From the monthly archives:

April 2009

Sneak preview of Wolfram|Alpha today!

by Eszter Hargittai on April 28, 2009

The following should be really neat. Today at 3pm ET, the Berkman Center will host a sneak preview of the Wolfram|Alpha search engine or “computational knowledge engine”. I saw a preview of it by Stephen Wolfram a month ago at Foo Camp East and was mesmerized. Stephen Wolfram will be talking about the system with Jonathan Zittrain at today’s event. Join the live Webcast, participate remotely using the Berkman Center question tool, by interacting with its Twitter account or on IRC.

UPDATE (4/29/09): The video of the session is now available here.

Adventures in Book Reviewing

by Daniel on April 27, 2009

I think it’s generally agreed that the worst possible sin for a book reviewer is not to have read the book in question. However, what if you really really knew what the book was going to say? How about if you’d spent the previous five years obsessively maintaining a blog about the author, reading all of his published work and developing a whole political philosophy in reaction to his? If the book hadn’t quite come out yet, would you really feel like you had to wait until it did to write your response? Remember, when the thing comes out, it’s going to be reviewed by all sorts of people who have only the barest awareness of the context of the author’s views, and will most likely have skim-read the thing working to a deadline.

Basically, David Aaronovitch (the British Thomas Friedman) has a book in press entitled “Voodoo Histories: The Role Of The Conspiracy Theory In Shaping Modern History“. I’ve been aware that something like it was in the pipeline since 2006, when he delivered a lecture on the subject. I have a number of political disagreements with Aaro, and one of the most important ones is over his structural tendency to give politicians the benefit of the doubt, the origins of which I locate in his early career working on “Weekend World” with John Birt. I also don’t like the general tendency among commentators to act as if explanations of events by reference to covert or criminal/political activity were per se evidence of unseriousness or paranoia; after Watergate, Iran/Contra, P2, the Tonkin Gulf and the Zinoviev Letter one might have hoped that we would have learned a lesson. I’ve written an essay on this subject, over at “Aaronovitch Watch (Incorporating ‘World Of Decency’)”, in the form of a review of the forthcoming book. I honestly believe that more thought and effort has gone into it than is remotely likely to be exerted by any of the eventual reviewers who write with the benefit of having read a copy. See what you think.

What Teles Can Tell Us About Constitutional Change

by jack_balkin on April 27, 2009

Because constitutional change is a focus of my research these days, I thought I might say a few words about how Steve Teles’ book The <a href=”″>Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement</a> is important to contemporary theories of constitutional change. Teles’ book discusses how competition between different ideological groups occurs outside of the electoral process: through institution building, norm development and norm proliferation. These mechanisms are quite important to understanding constitutional change, and legal change more generally. [click to continue…]

What Liberals Shouldn’t Learn from Conservatives

by rick_perlstein on April 27, 2009

One of the impressive things about Steven Teles’ book is that it helped orient me better about the apparent implications of my own work. When I wrote Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, the notion that, in narrating the capture of the Republican Party by the conservative movement, I was offering advice to progressives (like me) about how to seize national power themselves, was distant in my mind if it was present at all. The exigencies of commercial promotion (a perhaps over-glib framing of the book as an allegory for liberals) and an accident of history (the cult-following the paperback developed among progressives wrapped up in the nascent Netroots and Howard Dean movements) led to the book being read rather narrowly: as a universally applicable “movement” blueprint.  Not infrequently I would receive phone calls and emails from avid left-insurrectionists for practical advice as to how a “progressive infrastructure” to match the conservative one built through and after the Goldwater campaigns. Not infrequently I would convince myself I had plenty to say on the subject—though not without ambivalence. When, of all extraordinary things, I was invited to address the Senate Democratic caucus on “building a progressive idea infrastructure,” I said what I pretty much still believe: interests, not ideas, have much more motor force in politics. Ideas are fine, but if anything progressives have too many ideas. But deliver some more middle class entitlements like free healthcare, I argued, and Democrats will really be on their way to a restored hegemony. [click to continue…]

I know, everyone read the New York Magazine piece with everyone singing Poor, Poor Pitiful Masters of the Universe. That was so a week ago. Thankfully, everything is back to normal. But let’s revisit ancient history. The following bit was especially wondered at (by Kevin Drum, for example): [click to continue…]

The hole in the political landscape

by John Q on April 26, 2009

One way to think about the political impact of the GFC is to look at the range of political positions it’s rendered untenable. This range is large, encompassing, in the US context, everyone from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich. More generally, it covers anyone who embraced the claim that a US-style economic system, as of, say, 1995-2005, was the best that had ever been seen anywhere, and could only be improved by making government smaller and/or more business-like.

Minus the US-specific triumphalism, this range includes the positions held by most major political leaders in the developed world at the time the crisis erupted, notably including both George Bush and Barack Obama. It covers anyone who saw the growth of the financial sector and the explosion of global financial transactions as beneficial and who regarded with equanimity phenomena like the growth of inequality and the decline of trade unions which both resulted from and reinforced these trends. Virtually everyone holding this view downplayed or disregarded the looming crisis until it exploded in late 2008.

A critical assumption underlying these views was that the system was stable enough to maintain equilibrium without substantial government intervention and without collapsing into crisis. As far as I can tell, no one seriously argues this in relation to the current financial crisis. There are those who argue that the kind of massive intervention we’ve seen shouldn’t be undertaken and/or will only make things worse. But, AFAIK, no one seriously suggests that, without intervention the system could right itself fairly fast and return to the situation prevailing in, say, 2006.

What are the implications of the collapse of such a large section of the political landscape, both for those who formerly occupied it, and for the rest of us?

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Cohen on Constructivism (Chapter 7)

by Jon Mandle on April 25, 2009

Continuing the discussion of G. A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality – sorry about the delay – chapter 7 is on “Constructivism.” Cohen argues against the view that fundamental principles of social justice can be identified by considering a selection procedure that addresses the question, “What rules of governance are to be adopted for our common social life?” (p.275) The selection of principles from the original position is his primary target, although the specific features of that choice situation are not at issue. The main objection that he presses is familiar from chapter 6: constructivism mistakenly identifies the principles of justice with all things considered judgment concerning rules of social regulation. This must be a mistake, for Cohen, because the all things considered perspective encompasses considerations other than justice (including other virtues), and asks how best, given certain circumstances, to achieve the optimal balance of these various considerations.
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Quiet around here

by John Holbo on April 25, 2009

You’ve met The Girls From Planet 5. Now meet … [click to continue…]

I dunno, I just like it

by John Holbo on April 23, 2009

I found this old photo on Flickr. (Click link, then click again, for larger image.)


Apparently it “was published by the Sydney firm Charles Kerry & Co. and is part of the Powerhouse Museum’s Tyrrell collection which contains over 2,900 glass plate negatives by Kerry & Co. Although a few appear to be from the 1880s most were produced between 1892 and 1917.”

Hope You Had a Happy Krauthammer Day!

by Henry Farrell on April 23, 2009

I forgot to note a very special anniversary yesterday. April 22nd is the date on which Charles Krauthammer “opined:”:,eventID.274/transcript.asp

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

You’ve now had six years. How’s that credibility looking?

Thus spake Hegel

by Chris Bertram on April 23, 2009

bq. Particularity by itself, given free rein in every direction to satisfy its needs, accidental caprices, and subjective desires, destroys itself and its substantive concept in this process of gratification. At the same time, the satisfaction of need, necessary and accidental alike, is accidental because it breeds new desires without end, is in thoroughgoing dependence on caprice and external accident, and is held in check by the power of universality. In these contrasts and their complexity, civil society affords a spectacle of extravagance and want as well as of the physical and ethical degeneration common to them both. ( _Philosophy of Right_ sec 185).


… “Everything is amazing; nobody is happy.”

via “The Online Photographer”: .

Young Americans for Socialism

by John Q on April 23, 2009

American adults under 30 are almost evenly divided on the question

Which is a better system – capitalism or socialism?

37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. For the US population as a whole, only a bare majority prefer capitalism (53% prefer capitalism, 20% socialism, and 27% are undecided.)

Granted that socialism can mean anything from “Policies adopted by Joe Stalin” to “Policies deplored by Joe the Plumber”, these are quite striking results, and certainly help to explain why the invocation of the socialist bogy by JTP and other Republican hacks has been so ineffective (to the point that JTP has recently taken to adding a “neo” prefix, which certainly made both “liberal” and “conservative” scarier).

Update SNAP!

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The ideology that dare not speak its name

by John Q on April 22, 2009

The set of ideas that has dominated public policy around the world for the last thirty years has been given a variety of names – neoliberalism[1], economic rationalism, the Washington Consensus, Reaganism and Thatcherism being the most prominent. Broadly speaking, this set of ideas combines support for free market (or freer market) economic policies with agnosticism[2] about both political liberalism and the relative merits of democracy and autocracy. Since demands for definition are inevitable, I’ll point to mine here.

A striking feature of all of these terms is that they are currently used almost exclusively by opponents of the viewpoint being described, to the point where any use of such terms invariably provokes protests about unfair labelling (this is true even of the most neutral term I can find, “economic liberalism”). Even more striking is the fact that these terms were originally used in a broadly positive sense by supporters of the ideas concerned. I’ve done the story on economic rationalism, Don Arthur covers neoliberalism (with links to more from Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse (pdf) and you can check Wikipedia for the others.

Why is it that neoliberalism seems to be subject to a political version of the euphemism treadmill? A look at the history will help a bit.

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Rum, Sodomy and the Nash redux

by Henry Farrell on April 22, 2009

John’s post reminds me that I was giving some grief to Matt Welch about seasteaders and the more … conceptually novel side of libertarianism last week (Matt held his own).

This came up in an argument over Peter Leeson’s new book on the joys of eighteenth century piracy as an exercise in stateless government, and the recent excitement off the coast of Somalia. I suggested that Somalia looked like a libertarian paradise – no government, lots of guns etc – something that Matt certainly didn’t agree with personally. But what I didn’t know (until one of the bloggingheads commenters pointed it out) was that Peter Leeson himself has written an article arguing that “modern Somalia is teh awesome”: (or, at least, a lot better than you might think). As he argues in a different, summary essay (linked to below):

Like all other choices, the choices we face in “selecting” governments are constrained. Unfortunately for most developing countries, the political choice set they face is far smaller than the political choice set more developed countries face. Historical features, such as clan tension, rampant corruption, territorial conflicts, and many others, which cannot be changed in the short run, severely restrict the kind of government countries like Somalia can reasonably expect to have if they have a government. Sadly, well-functioning, well-constrained governments like the ones we observe in the U.S. and western Europe are not part of this choice set. Ultra-predatory, corrupt, and abusive governments, however, are. And so is anarchy. As Somalia’s experience illustrates, for many LDCs with these limited options anarchy may very well be the best feasible choice.

I’ll leave the claim here to others who know African politics better than me (Chris Blattman, feel free to chime in) and merely note that these views presents an interesting question for the Princeton people charged with publicizing his book. On the one hand, piracy and Somalia are surely topical issues, but on the other, professor Leeson’s views on piracy and the benefits of Somalian political organization are likely to be unpopular with many people (his current proposed solution for the Somalian piracy problem, by the way, is to privatize the ocean).

I’ve started reading his book on piracy, which is an entertaining enough exercise, but one which I suspect is a bit fishy on the empirics. He clearly has his ideological druthers (see “here”: for his grand theory of why we don’t really need government), but then, so do we all. While I don’t find his claims for anarcho-libertarianism to be particularly convincing, I am probably not the target audience, and they have their place in the grand ideological debate. What I do find disconcerting though, is his obvious sweet tooth for efficiency arguments and just-so stories. History, when you look at it at all carefully, is much too messy to support any ideological explanation unequivocally. The book (and the academic articles that it draws upon) simply feel too neat to me, and don’t persuade me that he went into his research on these topics looking to be surprised by what he found (which I really think you should, any time you engage in empirical research). Others’ mileage may vary.

Reading the Bible in Reading Time

by Harry on April 22, 2009

A story that circulates in some evangelical and homeschooling circles concerns a boy who was told, in a public elementary school, that he could not read the Bible during his free reading time. One version of the story has him being sent home. In some versions of the story (that have been told to me directly) the courts find in favour of the school. I’ve heard the story for quite a while, and assumed there was a grain of truth in it, but have never done the work to find the details (I assumed that the “sent home” version was embellishment, and that the “court finding for the school” bit was… well, at best remarkably ignorant of the law). But now I look for the story, I can’t find any version in what I regard as a reliable news source. Here is the Thomas More Law Center’s version of its own work, which must be true, surely. But google the boy’s name and you get lots of blog posts, but nothing from, for example, the Chicago Tribune, or AP, or.. (There’s the Catholic News Agency, which I might regard as reliable if it weren;t the only source). More mysteriously I’ve heard versions of the story for at least a decade, whereas this version seems very recent. I’m not the best googler or wikipedia user, but am surprised I haven’t found more. Do any readers know the true story?