From the monthly archives:

June 2009

It’s not absurd to desire the impossible

by John Holbo on June 30, 2009

A couple weeks ago Matthew Yglesias marveled at the heady philosophical stuff French teens have to tackle. I think he got one answer wrong. He says he thinks it’s absurd to desire the impossible. I don’t think so at all. This is just the pony principle. Wishing is free, so you might as well wish for whatever you were going to wish for, plus a pony. A sparkle magic unicorn pony. It’s fun to wish – and wishing is a form of wanting. It is one of your best entertainment values. Thus, on strictly utilitarian grounds it makes sense to wish for the impossible.

What is delicate, I will admit, is settling how and where desire crosses belief and expectation and action. (As Wittgenstein says, wanting and trying to get are very closely related.) For example, this ad crosses over into Kierkegaardian territory.


It is absurd to expect to get more from something than you think it is possible to get from anything. Especially if it’s instant coffee.

Still, I don’t think it is absurd to want coffee that would be better than life itself could possibly be. That would be a damn fine cup of coffee.

Am I right?

My “somewhat grumpy”: post last week has turned into a much less grumpy discussion with other parties via email, and, perhaps, an actual paper sometime not too far in the future. But in the interim, I came across a really nice piece by Marion Fourcade, which says some of what I was saying, but more temperately, and with proper analysis. Key quotes:

As mainstream economics, following the lead of Gary Becker, started to venture into a number of traditionally sociological jurisdictions (such as the family, crime, or education), intellectual exchange, if not outright competition with economics, was progressively constructed as a legitimate professional goal—thereby challenging the tacit disciplinary division in effect since the time of Talcott Parsons … Indeed, the competitive origins of the “new” economic sociology are especially clear in the _rhetoric_ of a number of foundational papers and programmatic statements, all of which motivate their own enterprise by the challenge it offers to utilitarian approaches. A few illustrations will be sufficient … White’s (1981) foundational paper … Granovetter’s seminal contribution … Hirsch, Michaels, and Friedman … both editions of the _Handbook of Economic Sociology_ … The point is clear: The orientation, generally competitive and always informed, toward the most powerful social science, was a much clearer intellectual starting point than the connection to earlier forms of economic sociology.

The piece (which has a very helpful general overview of debates in economic sociology) was published by the _American Behavioral Scientist_ and is available “here”: for those with institutional access. An ungated version should be available “here”:, but I can’t get the link to work for me (others may perhaps have better luck) – thanks to Andrei in comments for a “working link”:

Two steps behind

by John Q on June 29, 2009

Over the last week or two, there has been a lot of discussion of the idea of Obama leading from “two steps behind”, initially in relation to the Iran protests1, and then as a general description of his operating style. There’s an obvious link to the famous quote attributed to FDR, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

But, how should Obama’s supporters respond to this, particularly on civil liberties issues such as detention withour trial where Obama is not only two steps behind but often appears to be going in the opposite direction? Suppose that Obama really wants to deliver on his campaign rhetoric about openness and due process, but is facing powerful resistance from within permanent power centres such as the CIA. Hence, it might be supposed, Obama has to put up a show of resistance, and needs his supporters to make enough noise to compel him to fulfil his promises

How, if at all does such a situation differ from one in which Obama is a natural centrist wants to backslide on promises made to secure his base in the election year, but can be held to his promises by sufficiently vociferous pressure?

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Review of Capitalism Unleashed

by John Q on June 27, 2009

Several years ago, Andrew Glyn sent me a copy of his new book, Capitalism Unleashed, which I promised to review. But with one thing and another, I didn’t get to it, and then I received the news of his premature death, which set me back still further. I promised myself that I would do the review as a tribute to Andrew’s memory, and now, I’ve finally managed to do it.

Of course the environment now is radically different to the one in which the book was written, and that means the review must be to some extent informed by the wisdom of hindsight. In the introduction, Andrew notes as the first of the big open questions thrown up by the unleashing of capitalism

Will the ever more complex financial system implode in a major financial crisis and bring prolonged recession

We all know the answer now.

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Friday Night Flickr stuff

by John Holbo on June 26, 2009

I like this pair of images from this ‘costume and dresses’ set.

Boadecia – Mother of England:


And these three women, sitting for a portrait:


Thought for the night: I find it very difficult to judge the age of people in old photos. Probably you’ve had the same experience. It reminds me of that section in Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, where he reflects on how faces go in and out of fashion. But partly it demonstrates – what is obviously at least half-true – that in judging people’s age we rely on deductions from their clothes and hair styles and such. (We know that such and such clothes are worn by 20-somethings, so someone dressed that way is probably 20-something.) But that doesn’t seem quite right either. Thoughts?

OK, I’m fact-checking one last bit from my Plato book. I’m discussing the famous legend that over the door of Plato’s academy there was an inscription: ‘no non-geometers allowed’. Here’s a page that contains a bit of background if you are unaware of this legend (which is pretty weakly sourced to a commentary on a commentary on Aristotle, I think it is. So who knows.) Anyway, I mention in the text that there are religious overtones, which is most certainly true. But here’s my problem. I read somewhere that over the doors of Greek temples, or at the boundaries of certain holy areas – sites forbidden to those who are unclean, by the terms of Drako’s Law – ‘no unclean persons allowed’. I distinctly recall reading, specifically, that the unclean bit was ‘unjust’; that is, (I presume) ‘adikaios’. So take Plato’s ‘ageometros’, swap it out and plug in ‘adikaios’ and – bob’s your uncle – you’ve got the thing you might read over a temple door. Trouble is: I went back to footnote this bit and it wasn’t where I thought it was. So I’m wondering whether what I have in my book is strictly accurate. Are there surviving inscriptions that are almost like the one Plato is supposed to have put over his door, with only one word different? Or are there reliable reports of the existence of such inscriptions? It’s not a big deal, because the general point about religious overtones stands: the inscription forbids the ‘impure’ from entry, as Drako’s law forbids access to ‘the holy things’ to those who are presently ritually unclean (for whatever reason). But I don’t want my book sullied by the impure inclusion of an epigraphic untruth, Zeus forbid!

Oh, baby, give me one more chance

by Kieran Healy on June 26, 2009

Over the past several months, French academics have been facing a grave situation. The Sarkozy Government has proposed a reform of the universities that would put more power into the hands of the president of their university, and weaken the role of peer review. This reform will significantly affect the degree of autonomy of faculty teaching in universities. It is feared that university presidents will depend on their local protégés (who are often selected on political, instead of academic criteria) to make a number of important decisions that will affect the lives of faculty. Universalistic mechanisms had been put in place at the national level to prevent local favoritism and particularism. This system is now threatened from within. [click to continue…]

The self of self

by John Holbo on June 25, 2009

Whether or not Theory jargon incapacitates humanities folks, communication with regular folks-wise, I think it might provide a leg-up when it comes to understanding Republican governor infidelity pressers. Here’s Mark Sanford: “And the biggest self of self is indeed self.” True, untrue, or neither? Discuss. Defend your answer on the grounds that it is necessary for the progress of World-Spirit.

Here’s the context:

But I’m here because if you were to look at God’s laws, in every instance it is designed to protect people from themselves. I think that that is the bottom line of God’s law. It is not a moral, rigid list of do’s and don’ts just for the heck of do’s and don’ts, it is indeed to protect us from ourselves. And the biggest self of self is indeed self. If sin is in fact grounded in this notion of what is it that I want, as opposed to somebody else.

What do you make of this?

Lit-crit and the scientific method

by Henry Farrell on June 25, 2009

Following Michael’s pointer, I read William Deresiewicz’s “piece”: with some interest – while I’m as happy as the next person to read good take-downs of dodgy ev-psych arguments, I found some of the claims a little … sweeping. Take, for example, the suggestion that:

Having colonized the social sciences–where it has begun to displace the view, predominant throughout the twentieth century, that the mind is a highly malleable product of culture–[Darwinian evolutionary thinking] has now set its sights on the humanities, the last area of resistance.

I’m sure that ev-psych types would _like_ this to be true1, but as a card-carrying social scientist, I have yet to be informed of the successful colonization of sociology, political science, economics and anthropology by explanations based on Darwinian theory. Nor, for that matter, did I know that economists _ever_ believed the mind to be a highly malleable product of culture.
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Yet another in my series of articles on economic theories, empirical hypotheses and policy programs that have been refuted, or undermined, by the Global Financial Crisis. This one, on Real Business Cycle Theory, is a bit econowonkish, but I’m putting it up here because
(a) I hope some econowonks among the readers might find errors and correct me*
(b) Judging by some other recent commentary, RBC still has some interest.

* As indeed, they have. My suggestion of a link between calibration and the GMM has been roundly refuted both here and at my blog. I can only say, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Thanks for the very useful comments on this point, and on RBC more generally.
Also, Lee Ohanian has pointed out that I misattribute to him and Cole the treatment of WPA workers as unemployed.

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Payzant and Cross on Reforming NCLB

by Harry on June 24, 2009

EPI is hosting an event tomorrow sponsored by the Broader Bolder coalition, on how to reform NCLB. Tom Payzant (former Superintendent in Boston and San Diego) and Christopher Cross (formerly of the Bush I administration) will present. I’ve seen the report, to be released at the event, and it is considerably influenced by Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobson and Tamara Wilder’s recent book Grading Education (discussed here — Rothstein was a co-chair of the committee that wrote the report): a reduced, and more consistent, Federal role, using enhanced NAEP tests that resemble early NAEP and do not simply test basic skills (as someone recently said, “there’s a reason they’re called ‘basic’ skills”), improving disaggregation, and coordinating the states; and state-level policy which includes an inspection role, gathering qualitative and quantitative data (the inspection regime being modelled on the OFSTED regime that prevailed 1993-2005).

I’m curious where this will go. It seems like nobody’s eye is really on NCLB, and understandably so. The Secretary of Education, I note, was an initial signer of the Broader Bolder initial statement, so perhaps they have real influence. I hope so. I regret I can’t be at the event, but urge anyone who’s in DC to attend. I’ll link to the report when it goes public.

The futility of the humanities

by Michael Bérubé on June 24, 2009

Since I have to do one last gig before I take off on vacation, and since the gig happens to be a conference titled <a href=””>“Beyond Utility and Markets: Articulating the Role of the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century,”</a> I thought it would make sense to begin this post where I end my contribution to that symposium, namely, with the closing passage from <a href=””>William Deresiewicz’s recent <i>Nation</i> review essay</a> on the new wave of Darwinist literary criticism:

<blockquote>There is much talk among the literary Darwinists and their allies about not wanting to go back to the days of “old-boy humanism,” with its “impressionistic” reading and “belletristic” writing. (Only in English departments could good writing be considered a bad thing.) But no matter the age or gender of the practitioner, any really worthwhile criticism will share the expressive qualities of literature itself. It will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid. It will be a product of its times, though it will see beyond those times. It will not satisfy the dean’s desire for accumulable knowledge, the parent’s desire for a marketable skill or the Congressman’s desire for a generation of technologists. All it will do is help us understand who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Until the literary academy is willing to stand up in public and defend that mission without apology, it will never find its way out of the maze. </blockquote>

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Utterly Gratuitous Sexism, Anyone?

by Belle Waring on June 24, 2009

Much digital ink has been spilled on Ross “I Would Do Anything For Love, But I Won’t” Douthat’s review of Helprin’s “Digital Barbarism”, but no one–except sage Unfogged commenter Witt–has noted what may be the very most annoying part: the insertion of pointless sexism into a fine xkcd cartoon. A cartoon, I might add, that Douthat does not even bother to actually cite by name. Read the comic here. Now feast your eyes:

One of the more trenchant cartoons of the Internet era features a stick-figure man typing furiously at his keyboard. From somewhere beyond the panel floats the irritated voice of his wife.“Are you coming to bed?”
“I can’t,” he replies. “This is important.”
“Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

How, might I ask did Douthat know that the voice in question is that of an irritated wife? And what marks the stick figure as that of a man? Oh, right, the unmarked is always male, right? It’s true that xkcd often depicts female stick figures as having longer hair, but this is not invariably so. Verdict: douchebag.

UPDATE: my husband informs me that brilliant unsung CT commenters have been all over this is comments to his post. But the point stands.

In support of limited permanent copyright

by John Q on June 24, 2009

I doubt that this is exactly what Ross Douthat had in mind, but I have been thinking for a while about one version of extending the duration of a limited-scope copyright. I’d support a proposal that gave Disney unlimited duration ownership of Mickey Mouse and similar characters, both for economic and political reasons. The political reason is straightforward: if Disney got its own side deal, they would have no reason to keep up the push for indefinite extensions of copyright for books and other things I actually care about.

The economic reason is that Mickey Mouse is not a character in a black and white cartoon produced in the 1920s (and cribbed off someone else, IIRC), and his copyright protection does not (except incidentally) act to restrict people who want to reproduce or adapt Steamboat Willie today.

Mickey is, in the terminology of the industry, a franchise. Disney puts millions into producing and promoting Mickey every year, and reaps even more millions as a result. I think it’s plausible to claim that each individual franchise of this kind is a natural monopoly, and that we would be less well served with multiple Mickey suppliers, as opposed to competing franchises like Bugs Bunny (there’s an analogy here with the debate over sporting teams and leagues which I’m too lazy/busy to work out in full). So, I’d be happy to allow Disney, Warner Bros, DC, Marvel and so on to have permanent rights over their characters, as long as they kept on using them.

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