From the monthly archives:

February 2009

Social democrats and capitalism

by Henry on February 18, 2009

While we’re waiting for Jonah to pronounce, Sheri Berman, whose arguments about 1930s social democrats and fascists is the issue of debate, has a “piece”: in _Dissent_ that I’d like to respond to. Sheri argues that the current crisis is a major opportunity for the left, but that it is hampered in its ability to respond because of internecine arguments over whether we should try to reform capitalism, or get rid of it altogether. She singles out Michael Harrington as her main exemplar of a leftist whose failure to appreciate the benefits of capitalism led him to irrelevance and political near-incoherence.
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In Eager Anticipation

by Henry on February 18, 2009

A correspondent tells me that Jonah Goldberg is preparing a very serious, thoughtful, rebuttal that has never been made in such detail or with such care to some of the impolite things that I have said about his magnum opus, _Liberal Fascism._ I just want to make a public note of this, as a class of a general spur and reminder to reinforce Jonah’s good intentions. I would be _very disappointed indeed_ if his refutation were to be postponed until the never-never …

I have acquired a copy of R. Wilmott’s English Sacred Poetry of The Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1861) for the Dalziel brothers engravings. Which I am moderately pleased with. The book itself is fantastic looking. Comically heavy-bound and smoky-dark object. Zoë (age 7) got to see the thing before I did and her reaction shows she understands me well: ‘Daddy is going to love this. It even has water damage.’

And now I would like to report that the book contains the single worst argument against atheism yet devised. I present “The Atheist and the Acorn”, by Anne, the Duchess of Winchelsea. Complete with an engraving of the young PZ Myers by H.S. Marks: [click to continue…]

Opinion Laundering

by Henry on February 16, 2009

John’s “post below”: reminds me of one of the odder conventions of American journalism. Because US journalists aren’t supposed to express their own opinions, they often need other people to express those opinions (or the opinions that will ‘balance’ out their story) for them, so that they can use quotes from these people to spin the interpretation of the facts in the one way or another. This leads to some very peculiar interview techniques from journalists. About two out of every three calls I get from journalists have a strong line in directly leading questions of the ‘would you agree that _x_ ‘ variety.

This is of course a minor example of a much more general phenomenon. A very large part of the communications and public relations industry is devoted to what you might call ‘opinion laundering’ – the job of disguising the origins of self-interested or otherwise problematic policy positions by getting apparently legitimate third parties to validate and repeat them. Which is why I get nervous every time I see a “survey”: that purports to tell us that academics are the most trusted interlocutors on this or that issue. While this may sound very nice, it increases the relative returns to using academics as flacks rather than some other profession, and hence “helps screw up further”: a set of professional norms that are valuable ones to have.

Joe (a prospective teacher in an certification program) teasingly asks what is on my list of books about education that everyone should read. More useful, perhaps, would be my list of books that every teacher/prospective teacher should read. So, here’s the first in an occasional series of Brighouse recommendations. This is not strictly one that every teacher should read, but certainly every American non-rural public school teacher, and I’d guess most private school teachers too. I had long heard of The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace, and been a little put off by the name (remember, I didn’t read any of this stuff in grad school). But in fact the title is perfect. The conceit, obviously, is that the large comprehensive high school is a shopping mall; it is attempting to cater to a variety of consumers, some of whom want very high quality goods, others of whom want a kind of “life and let live” approach, and others still have niche needs, like children with special needs, athletes, etc. In an added twist, schools differ in the composition of their clientele (I don’t remember them using the idea of the strip mall at any point — but they must have been in those schools too!), so different schools resemble different malls. By allowing students to select classes by schedule and even teacher, the school prompts a sorting process the effcts of which are nicely explained here; by establishing “electives” within departments, the school ensures that students will choose their way into college-prep, vocationally-oriented, or non-demanding classes depending on the attentiveness and aspirations of their parents, the peer group they are in, and their own perception of their own abilities. The texture of school life is beautifully placed on display in the book, and way that “empowering” students to choose classes ends up sorting them more effectively even than tracking would is nicely…well, tracked. (One of the many things that has always puzzled me about so American left-educators is that they oppose tracking and are utterly convinced that parental choice of schools will lead to inequality, but defend student choice of classes within schools to the hilt, whereas Shopping Mall High School shows that it has much the same effect as tracking, and is driven by exactly the same dynamic as choice of schools). The book was published in 1985, and seems to have been out of print for quite a while but you’ll be lucky if you don’t recognize your local high school in its pages.

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A long-dated call

by John Quiggin on February 16, 2009

One of the big points to emerge from the collapse of the investment banking industry is that sky-high salaries for CEOs and star performers in banking aren’t just immoral and unjustified; they are an indication of unsound risk management practices. Such reward systems create an incentive for one-way bets with other people’s money. If high risk investments pay off, the genius who advocated them gets the rewards of stardom. If they go wrong, the worst that can happen is the loss of a job, and there may well be another one waiting.

The evidence for such an analysis has been available at least since the big disasters of the 1990s, such as LTCM and Barings Bank. But when was it first put forward, and who deserves the credit.

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Picking up the phone

by John Quiggin on February 15, 2009

This is a repost from my blog which got a fair bit of attention. The immediate cause was a hoax involving Australian culture warrior/revisionist historian/serial political enthusiast Keith Windschuttle, but the point seems more general.

Looking at various topics that have been covered by both journalists and bloggers, I’ve noted a common theme in which journalist deplore bloggers’ habit of speculating about subjects instead of “just picking up the phone” and asking those directly involved (examples here and here). The implied (and sometimes expressed) view of bloggers is that of lazy amateurs.

It struck me though, that asking questions of total strangers is both a distinctively journalistic activity and one that implies and requires a special kind of professional license. In fact, “Journalists do interviews” comes much closer to a definition of what is distinctive about journalism than formulations like “journalists report news, bloggers do opinion”.

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Best Conservative Movies

by John Holbo on February 15, 2009


It needs a comment box.

Something here does not compute

by Henry on February 15, 2009


(readers who don’t have children of a certain age shouldn’t worry if they don’t understand this post).

How free is free?

by Eszter Hargittai on February 13, 2009

One of the many perks of being at the Berkman Center this year has been to learn about all sorts of interesting and important legal matters that otherwise would either not make it on my radar or would be hard for me to appreciate/understand without background and context. The New York Times now reports on an issue that Berkman fellow Steve Schultze first introduced me to last Fall: the complexity involved in accessing unclassified government documents online that are theoretically free to the public, but in reality can be quite hard to access. The article identifies some major problems with PACER (the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records system) and also discusses some important efforts to make the material more accessible to the public. Included is work by (and an interesting photo of:) CT commenter – but more importantly friend of CT;) – Aaron Swartz.

Steve’s blog points us to Show Us the Data whose purpose is to “identify the 10 Most Wanted Government Documents”, that is, “unclassified documents or data that .. exist–on paper or in government computers and databases–that would be of value to the public if posted and regularly updated on an agency’s Web site.” Check out Steve’s blog and that voting site for more on truly freeing up free government documents.

Book cover contest submissions

by Eszter Hargittai on February 13, 2009

Following up on my post from a couple of weeks ago about the book cover contest, I thought I’d post a link to the resulting 24 submissions (by now listed in order ranked by people voting on the Worth1000 site). I’m happy with the outcome, there are some really great ideas in there. (The final cover will say “Edited by” since it’s an edited volume.) Fonts, colors, various details can be changed so the idea is not necessarily to look for the perfect design. I like a friend’s reaction to all this: “I’d say my median favorite one is better than 99% of book covers I see in the bookstores.”

Various forces seem to have converged from different directions to force me to learn something about school improvement, and I, conveniently, have very easy access both to one of the experts and to a practitioner involved in improvement at a particular school. Here are some initial thoughts which may be too obvious for you to bother with. Comments on what I need to learn and how are more than welcome.

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Toy Story II

by John Holbo on February 12, 2009

Just a quick follow-up to my Toy Story post, which got some good comments. [click to continue…]

Don’t Ride Horses on Ecstasy

by Harry on February 12, 2009

Non-Brits will be bemused by this story. This bit, in particular, is odd:

A row broke out earlier this month after Prof Nutt likened the dangers of ecstasy use and horse-riding. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith responded by accusing him of trivialising the dangers of the drug.

On the contrary, if youngsters knew that ecstasy was as dangerous as horse-riding demand would plummet.

The Mysteries of Textbook Economics

by Henry on February 11, 2009

“Andrew Gelman”: is puzzled.

I received a free copy in the mail of an introductory statistics textbook. I showed the book to Yu-Sung and he said: Wow, it’s pretty fancy. I bet it costs $150. I didn’t believe him, but we checked on Amazon and lo! it really does retail for that much. What the . . . ? I asked around and, indeed, it’s commonplace for students to pay well over $100 for introductory textbooks.
Well. I’m planning to write an introductory textbook of my own and I’d like to charge $10 for it. Maybe this isn’t possible, but I think $40 should be doable. And why would anybody require their students to pay $150 for a statistics book when something better is available at less than 1/3 the price?

… It just mystifies me that, in all these different fields, it’s considered acceptable to charge $150 for a textbook. I’d think that all you need is one cartel-breaker in each field and all the prices would come tumbling down. But apparently not. I just don’t understand.

Well, perhaps “crack economist Greg Mankiw”: might be able to solve this particular mystery. Or, perhaps, not so much. But more simply, I think that the obvious public choice answer is that the costs of this particular arrangement are borne by the students, who constitute a captive market, rather than by the professors, who actually choose the textbook that is required. All that you need are some very moderate side-payments to persuade self-interested professors to adopt particular textbooks (perhaps even just lowering their search costs by sending them free copies). So the cartel-breaker would have to provide sufficient inducement to the professors, which seems rather unlikely given that they would not be making monopoly profits, and hence would be outbid by those who _are_ in a position to capture them.

Of course, if the professor is teaching their own textbook to large undergraduate intro classes and making large amounts of money from each semi-compelled purchase, then no sidepayments at all are needed (not all professors being as conscientious as Andrew Gelman). There’s clearly an opening for some enterprising grad student to write a paper (perhaps for the _Journal of Economic Perspectives_ or some such) on the characteristics of this very interesting market …