal has been very substantially weakened – but I’m not convinced by Goolsbee’s underlying claims. There seem to be two elements to Goolsbee’s arguments. First he makes a claim about the need to protect Apple’s quasi-monopoly in order to protect innovation. There’s a reasonable argument to be made here, but as far as I’m aware, economists have very considerable difficulty in coming up with convincing arguments about the appropriate level of protection necessary to encourage innovation. Even if you buy the basic claim, it’s hard to come up with a convincing rationale for the claim that Apple’s protections are just right for encouraging innovation, and that a weakening of those protections mightn’t have salutary effects. Indeed, there’s a plausible economic case for skepticism about the value of intellectual property protection _tout court_: see the discussion in Benkler’s _Wealth of Networks_.

Second, Goolsbee claims that sharing codes would make it easier for hackers to break FairPlay. This seems to me to be even less convincing. As best as I can tell, the main reason why hackers aren’t interested in breaking FairPlay isn’t because it would be difficult, but because it’s unnecessary. There is a very well known security hole in Apple’s system – you can burn your music to an unprotected CD, and then make mp3s, Ogg Vorbis files or whatever to your heart’s content. Hence, I suspect, the abandonment of PyMusique and other efforts to circumvent Apple’s controls – there’s no point to them.

All this said, I think that there’s a plausible rationale to support Apple’s power, but it doesn’t flow from mainstream economics or from the purported virtues of DRM. It comes instead from Galbraith’s idea of countervailing powers. As the “FT”: reported yesterday, Apple seems to have done what antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have failed dismally to do – to make it more difficult for record companies to collude in setting prices and reap the ensuing oligopoly profits. It’s forced the record labels to commoditize albums by selling them at a price which is considerably lower than the price that the record companies would prefer – given sagging sales of CDs, the labels have had little choice but to accede to Apple’s terms. None of this is to say that Apple may not abuse its position in the future – but for the moment at least, it appears to be having a valuable chastening effect.

Experimental Philosophy

by Brian on May 2, 2006

The BBC currently has a discussion of famous thought experiments in ethics, including Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist case, and a few variants on runaway trolley cars. As of this writing, over 12000 people had sent in their votes on the moral status of actions in the examples, and it is interesting to see what this (self-selected, non-random) sample of the folk think. I’ve got some comments on the results below the fold, but I’d rather everyone here went and voted before seeing the votes, so I’ve put them below the fold.
[click to continue…]

Jon Mandle on Global Justice

by Harry on May 2, 2006

Congratulations to our own Jon Mandle on the publication of his new book Global Justice (UK). It’s part of Polity’s Key Concepts series, which is aimed at the textbook market, and presents contemporary debates about concepts in the social sciences in a widely accessible way. It’s remarkably difficult to write such books (as I know only too well) especially, I think, for philosophers whose disciplinary training does not include such things as literature reviews, but focusses immediately on assessing the quality of arguments and offering one’s own. Jon’s book is a terrific success. He manages to render all the main positions in the various philosophical debates about global justice; to relate them to the public political debates about aid and trade; and to develop a distinctive argument of his own, elaborating and defending a moderate cosmopolitanism that conditions redistributive obligations on the fact that there is a global basic structure. The prose is careful but sparse; none of our regular readers will find it inaccessible, but even the most expert in the field will learn something from it quite apart from finding it an excellent text book, perhaps accompanied by The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism.

The book reinforces the impression I got at a conference Jon and I recently attended together that part (but only part) of the explanation of the contemporary interest in global justice and cosmopolitianism is that almost all the interesting issues in political theory come together in this topic. The book covers questions of obligation and legitimacy, identity, distributive justice, the subject of justice, rights, and the foundations of political principles, as well as addressing some essential questions in meta-ethics. Buy it now!

One thing might surprise some readers, though probably not the political philosophers/theorists. In his final chapter Jon offers a qualifiedly positive evaluation of the economic globalisation we have been experiencing over the past couple of decades, and many of his qualifications are anti-protectionist rather than anti-trade. My impression is that Jon’s judgments are part of something not far from being a consensus left-liberal political theorists working on global justice; a consensus which departs from the views of free-market ideologues, but is very far from the anti-globalisation position that I think some of our more conservative and libertarian readers sometimes assume that strongly egalitarian theorists hold.

Positivist temple

by Chris Bertram on May 2, 2006

Positivist temple

I was in Paris over the past few days and happened on “the shrine to Auguste Comte and Positivism that Maria blogged about a couple of years back”: . Unfortunately it was closed, even though the notice on the door said it shouldn’t have been. Anyway, this post is just an illustration to (and reminder of) Maria’s one.