From the monthly archives:

November 2009

Sixty Seconds of Thanksgiving

by Kieran Healy on November 24, 2009

From the uniformly excellent David Friedman, a short film.

I’m With Stupid

by Henry Farrell on November 24, 2009

“Ilya Somin at the Volokhs”:

I am no fan of populism of either the left or right-wing variety. In my view, most populist movements exploit voter ignorance and irrationality to promote policies that tend to do far more harm than good. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised by the right-wing populist reaction to the economic crisis and Obama’s policies. With rare exceptions, right-wing populists such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and the Tea Party protesters, have advocated free market approaches to dealing with the crisis, and have attacked Obama and the Democratic Congress for seeking massive increases in government spending and regulation. They have not responded in any of several much worse ways that seemed like plausible alternatives a year ago, and may still be today. … True, much of their rhetoric is oversimplified, doesn’t take account of counterarguments, and is unfair to opponents. But the same can be said for nearly all political rhetoric directed at a popular audience made up of rationally ignorant voters who pay only very limited attention to politics and don’t understand the details of policy debates. On balance, however, the positions taken by the right-wing populists on these issues are basically simplified versions of those taken by the most sophisticated libertarian and limited-government conservative economists and policy scholars. There has been relatively little advocacy of strange, crackpot ideas or weird conspiracy theories.

I don’t agree with Somin on much of anything at all, but usually find him an interesting writer. This post, however, seems at best badly out of touch with reality. Somin is immediately challenged by one of his readers on the death panels slur and responds:

It is a badly flawed and unfair argument. But I think it’s actually just an extreme version of a genuine point against government control of health care: that government would have to ration care and make decisions denying life-saving treatment to many people — as actually happens in socialized medicine systems.

And as happens in free market medicine systems too – the rationing merely takes a different form as has been frequently pointed out on this blog. But more to the point – would Somin be similarly generous in allowing, say, that 9/11 Truthers were arguing “an extreme version of” the “genuine point” that the Bush administration could have and should have done more to prevent it? I doubt it – perhaps I’m wrong.

I’m not averse to a little populism, and I can sort-of understand how American libertarian intellectuals – who have never had a mass movement to call their own – might get a bit wobbly-kneed at the sight of marching teabaggers. But to suggest that Tea Party rhetoric is somewhat overheated and unfair, but based on a fundamentally sound view of government – wtf? And that’s not even to get into Glenn Beck’s defence of the “white culture” that Obama apparently hates so much …

Update: Somin responds in an update to his original post, to suggest that Beck’s claim that Obama hated ‘white culture’ was “stupid” but was an aberration. Personally, I would choose rather stronger terms than “stupid” to describe this statement, such as e.g. ‘viciously attempting to stir up race hatred’ – perhaps we have different levels of sensitivity to this kind of language. More generally, Somin seems to be sticking to his claim that there is “relatively little advocacy of strange, crackpot ideas or weird conspiracy theories” among rightwing populists, and that the examples that people are coming up with (e.g. Beck’s continued ‘investigations’ into purported concentration camps that the Obama administration is building to house dissidents) are old tropes and are not a ‘major part’ of the right wing reaction to the Obama presidency. This claim is, frankly, completely baffling. When Glenn Beck (whom Somin himself specifically namechecks in his original post as an exemplar of what he is talking about) repeatedly suggests that America is moving towards a totalitarian state, subordinated to a world government run by Maoists and Marxists, where dissidents are likely to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps, it is quite safe to say that “strange crackpot ideas” and “weird conspiracy theories” are close to the heart of the right wing populism that Somin likes. To believe otherwise seems to me either to reflect an absence of actual knowledge of what Glenn Beck regularly says, or to be labouring under the influence of a particularly dangerous form of delusion and denial. Somin also “responds”: in comments here to suggest that the cases of 9/11 Truthers and death panels are not comparable – Harry “responds”: better than I can. Finally, I note in passing that I at least think it good practice for a blogger responding to a criticism on another blog to link back to that blog in his or her response so that his or her readers can evaluate for themselves whether or not that criticism sticks.

Expendable humanitarians

by Chris Bertram on November 24, 2009

Via Kevin Jon Heller and Una Vera, I just came across Jeremy Scahill’s Nation piece about Blackwater’s operations in Pakistan. Nasty stuff, not the least of which is the allegation that Blackwater operatives are masquerading as aid workers. The predictable consequence will be that aid workers (and not just in Pakistan) will be targeted for assassination, kidnap and torture to a greater degree than at present. Hard to exaggerate just how bad this is.

I hereby declare – for the benefit of anyone at Oxford UP who might be reading – that I was going to require my (probably 50-or-so) students next semester to buy your serviceable little paperback volumes: Woolhouse’s The Empiricists and Cottingham’s The Rationalists. I assigned them when I last taught History of Modern Philosophy, a few years back; and it worked out fine. But now that I see they cost $45 each, for a lousy sub-200 page, 7″ x 5″ paperback and pretty cheap paper. What’s that about? Do I really want my students to hate me? (Do I want to hate myself?) I am quite sure they were not this pricey a few years back. There is such a thing as charging too much, given that these books are not actually so good that they cause one’s head to explode with insight into the history of modern philosophy. So I am going to put these particular books on reserve in the library, and recommend them to my students as resources, but I am re-doing my syllabus in protest at absurd pricing. So there. Oxford UP has lost a course adoption – the holy grail of textbook publishing. Let that be a lesson to you.

So: what are some other good secondary texts on the History of Modern Philosophy, suitable for lower level undergraduate teaching? In the past I have not exactly enjoyed teaching History of Modern, because (in my purity and love of the Truth) I chafe at the potted, Clash of the Titans, rationalists-versus-empiricists, with Descartes and Kant standing at the ends, storyline. It’s Hegel’s fault we have this story, and it’s not as though we believe anything else Hegel taught us, so I don’t see why I should have to start now. But seriously … [click to continue…]

From the files: where in the world?

by Michael Bérubé on November 23, 2009

I was cleaning out the files the other day — not the files in my office file cabinets (I did that in August for the first time in years, and let me tell you, it was so much fun I kept it up for days), but the files in my trusty little laptop, the very device on which I write these words today.  I have three five-drawer file cabinets in my office, full to bursting with the records of class preparations, former graduate students, essays assigned in faculty reading groups, tenure and promotion reviews, offprints and copies of old essays, book contracts, and so forth.  Cleaning out files is, of course, the least rewarding kind of office- and life-maintenance, because when you’re done everything looks pretty much the way it did when you started — which is why you dumped all that extraneous crap in your file cabinets in the first place, to get it out of sight.  The only interesting thing I learned, in the course of winnowing through (or wallowing in) all that paper was that my course records start to go paperless somewhere around 1995.  I always kept my students’ grades (and my responses to their papers) on Ye Olde Computers, all the way back to 1986 when I was TAing the History of English Literature course at the University of Virginia and working on a Leading Edge knockoff with the floppy disks.  But beginning in the mid-90s, almost <i>all</i> my course materials disappear from the file cabinets and appear instead on … well, a series of hard drives leading to the very device on which I write these words today.  So I realized, diligent recordkeeper that I am, that I should have a look at those files as well, particularly the one called “miscellaneous,” which now holds something like five hundred documents.

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Why Did the Modernists Love Sans Serif?

by John Holbo on November 22, 2009

This post is going to have it all: comics, fonts, broadbrush high-lowbrow cultural opinionation, curiously reasonably priced British TV.

We’ll start with fonts. Why did the modernists go ga-ga for sans serif? Take Tschichold, my recent subject of study. Early in his career, he dogmatizes that there is something technically obligatory, inherently suited to the Engineering Age, about sanserif type. What induced him to make such an implausibly strong claim, and induced others to buy it, was somehow a tremendous aesthetic impulse in this direction. This felt so necessary. Human beings aren’t skeptical of arguments that give them exactly what they want, so bad arguments are often most interesting as indices of desire. But what was the Big Deal with filing down all the little pointy bits, all of a sudden? [click to continue…]

A vaguely passive-aggressive post on commenters

by Chris Bertram on November 22, 2009

Ten types of commenter, of which the last are the rarest.

  1. The commenter who has not read the post properly, decides they know what it says anyway, and fires off a series of disgusted observations.

  2. Commenter who applies the most uncharitable possible interpretation to the post, and goes straight into rant mode.

  3. The commenter who takes the opportunity to make some sarcastic remarks highlighting his (99% of cases are male) own superior scholarship/intelligence and damning the CT author. “If only Chris has read the second treatise of Heinrich von Pumpkin in the original German, he’d be aware ….”

  4. The commenter who uses every comment as a peg on which to hang his (yes, “his”) own obsessions about, e.g. analytical philosophy, populism, Palestine, etc

  5. The commenter who simply wants to make nasty personal remarks about the CT author, often about female members of the collective, often using an alias.

  6. The commenter with a sense of grievance against CT following their treatment in some comment thread back in 2004.

  7. The commenter who notices that a CT author said P in 2005 and not-P in 2008, and who gives every impression of compiling an archive of such contradictions.

  8. The commenter who has posted in the thread in error, and angrily denounces literary theory in a discussion of Irish cuisine.

  9. The spambot.

  10. The commenter who reads what we write, tries to have a conversation, is occasionally appreciative, points out mistakes helpfully rather than as “gotchas”, brings their own knowledge to the table.

Consequentialism, compassion and confidence

by John Q on November 21, 2009

I’m finally collecting my thoughts in response to Chris’ post on Consequentialism and Communism, particularly this remark imputing to consequentialists in general

the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals

that characterized the Bolsheviks and their successors.

As regards willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals, I think this is an unfair criticism of consequentialists. Look at any of the standard anti-consequentialist philosophical examples – trolley car, organ bank, survival lottery, violinist and so on. It’s always the hard-nosed consequentialist who is supposed to want to save as many lives as possible, and the noble anti-consequentialist who proposes to sacrifice individual lives for “valuable goals” such as clean hands, natural rights and bodily integrity.
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European Politics Update

by Henry Farrell on November 20, 2009

So as “Ingrid notes”:, EU member states have chosen Von Rompuy as the new President of the European Council. To use the terms that Euro-politicians have themselves been using (which were nicked, presumably by Brian Cowen, from the title of a political science text on Irish Taoisigh), they have decided to go for a chairman – someone with a low international profile who is good at conciliating warring factions – rather than a chief. I have no doubt that Von Rompuy will do very good work, but he surely will not be a colossus bestriding the world stage, banging the heads of Sarkozy, Merkel and Brown together to force them to agree common European policy and so on. This means, I think, that the interesting stuff will be happening at the level of the foreign policy representative, Baroness Ashton. This too is unlikely to be a high profile post in the short term – but unlike Von Rompuy, Ashton will have a very substantial set of bureaucratic resources to draw upon, with links both to the Council and Commission, as well as her own European External Action Service, which will have an independent budget line. This could add up to something pretty interesting in a few years time. (Update: via Matt Y. “Annie Lowrey”: makes more or less the same point).

Turning to _real_ European politics, “the”: “crisis”: “continues”: but looks set to come to no good outcome. FIFA shows no interest in scheduling a rematch, despite Thierry Henry’s statement that a rematch would be the fairest option. Those involved seem determined to do a _reductio ad absurdum_ on Richard Posner’s “arguments about responsibility”: French footballers (and – judging from Trappatoni’s discreet circumlocutions – perhaps Irish footballers too) clearly feel that it is their obligation to push the rules as far as they can go and further – and if the referee doesn’t spot the odd match-and-qualifying-round-determining handball here or there; well, the culprit has no obligation to seek anything but his own advantage, and anyway, it all balances out in the end, doesn’t it? “Incompetent”: “regulators”: shrug their shoulders and refuse to take any responsibility for the mess. And Irish and French politicians deplore the outcome – but declare themselves powerless to do anything about it. Whether this spells out a possible case for world government to prevent such atrocities occurring in the future, I leave to the theorists. However, I don’t think anyone can deny that the end result is manifestly contrary to even the most minimal principles of justice, fairness and efficiency, completely exploding Posner’s arguments in the eyes of all fairminded individuals.

So the news is spreading that the Belgian PM, Herman Van Rompuy, would be the first president of the EU. I am not going to comment on what that means for the EU now. It’s after nine in the evening here, and I’m preparing my teaching for tomorrow morning (and for reasons I need not disclose in this post, I need my time to prepare).

But despite time shortage, one thing I am happy to throw in cyberspace is a prediction that this will not be good for Belgium. Not a very hard-to-make prediction indeed. In the last years I’ve blogged here, once in a while, on the political instability of Belgian politics, indeed perhaps even the instability of the very future of Belgium; and Van Rompuy seemed to have been the only one able to bring calm back, and at least lead a more-or-less functioning government. His professional skills and talents in making compromises in extremely difficult situations will certainly be very useful in Babylonian Europe; but who will rescue Belgium? How long will it take for the Belgian government to have a new PM, and is there anyone to be found with the same authority that Van Rompuy has been able to command? Tonight Belgium will celebrate that this little country has been able to achieve something powerful, but tomorrow it will wake up with headackes…

Bookblogging: What next for macroeconomics ?

by John Q on November 19, 2009

It’s been slow going, but I’ve finally finished the draft chapter of my book-in-progress that looks forward to a new research program for macroeconomics, an absurdly ambitious task, but one that needs to be tackled. Of course, what I’ve written isn’t fundamentally new – it’s a distillation of points that Old Keynesians, post-Keynesians and some behavioral economists have been putting forward for a while. But I hope I’ve got some positive contribution to make. More than ever, comments are much appreciated.

Update In response to comments, I’ve fairly substantially revised the section on “avoiding stagflation”. While I don’t back away from the points I made previously, I took for granted some things that I’d mentioned in other places in the book. The result made for a fairly unbalanced treatment with an excessive focus on the role of labor militancy. I’ve now tried to put this into proper context. I don’t expect that will satisfy everybody, but this is closer to what I meant to say all along.End update
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Risk Pollution, Market Failure & Social Justice

by John Holbo on November 19, 2009

I just listened to an EconTalk podcast interview with Richard Posner about his new book, A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 and the Descent into Depression [amazon]. The book has gotten a bit of buzz for the way in which Posner semi-recants certain libertarian or Chicago-style economics positions he is known for. But certain other positions he has not recanted, such as his narrow view of economic actors’ duties to consider negative externalities of their activities (discussed at CT before here and here). In the podcast, Posner basically asserts that those actors in the financial sector who almost crashed the world economy were right to do so, in the sense that it was rational for them, individually, to be massive ‘risk polluters’ (to coin a phrase someone else has probably coined already.) He would probably go further, although he isn’t actually asked to in the podcast: some of these actors were obliged to take the risk. In at least some cases it would have been their strong, positive fiduciary duty, under the circumstances, to do something which – taking a larger view – seriously threatened to run the whole world economy off a cliff. Because that was the apparent route of profit-maximization. It was their job not to take the larger view. Posner blames regulators, not these profit-maximizing actors, for the market failure; for not seeing that the damage to everyone downwind of all that toxic risk was so great that it should not have been permitted. [click to continue…]

Sarah Palin, Postmodernist

by Henry Farrell on November 18, 2009

bq. I’m not sure what Sarah Palin’s favorite work of postmodern theory might be (all of them, probably) but she seems to take her lead from Jean Baudrillard’s _Seduction._ Other political figures use the media as part of what JB calls “production.” That is, they generate signs and images meant to create an effect within politics. For the Baudrillardian “seducer,” by contrast, the power to create fascination is its own reward.

More from Scott, “here”:

The Political Economy of Trust

by Henry Farrell on November 18, 2009

Book cover

[self-promotion]My first book is out from Cambridge (and has been for a few weeks). Entitled _The Political Economy of Trust: Interests, Institutions and Inter-Firm Cooperation in Italy and Germany_, it sets out a rational choice account of how institutions affect the ways in which people do or do not trust each other, and applies it to explain cooperation among firms in Italy and Germany, as the title suggests, as well as among Sicilian mafiosi. I received some help from CT readers on Sicilian dialect, which is duly acknowledged in the book itself. I’ve set up a basic website for the book at “”: with information, blurbs and the book’s introductory chapter. The book is an academic hardback, and hence not cheap, but those with (a) an interest in the topic, and (b) a research budget/substantial discretionary income, or (c ) a friendly institutional librarian are warmly encouraged to take all appropriate steps (if it sells well, it will then go into paperback). If you order “directly through Cambridge”: before the end of the year, you can use the discount code E09FARRELL which will get you 20% off the book, and indeed any other purchases you make (as far as I can make out, this is the cheapest source). Alternatively, you can buy it at “Powells”:, “Amazon”:, “Barnes and Noble”: or “Amazon UK”: And if you do read it, comments, rejoinders etc are all warmly welcomed.[/self-promotion]

Let’s Have A Post About Fonts!

by John Holbo on November 16, 2009

Even Kevin Drum is getting into the game, reading this NY Times piece about type purists. [click to continue…]