From the monthly archives:

July 2009

Dusted with grated stupid

by Henry Farrell on July 31, 2009

Jennifer Rubin at “Commentary”: leans on the mad research skillz of “Michael Rubin at “National Review”: to slur Presidential Medal honoree Mary Robinson for being an anti-Semite. Or something.

As Michael Rubin pointed out in this 2002 column, in her capacity as president of Ireland, she also happily provided millions of dollars of support to the PLO, which were used in terror attacks:

bq. During the last four years of Robinson’s tenure, the European Union donated large sums of money to the Palestinian Authority. Ireland even held the presidency of the European Union for the second half of 1996. During this time, Arafat siphoned large amounts of European aid money away to pay for terror. Robinson can plead ignorance, but documents seized during the recent Israeli incursion into the West Bank revealed that the Palestinian Authority spent approximately $9 million of European Union aid money each month on the salaries of those organizing terror attacks against civilians. While European officials like Robinson looked the other way, the Palestinian Authority regularly converted millions of dollars of aid money into shekels at rates about 20 percent below normal, allowing the Palestinian chairman to divert millions of dollars worth of aid into his personal slush fund.

The original (Michael) Rubin column implies that Mary Robinson should be charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for this.

I mean seriously. Don’t they have factcheckers at _Commentary_ and _National Review?_ Don’t they even have an intern who could skim the Wikipedia article on “the President of Ireland”: ?

bq. The presidency is largely a ceremonial office, but the President does exercise certain limited powers with absolute discretion.

The Rubins (are they related?) should be advised that none of these powers touch on foreign policy, European Union policy making etc (the President isn’t even allowed to leave the country without the government’s permission). I know that neither the _National Review_ or _Commentary_ is in the business of informing its readers. But I would have thought that they needed to maintain at least a minimal degree of contact with reality for their propaganda to be effective. I seem to be wrong.

The Ashes: third test

by Chris Bertram on July 31, 2009

Someone wanted me to start this thread before the game started. Well I’m a bit late for that, but most of the first day was obliterated by rain. The Aussies are now 126 for 1 after 30 overs …. so unless England’s attack can get it together fast, Australia will be in control.

In your face, beer snobs!

by Daniel on July 30, 2009

Even the President of the USA agrees with me about Budweiser. I suppose it was never on the cards that any of them was going to order a black-and-tan.

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Belgium has one of the highest per capita public debts in the EU, and a pension system whereby the workers pay for the pensions. So there is a serious challenge of keeping the public pension system viable and sustainable in the near future when the population will be aging.

According to the Dutch-language Belgian newspaper “De Standaard”:, Belgian politicians have decided that the best qualified candidate for the position to lead the Belgian National Office for Pensions will not be appointed. The reason? He is Dutch-speaking, and it was decided that appointing him would bring the balance of francophone versus Dutch speaking high office public servants in danger. [click to continue…]

Another one bites the dust

by Chris Bertram on July 30, 2009

Judging by a review I read in the New York Times, there is some danger of Christopher Caldwell’s _Reflections on the Revolution in Europe_ being taken more seriously by some Americans than earlier examples of the Europe-about-to-become-Muslim genre. Matt Carr, writing for the Institute of Race Relations, “provides some detailed rebuttal”: .

Safety in Numbers

by Maria on July 29, 2009

I’m struck by the number of people amongst Capitol Hill’s 2009 50 most beautiful who are from big families, i.e. of 6 or more kids.

A Brussels friend once said the Irish are so numerous in the European Commission because so many of the first wave of them were from big families and were therefore natural masters of deal-making and compromise. Until the last decade or two, probably most of the Irish population were middle children of large-ish families. We do seem to have a disproportionate number of countrymen in the European and other international institutions, and some of them have done remarkably well. (Alternative theories may include mass emigration in the 1970s and 80s and a bit of path dependence since whatever other qualities the Irish abroad may have, we love to give a leg up to our compatriots. Also, there are more people from big families because, well, there are more of them.)

More Hill staffers than I would have expected come from big families. (Alternative theories: lots are from recently immigrated families, or maybe the profile writers draw more attention to the big families because they’re unusual, or maybe beautiful people are inexplicably more likely to have many siblings…) Intuitively, people who’ve grown up in a large family will have been doing power-plays, coalition-building and breaking, and all sorts of tactical shenanigans since before they could talk. Perhaps the early practice gives them an edge?

I’ve never rated the emphasis placed in popular psychology on the roles of the Eldest Child, Middle Child and Youngest Child. I’m one of the 60% of my siblings who are middle children and I never noticed a particular bent towards peace-making amongst us. But maybe there’s something to it.

In any case, check out the Wyoming cowboy on page 2. I wouldn’t mind building a coalition with him.

Good Greif

by Henry Farrell on July 28, 2009

I’ve been thinking for the last ten minutes about how to start this post in a polite and reasoned way, and coming up with nothing very much. So, here goes with the bluntness. Charles Rowley’s “article”: (behind paywall), ‘The curious citation practices of Avner Greif:
Janet Landa comes to grief’ in the new issue of _Public Choice_ is one of the sorriest hack-jobs that I’ve ever had the misfortune to read in an academic journal. The fundamental claim:

The commentary will establish that Avner Grief, by his curious citation practices, has failed to cite seminal papers by Janet Landa who pioneered in an important field of nonmarket decision-making—the economics of trust, which itself is part of the economics of identity—and that, by so doing, he now is inappropriately recognized among mainstream economists as the pioneer in the field of trust networks and informal enforcement of contracts.

is not supported, the insinuations are offensive, and the standards of argument are situated somewhere in that narrow region where the slipshod, the haphazard and the positively eccentric intersect.
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Why do you want to go to Law School?

by Harry on July 28, 2009

A few years ago now, a friend sent me xerox of chapter 5 of Derek Bok’s superb book Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. The purpose was to get me to think about whether there was something interesting to be said about the role of philosophy in a university education. Up till that point I had been somewhat interested in issues of justice in access to university, but not very interested in what universities do, or should do, once students get there. But one thing led to another, and since getting hold of a devouring the entire book, which is I can recommend thoroughly, I was hooked. I’ve been meaning to review it here for ages, and still may, but for the moment I thought I’d highlight one of the passages that has changed one small thing that I do as a professor.

Among the goals that Bok thinks universities should have for students (his main interest is in elite, or as I’ve recently seen them referred to, “Medallion”, colleges, though,much of what he says applies further down the status order of 4 year colleges) and that he thinks they underperform at pretty seriously, is preparing them for a career. He does not mean that colleges fail to provide the credentials necessary for a prestigious career (they certainly do that) nor that they fail to provide relevant education (though he is a little bit skeptical about that). Rather, he thinks that they fail to provide adequate guidance. The consequence is that students are rather ignorant of what different careers involve, what they are likely to do within them, how those careers contribute to the society, and what contribution they would make to their own wellbeing. His particular bete noir (ironically perhaps) is that smart young students with a public service ethic, as well as those who just don’t know what to do with their lives, go to Law School:

For students who begin their legal training hoping to fight for social justice, law school can be a sobering experience. While there, they learn a number of hard truths. Jobs fighting for the environment or civil liberties are very scarce. Defending the poor and powerless turns out to pay remarkably little and often to consist of work that many regard as repetitive and dull. As public interest jobs seem less promising (and law school debts continue to mount), most of these idealistic students end by persuading themselves that a large corporate law firm is the best course to pursue, even though many of them fund the specialties practiced in these firms, such as corporate law, tax law, and real estate law, both uninteresting and unchallenging…..

Imagine the social value that would be produced if these students were, instead, going into teaching and eventually leading urban schools and school districts. As Bok says, we do not yet have a case that letting students apply to Law School by default is bad for them: if they end up enjoying the life more than they would enjoy the more challenging and less well compensated life of a teacher then at least they have been well served. But:

Almost half of the young lawyers leave their firm within three years. Many complain of having too little time with their families, and feeling tired and under pressure on most days of the week. Many more are weary of constantly having to compete for advancement with other bright young lawyers or troubled by what they regard as the lack of redeeming social value in their work. Within the profession as a whole, levels of stress, alcoholism, divorce, suicide and drug abuse are all substantially above the national average.

Bok makes as compelling a case as is possible in the absence of evidence of a kind which, I suspect, would be very hard to gather; his observations certainly fit exactly with my own experience.

So how has this made me change my behaviour? I have written a lot of letters of recommendation for students to go to Law School. Getting a letter of recommendation from me requires submitting a package of materials and meeting with me to discuss one’s goals and the process. Before reading Our Underachieving Colleges, despite my serious reservations about the profession (I’ve known a fair number of lawyers, and I’ve known only one who really enjoyed the job), I never tried to dissuade anyone. I still don’t (just for the CT reader whom I did dissuade, you know, don’t you, that I was not trying). But I do ask them, straight out, “why do you want to go to Law School?”. I am amazed how many students sit there dumbstruck, having never seemed to have given it any thought. I also ask whether they have talked to some lawyers about their jobs, and am similarly amazed how few have done so. Of course, by the time they are asking for a letter it is a bit late to be trying to help them think about a career. But the responses I’ve had suggest to me that Bok’s thesis holds for my institution at least — and that the way we go about thinking about preparing students for a career is extremely laissez faire — much more so than is good for the students, and more than they, who mostly would appreciate some gentle, disinterested, guidance, want.

I’m curious how other people approach writing letters for Law School (or Medical School, or whatever), and whether my experience is idiosyncratic.

Endnotes, again

by John Q on July 28, 2009

I really, really hate endnotes. But now that I am writing a book I have to decide whether I have to swallow my pride and use them, and if not, what alternative to adopt.

To start with, I want to distinguish between explanatory notes, spelling out a point that is marginal to the main text and references giving authority for some claim made in the text, or examples or a person making a claim that I may endorse or criticise. In academic work, I’m used to the Harvard format where explanatory notes are placed as footnotes, and references cited in the body of the text as “Quiggin (2009)”, then listed in full at the end. This is much better than the all-footnotes system used, for example, in legal writing.

For a popular book on a technical subject like “Zombie economics”, there are a few options, which can be mashed up in various ways.

* The standard endnotes setup with explanatory notes and references listed at the end of the book
* Footnotes for explanation only: this leaves open the question of how to deal with references
* A further reading section at the end of each chapter, in place of references
* A book without references, but with an online hypertext version in which readers who want to chase references can find them.

Any thoughts?

What does it mean to be on the left?

by Harry on July 28, 2009

My contribution to the Open Left Debate at Demos is here. I offered them a long and a short version, and am rather relieved that they went with the short version, mainly because it contained something that on reflection I wish I hadn’t said (but, since its not published I’m under no obligation to divulge it!). For what its worth, the long, and more didactic (but also more tentative) version of my answer to the first question, “What is it about your political beliefs that put you on the Left rather than the Right?” is below the fold; but please go to Open Left to join that debate.

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Free markets and insurance

by Henry Farrell on July 27, 2009

I’m not writing about the debates over health insurance (as, indeed, I am not writing about most policy debates), because I simply don’t think I’m informed enough to say anything very useful about the pros and cons of the specific options under discussion. Still, “this”: by Alex Tabarrok struck me as a bit odd. [click to continue…]

Staged? Faked? The ambiguities of the photograph

by Chris Bertram on July 27, 2009

It is disappointing to get what appears to be definitive evidence that Robert Capa’s photograph of the falling soldier was staged. Sadly, too, I’m inclined to agree with the thought that the staging in that case also amounts to fakery. Still, I’m far from certain about my reactions here: staging a photograph is not, in itself, sufficient to make the charge stick. I was thinking last night about the US Civil War photographs where we suspect the photographers rearranged the bodies, and that is one of the examples that Philip Gefter discusses in an essay on the problem at the New York Times. Many of Bill Brandt’s photographs of English upper and working-class lives were staged, but that staging doesn’t make them bogus. Rather Brandt was using artifice to get his subjects to enact a role more general than any particular haphazard moment. That also seems true of the Lewis Hine pictures that Gefter discusses. Capa’s soldier seems altogether more problematic. We _could_ say that he is an icon standing for the many soldiers who did in fact die for the Republic, but that doesn’t feel right since it would be hard for the image to play that role for us if we knew that the man was simply acting. Brandt’s subjects were (barely) acting, but they were at least playing parts that they also played in life. And for reasons Susan Sontag discussed long ago, the fact of photographic _selection_ means that even where a picture appears to have a definite semantic charge, it would be naive to take that as a veridical report, since the image may well have been chosen for that effect from a sequence of which all the rest conveyed a quite different impression.

John Ryan is Dead

by Harry on July 26, 2009

We have one old cassette tape of Peter Hawkins reading 2 Pugwash stories, that my eldest enjoyed so much that for about a year I had to invent further stories just about every night for her. Fortunately, it was always easy to come up with the final line. BBC obit here. Liberal England memories here. Channel 4 (youtube).
Part of his masterpiece:

And the entire opening episode of Sir Prancelot:


by John Q on July 25, 2009

I got more very useful comments on my section on the rise of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, and I will get down to editing it before long. In the meantime, here’s my draft section on Implications of the EMH

At least in the draft, I’m following a standard structure: One chapter per dead/zombie idea, with sections on Beginnings, Implications, Failure and What Next? It seems to go OK for EMH, and we’ll see how it works for the others.

As before, comments of all kinds, and particularly pointers to (putative) errors, are most welcome.

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Horrible Histories (the best thing currently on television in Britain?) takes a less jingoistic view of Britain than the Ladybird Books — the 3 minutes history of the British Empire is, alas, not yet up on youtube, but there’s plenty else there: Witchfinders Direct; Christians versus Lions; Born 2 Rule; etc.

Btw, according to wikipedia, not only was Titus Oates not really called Titus (I always thought it was odd that there were two of them), but he disliked Scott intensely, which makes the whole thing seem even more tragic.