From the monthly archives:

March 2009

Who Elected the Rating Agencies?

by Henry Farrell on March 31, 2009

I’m not particularly keen on the current Irish government, but “this”: seems a bit much:

Ireland may need “new faces in Government”, an analyst with debt ratings agency Standard & Poors said this morning. Frank Gill, speaking a day after the agency lowered Ireland’s credit rating, also said Ireland had a “very low” chance of defaulting on its debt during an interview with Newstalk radio this morning. Mr Gill said a change of Government may be required in an effort to stabilise the debt to gross domestic product ratio. That ratio may rise to above 9.5 per cent, according to the Government, more than three times the European Union limit. Ireland has lost its prized “AAA” credit rating from Standard & Poor’s, which yesterday downgraded its outlook for the Irish economy, blaming the deterioration in public finances. In a move that will make the cost of Government borrowing more expensive and put further pressure on the economy, Standard & Poor’s lowered Ireland’s rating from AAA, the top rating possible, to AA+.

I wouldn’t have thought that this was an especially opportune moment for credit rating agencies to start throwing their weight around given their major contribution to the ongoing crisis, but even in normal times, this would have struck me as serious over-reach. Credit rating agencies are purely private bodies, with an awful lot of political power. In theory, they impartially pronounce upon the perceived riskiness of lending to particular debtors, putting money in particular deals and so on. In practice, their decisions often prove to be quite political. But rarely as political as this. I don’t think that this comment can be interpreted as anything but a statement that Standard and Poor’s willingness to improve Ireland’s credit rating is dependent on the Irish Dail and Irish voters kicking the current government out. That’s a very dubious – and very political – action for a purportedly neutral and technical body to be taking.

Update: Thanks to nnyhav in comments for pointing to this “later story”:

Reacting to S&P’s decision to cut the Republic’s rating, economists and market analysts yesterday homed in on its concern that there would not be a credible plan for the public finances until after the next election. Mr Gill told The Irish Times that the statement was not meant to question the State’s leadership, and simply reflected the challenge facing the Government and the uncertainty surrounding the banks. He also stressed that a AA+ rating was still broadly positive. “That is a very high rating and this suggests an extremely low probability of default,” he said.

I originally thought that this looked like a walkback rather than a clarification and said as such – then I saw that the Irish Times had changed their original story (without saying that they were doing this) to include the full quote which appears considerably more ambiguous than the original story implied.

Mr Gill said a change of Government may be required in an effort to stabilise the debt to gross domestic product ratio.

“It’s likely that for there to be a buy in into what are going to be inevitable tax hikes in order to stabilise the debt to GDP ratio, you are going to need new faces in the Government. This is typically the case in the aftermath of an economic crisis,” Mr Gill said

The GDP ratio may rise to above 9.5 per cent, according to the Government, more than three times the European Union limit.

Educational Equity and Educational Equality

by Harry on March 31, 2009

Lots of schools these days have “equity and diversity” committees My guess is that no-one wonders much what diversity is in “equity and diversity” because we all have a pretty good sense of what it is – acceptance, toleration, and perhaps celebration of the various ethnic, racial, national, gender and sexual orientations in our midst. But what on earth is equity?

People (teachers, education students, other scholars in education) ask me this reasonably often, because they think that, as a professional philosopher who thinks a lot about education I ought to have an answer. I used to shrink from the question because the term “equity” is on that I never use, but recently I have become bolder. A School of Education recently asked me to prepare a lecture on “Equity, Equality, and Social Justice in Education”, and in the talk I just talked about equality and social justice, and said, bluntly, that I don’t understand “equity” and wish people would stop using the term.

After saying that, I thought I should do a couple of bits of research. The first was to run a search in amazon for books with the words “equity” and “education” in the title. 7,235 results. Fortunately, most of them seem not actually to have equity in the title, and when I looked at the 107 books published in the last 90 days I found that many only use “equity” somewhere in the text, and a few of those (including Hidden Markets by my colleague Patricia Burch) use “equity” in the way that is standard in finance circles, to mean capital. But there’s enough to confirm that equity in education is a standard phrase that ought to be easy to understand. The second thing I did was to read a bunch of books by scholars concerned with school improvement and the internal life of schools whose work I admire, to see how they use the term “equity” and figure out whether there was some obvious meaning that I was missing (Ronald Ferguson’s excellent Toward Excellence with Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap, which I promise to review in the “Books Every Teacher Should Read” category when I get a chance, is the only one with “equity” in the title, but all the school reform improvement/reform books I’ve read recently use the term, and most of them prefer it to equality).

Having done that research I think I was wrong to wish that people stop using it, even though I’ve been right to resist using the term myself. It is a vague concept, but the best authors who use it do so knowing that it is very vague, and feeling, rightly, quite comfortable with that. I’ll explain.

[click to continue…]

Markets crowd out sharing (episode MCXXXVI)

by Chris Bertram on March 31, 2009

It seems that Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary “may have been put in charge of international space collaboration”: .

You and Elijah are now friends

by Eszter Hargittai on March 31, 2009

In case the various existing modern-version Haggadahs out there are not modern enough for you, try this. Thanks to Carl Elkin for CC-licensing this, see his page for the rest of the story.

Facebook Haggadah

Opening the Overton Window

by John Q on March 31, 2009

One of the effects of the Global Financial Crisis is that the window of ideas now regarded as thinkable has expanded greatly. Willem Buiter typically works close to the edge of the window, but even so, I doubt that he would have written this in the Financial Times a year ago:

[Tax havens] should be closed down.

The easiest way to achieve this is to make it illegal for any natural or legal person from a non-tax haven country to do business with or enter into transactions with any natural or legal person in a tax haven. That ought to do it. Tax haven, again, is defined not with respect to tax rates or tax bases, but with respect to bank secrecy, that is, with respect to the information shared by the country’s financial institutions with foreign tax authorities. That information sharing should be automatic and comprehensive.

As regards regulatory havens, once common G20 standards for regulatory norms, rules and regulations has been set, countries that violate these standards would be black-listed. The obvious sanction is non-recognition of contracts drawn up in the regulatory haven jurisdiction and non-recognition of court decisions in these regulatory havens. That ought to do it.

The logic hasn’t changed in the last year, but the idea that the OECD could simply cut off economic interactions with places like the Cayman Islands and Liechtenstein (let alone, say, Switzerland) wasn’t thinkable then. It is now.

Update Marshall McLuhan moment: In comments, Willem Buiter points to this piece, written a year ago, and taking an equally strong line. Despite getting this example wrong, I still think the window has shifted.

[click to continue…]

Lectures on YouTube

by Harry on March 30, 2009

From the Chronicle:

More than 100 colleges have set up channels on YouTube, and this week the popular video service unveiled a new section that brings together all of that campus content in one area.

It had been difficult to find college lectures on YouTube, since they are generally far less popular than the site’s humorous and outrageous clips, and so they do not show up in lists of the most viewed videos on the site. Although YouTube has long had an education category, it relies on users who post videos to decide whether to categorize their videos as educational, and as a result the definition of education is very broad. The new YouTube EDU page includes only material submitted by colleges and universities.

Spencer Crooks, a spokesman for YouTube, said in a statement that the site now features complete lectures for some 200 full college courses. “Subjects range from computer science to literature, biology to philosophy, history, political science, psychology, law, and much more,” he said. “You can search within YouTube EDU to find videos on topics of interest.”

Here it is.

I searched for Michael Sandel, and his legendary lecture on justice aren’t there. Yet.

Rawls, Cohen and the Laffer hypothesis

by John Q on March 30, 2009

I’ve just been at a fascinating conference on Evidence, Science And Public Policy. It was worth the trip just to hear John Worrall on evidence-based medicine point out this paper on remote retroactive intercessory prayer[1]. Assuming, as appears to be the case, that the study was totally legit (no data mining etc), the obvious question for me was why anyone would think it worthwhile (ex ante) to test this out.

But that’s not the subject of this post.

[click to continue…]

Islamic art

by Eszter Hargittai on March 29, 2009

Art museum ceilingI spent a few days in Qatar earlier this week and got to go to the recently-opened Museum of Islamic Art. The building itself is stunning (to the right here is the ceiling) and the art inside was wonderful.

In college, one of my favorite courses was Smith’s famous “Art 100” (since discontinued, * sniff *), a year-long course that covered art through the ages and across cultures. The time we spent on Islamic art was one of the highlights for me so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see this wonderful museum in Doha.

Here’s a sampling of my collection of photos taken in and around the museum, click the various thumbnails for larger versions or see the Flickr set for more.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha Old book in Arabic Art in the museum Patterns Ceramics
Monkey Museum fountain Turquoise Paintings of people, rare occurrence Art museum visitors
Rotational symmetry Rotational symmetry Arches Mask Museum of Islamic Art at night

Steve Teles at FireDogLake

by Henry Farrell on March 29, 2009

I am hosting a “discussion”: on Steve Teles’ book on the rise of the conservative legal movement at _FireDogLake._ We will be having a CT Seminar on the book in a couple of months, so if you want to get a flavor of it, drop on by now (or buy the book at “Amazon”: or “Powells”: Also check out Rachel Morris’s “article”: in the _Washington Monthly_ which draws heavily on Steve’s research (and provides a nice summary of it).


by John Holbo on March 29, 2009

Suppose Obama came out and said, roughly:

My fellow Americans, the thing about the Geithner plan is this. Experts disagree about the nature of the crisis. Either it is a liquidity problem or an insolvency problem. That means: either the market values of these so-called toxic assets are depressed because of a kind of market failure; or the market has priced these assets more or less correctly and many institutions holding these assets are, as a result, insolvent. If we are indeed in a liquidity crisis, the Geithner plan should solve it as well as any alternative plan could. If it is an insolvency crisis, however, as many experts believe, the Geithner plan will do nothing – or not nearly enough.

If the Geithner plan fails, we will confront another either/or: either nationalize these too-big-to-fail institutions, at great cost, or allow them to fail, collapsing the global financial system and, very likely, the world economy. This is no true choice, however. Hard as nationalization will be, if it comes to that, the alternative would be far, far worse.

We do not need to take this daunting step of nationalization yet because, first, we’re trying the Geithner plan. What you should know about the Geithner plan is that, if it fails, it will still have been worth trying. We will have determined that the problem is indeed insolvency. We will have clarified the path to be taken, laid to rest any reasonable skepticism about the strict need for nationalization. And we will have paid no more for this knowledge than we would have had to pay in any case. If the government effectively transfers money to distressed financial institutions, under the Geithner plan, and later those institutions have to be nationalized for a time, there is no need to ‘pay twice’. [click to continue…]

One Man and His Dog and His Giant LED Array

by Kieran Healy on March 27, 2009

The Totalitarian Temptation and all that

by John Holbo on March 27, 2009

Brad DeLong links to Matthew Yglesias linking to Damon Linker linking to my old Dead Right post. How gratifying! I was thinking of writing it all out again, in response to Charles Murray’s rather odd AEI dinner talk. But they’ve saved me the trouble. (I would like to say, however, that I prefer the term ‘Dark Satanic Millian Liberalism’ for what Linker calls ‘Donner Party Conservatism’.)

Let me make a few somewhat fresh points about stuff in the general vicinity of the Murray speech (which was well received by conservatives. Goldberg loved it, and Douthat thought it was pretty good.)

As you’ve probably noticed, conservatives tend to argue against liberalism/progressivism by asserting (plausibly) that Robespierre, or Stalin, or Hitler did bad things; then asserting (considerably less plausibly) that liberalism/progressivism somehow equals, or naturally tends to slide into, bad authoritarianism of a distinctively modern sort. Ever since Burke wrote his book about the French Revolution, some such slippery slope argument is the Ur-argument of conservatism as political philosophy.

Suppose we sketch out that thing that it is feared liberalism/progressivism will slipperily slide into. See if you don’t agree that the one thing every conservative swears up and down that he hates in all its many works and deeds, is anything resembling the following: [click to continue…]

The Geithner plan, as viewed from Oz

by John Q on March 27, 2009

My column in yesterday’s Australian Financial Review was about the Geithner Plan. It’s paywalled, but I often republish on my blog the day after (can a right like this be acquired by prescription) and I thought readers might be interested in this one.

[click to continue…]

The Department of Modest Proposals

by Henry Farrell on March 26, 2009

“Gideon Rachman”: identifies a hitherto unknown apparatus of Britain’s bureaucracy.

However, I have now discovered a genuine government department with a title straight out of Dickens – it is the Department of Sensitive Words. This excellent institution has been brought to my attention by a man who is trying to establish a think-tank and to use the word “Institute” in its title. Since my friend is still involved in sensitive negotiations with the Department of Sensitive Words, I have promised not to reveal his identity. The problem is that Companies House deems certain words as “sensitive” because they are thought to convey an impression of authority or trustworthiness. Institute is one such word; British is another. If you want to use a word like this you have to get special permission from a sub-unit of Companies House – the Department of Sensitive Words, which is based in Swansea. In true Dickensian style, this is not an easy process. Companies House does provide a few guidelines on sensitivity on its web-site (its chapter three). But there is no form you can fill in and no obvious criteria to fulfill. But this is probably for the best. You don’t want any old person calling themselves “British” or “Institute”.

This is an _excellent_ idea, and one which should have been implemented in the US decades ago. From Kim Phillips-Fein’s new book, _Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan_ (Amazon, Powells)

In 1962,the executive committee of the board of trustees recommended that [the American Enterprise Association] change its name to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, so that it would no longer be confused with a “trade association” lobbying on behalf of business: the new name would “more accurately describe the nature and legal status of the organization.” An “association” sounded like the Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers – an institute, on the other hand, was austere, noble and pure.

Heaven forfend that the American Enterprise Institute would _ever_ be confused with a group of people shilling on behalf of business.

More generally, there is a real problem in a political system where an organization with a grand title such as Americans for Fairness, Liberty and Free Choice in the Workplace (this is an invented organization using some of the usual buzzwords – I imagine that lobbyists automate the process of name creation with a sekrit perl script) typically consists of nothing more than a few reams of letterhead and a time-share arrangement over some law office’s fax machine. Not only will consumers will end up confused by the profusion of astroturf groups, but the generation of such confusion is precisely the purpose. It is just this kind of market failure that governments are supposed to address.

Hence my modest proposal – that the Obama administration set up a similar office, with sweeping authority and immediate effect. I can see that libertarians might possibly get upset, but they really shouldn’t. After all, they suffer more than most from the market failure in question. The term ‘libertarian’ has been heavily debased over the last few years by groups and individuals who describe themselves as libertarians, but are committed to state torture of suspected bad guys, semi-ubiquitous surveillance of electronic communications and the like. One of the first tasks that the US Inter-Agency Task Force on Sensitive Words might set itself would be to institute a proper set of standards to police self-described libertarians, clearly distinguishing between libertarians themselves (the real thing), schmibertarians (those tacitly in favour of torture and surveillance), glibertarians (those who prefer not to think about political commitments that extend beyond a cheery embrace of Econ 101 as teh awesome) and Gibletarians (I _WANT_ SLOW THROTTLING!!! AND I WANT IT NOOWWWW!!!!!!). I can’t see how this wouldn’t improve our public discourse.

John Hope Franklin

by Kieran Healy on March 25, 2009

The historian John Hope Franklin has died at the age of 94. The Post’s Obituary notes, inter alia,

In 1985, Franklin was in New York to receive the Clarence Holte Literary Award for his biography of historian George Washington Williams, a 40-year project for which he was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. The next morning, he and his wife were unable to hail a taxi in front of their hotel. Ten years later, when he was to receive the [Presidential Medal of Freedom], Franklin hosted a party for some friends at Washington’s Cosmos Club, of which he had long been a member. A white woman walked up to him, handed him a slip of paper and demanded that he get her coat. He politely told the woman that any of the uniformed attendants, “and they were all in uniform,” would be happy to assist her.

Here is From Slavery to Freedom.