From the monthly archives:

January 2010

Sally Mann, uncertainty and the collodion process

by Chris Bertram on January 21, 2010

A bit of mindless surfing had me looking at the execrable Instapundit for the first time in ages … but there was actually something interesting there: a link to Sally Mann, talking about memory, uncertainty and the collodion process. Those 19th-century photographers who managed to produce near-flawless images using the process were really something.

European conservatism

by Henry Farrell on January 19, 2010

This “NYT article”: on Germany is a useful book-end to the discussion on diversity of European models etc.

NEUÖTTING, GERMANY — Manuela Maier was branded a bad mother. A Rabenmutter, or raven mother, after the black bird that pushes chicks out of the nest. She was ostracized by other mothers, berated by neighbors and family, and screamed at in a local store.

She felt ostracized after signing up her 9-year-old for lunch and afternoon classess — and then returning to work. “I was told: ‘Why do you have children if you can’t take care of them?’” she said. Her crime? Signing up her 9-year-old son when the local primary school first offered lunch and afternoon classes last autumn — and returning to work. … Ten years into the 21st century, most schools in Germany still end at lunchtime, a tradition that dates back nearly 250 years. … Ten years into the 21st century, most schools in Germany still end at lunchtime, a tradition that dates back nearly 250 years. … For several mothers, their great-grandmothers’ maxim, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” — children, kitchen, church — holds true, even if, as Mr. Haugeneder says, “increasingly it is a way of life people can’t afford.”

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Bookblogging: The end

by John Q on January 18, 2010

Over the fold, the conclusion of my book, with Release Candidate title “Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us”. I plan a proper post on the whole bookblogging experience, but until then, I’ll thank everyone who’s commented, or just read this exercise with interest and make one (maybe) last request for help. Can anyone recommend a book on Thatcher’s economic reforms that would be a good suggestion for further reading? I’m currently suggesting Anderew Glyn’s Capitalism Unleashed, but I’d like to add something from a centrist or Thatcherite perspective, as long as it’s readable and not too objectionable for words.

There’s a near-complete draft of the whole book here.

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My bet with Bryan Caplan

by John Q on January 16, 2010

Since Europe-US comparisons are in the air again, it seems like a good time to report on the first year of my bet with Bryan Caplan, the terms of which are

The stake is $US100 and the agreed criterion is that, for Bryan to win, the average Eurostat harmonised unemployment rate for the EU-15 over the period 2009-18 inclusive should exceed that for the US by at least 1.5 percentage points

The relevant figures are at Eurostat and, with December still to come in, I estimate that the EU-15 rate will be 0.3 percentage points below that for the US for 2009, so that I beat the spread by 1.8 percentage points.
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I’m still working on the follow-up to my Descartes post, to which comments have been good and useful. I’ll plug the gap with a passage from the Dan Garber book I mentioned before, Descartes Embodied (good book.) I’ve never read much Francis Bacon (I don’t teach him); and in particular I haven’t read New Atlantis, which I know is his science fiction utopia (you’d think I would have gotten around to reading such a thing). Garber summarizes the organizational structure for the House of Saloman, which is apparently New Atlantis’ League of Extraordinarily Scientific Gentlemen. The job titles are pretty much turned all the way up to Awesome.

At the bottom of the organization are those who form the tables of natural history, a total of twenty-four investigators. Twelve “Merchants of Light” “sail into foreign countries under the names of other nations … [and] bring us the books and abstracts, and patterns of experiments of all other parts.” Three “Depredators” collect experiments from books three “Mystery-men” collect experiments from mechanical arts and liberal sciences, and three “Pioneers or Miners” try new experiments of their own devising. They are joined by three “Compilers,” who arrange these observations and experiments into proper tables. Twelve workers are employed at the next stage of the enterprise. Three “dowry-men or Benefactors” examine the initial tables compiled by the Compilers and draw out both technological applications and the first theoretical conclusions that can be drawn from the tables, presumably what Bacon calls the first vintage in the Novum organum. Three “Lamps” as he calls them, then draw new experiments out of the work of the Compilers and Benefactors, which experiments are them performed by three “Inoculators.” And finally, “we have three that raise the form discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorisms. These we call Interpreters of Nature.”

I think someone really ought to write an SF thriller in which the science heroes of New Atlantis have to race against time to compile the proper Baconian tables that will allow them to understand and technologically defeat the invading Martians. Or something.

Perhaps Adam Roberts will consent to show up in comments and tell us whether New Atlantis is actually as fun to read as it sounds.

Is There an European Economic Model?

by Henry Farrell on January 15, 2010

There’s been a fair amount of “debate”: around “Jim Manzi’s recent piece”: on the differences between Europe and the US. I contributed a bit myself in the Bloggingheads with Dan Drezner linked above (with discussion of Iceland, Stephen Cohen and Brad DeLong’s recent book, and other stuff too). In this wrap-up reply to his critics, Manzi maintains that some of the criticisms that have been made by e.g. Paul Krugman are flat out wrong (Paul seems to have misattributed the data series that he was using), while saying that he was not in fact setting out to prove empirically that European style welfare redistribution systems limit innovation and growth (if I understand him correctly, he still believes this to be true, but doesn’t claim that the figures he adduces show it). As he notes, he is actively advocating that the US turn to redistribution – but is also claiming that there are trade-offs involved. I should also note that I’ve met him a few times, and always found him to be a straightforward, decent and, fwiw, mildly Europhilic guy (with whom I disagree, obviously, on multitudes of things). But as per my original Bloggingheads, I am dissatisfied with one of the most basic claims of the argument – that there is a distinct “European model,” followed by all states within Europe, which can readily be distinguished from the American approach. This is a claim that you sometimes see on “both left and right”: – but it is one that I think is very wrong indeed.
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History is the Devil’s Scripture

by Scott McLemee on January 15, 2010

One hesitates to refer to the rational kernel in any statement coming from Pat Robertson, of course. But his recent venture into explaining the earthquake in Haiti does contain a small, heavily distorted, yet recognizable fragment of historical reality.

That kernel has passed through his system without giving him any nourishment, but I’ll try to pluck it out of all the batshit craziness.
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Bookblogging – nearly done!

by John Q on January 15, 2010

I sent off the draft MS of my Zombie Economics book to the publisher last week, but there is still time for improvement. Over the fold is the second, and final part of the privatization chapter.

You can read most of the book (not always the final draft) at my wikidot site.

As always, comments and criticism much appreciated.

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Helping Haitians

by Henry Farrell on January 15, 2010

“Chris Blattman”: passes on a suggestion (for American readers).

Giving money to Haiti doesn’t seem like enough? Katmanda have another suggestion: grant Haitians Temporary Protected Status.

TPS is a form of temporary humanitarian immigration relief given to nationals of countries that have suffered severe disasters, natural or man-made. (For example, El Salvador got TPS was after the country was hit by a terrible earthquake in 2001, Honduras after Hurricane Mitch in 1999, and Burundi, Liberia, Sudan, and Somalia were designated because of ongoing armed conflicts.)

Once a country has been given TPS, its nationals who are in the United States can apply for work authorization (a very useful thing to have if, say, one needs to send money home to family members in need of medical care or a house that has not been reduced to rubble), can’t be deported or put into immigration detention (also quite handy if you’re trying to work and send money home), and can apply for travel authorization, which allows them to visit their home country and return to the US, even if they wouldn’t otherwise have a visa that would allow them back into the country (incredibly important if you have loved ones who have been badly hurt and need to visit them, or if you need to go home to attend funerals).

To support TPS, contact the White House “here”: You’ll need to select “I have a policy comment”, and “Immigration” from the drop-down menu.

A friend alerts me to <a href=””>this recent item</a> in Lisa Belkin’s <i>NYT</i> “Motherlode” blog:

<blockquote><b>Should Down Syndrome Be Cured?</b>

The <a href=””>guest post</a> here on Friday — about the birth of Cash Van Rowe during a blizzard, and the jolting news that he had Down syndrome — led many of you to leave comments for his parents, assuring them that the road ahead was a journey they would cherish.

But what if Cash’s Down syndrome could be cured — or, more precisely, be mitigated?

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That joke isn’t funny anymore

by Henry Farrell on January 13, 2010

I’ve lost my appetite for making fun of “Charles Rowley’s blog”:

Descent Into Tyranny?

… If the very idea of such an invasion of your liberty enrages you, as it should enrage any man who values his liberty, then think very carefully about the health care legislation that Congress is now poised to enact and that President Obama is panting to sign into law: …

By requiring Americans to use their own money to purchase a particular good or service, Congress would be doing exactly what the court said that it could not do.” Orrin G. Hatch, Kenneth Blackwell and Kenneth A. Klukowski, ‘Why the Health-Care Bills are Unconstitutional’, Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2010.

The authors are surely too kind to Congress and the President. This intervention is not just unconstitutional. It is a greater act of tyranny than King George III ever envisaged. And he lost his beloved colonies for much lesser transgressions.

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” Thomas Jefferson, November 13, 1787.

Descartes’ Meditations is one of the more frequently assigned primary texts from the whole history of philosophy. And yet it’s a screwy old thing: supposed to inaugurate Modern Philosophy (a.k.a. European philosophy from the 17th to 19th Century, givertake). But tangled up with medieval philosophy notions and heavily dusted with contents of the dustbin of history of science (no matter how hard you try to keep it clean). So how to teach it?

This is probably typical of texts that have ‘the x that started all the y’ status. (The first Romantics are the last people you would ask what ‘Romanticism’ means.) If Descartes is the Father of Modern Philosophy, for that very reason he is probably the last modern philosopher you should quiz about what ‘Modern Philosophy’ is – the kids weren’t even born yet. But seeing that this is natural, in such a case, doesn’t make it comfortable. Thinking about how far you have to cast the historical net, a healthy anti-historicist impulse kicks in. We have a course to teach. If you can’t bounce off into the moderns without getting bogged down in the medievals … Also, the history of science is interesting, but the history of modern philosophy is supposed to be a basic, core offering in the philosophy department. If the course shapes up like a land war in Asia, false 17th Century physics-wise …

Maybe we should stop thinking Descartes’s Meditations is a good text to start the kiddies on?

We press on, in historicist fashion, because we have an exit strategy. (Trust us. We’re professional philosophers.) I’m going to assume you already sort of know your Descartes. I’m sketching effective, vivid ways to conjure up the background fairly briefly, while keeping up the teaching pace.

But that’s boring (you object)! Quite likely. What do you think of the new Vampire Weekend album, Contra? After a couple listens, I’m liking it less well than this Pitchfork reviewer. “Vampire Weekend’s second album starts with “Horchata”, ostensibly a punching bag for people who didn’t like their first one.” I loved the first album, and I cringed at “Horchata”, which seems like thin retread. But things pick up and up. I love the last track, “I Think Ur a Contra”, which has a surprisingly satisfactory Radiohead-y-ness. Not that sounding like Radiohead is automatically a good thing! It’s not a terribly original thing to do at this point. But, listening to that last track, I think an album of Radiohead/Vampire Weekend mash-ups would be tons of fun. The bands are so stylistically different, and the mood is poles apart, yet both vocalists work the high thin, sliding around thing.

Right, back to Descartes. I like to start my students out with a funny passage from the John Barth novel, The Sot-Weed Factor: [click to continue…]

Best of 2009

by Henry Farrell on January 11, 2010

Two very different things that impressed me in 2009: [click to continue…]

This is Just To Say (Cat plus Spinoza edition)

by John Holbo on January 9, 2010

I have been remiss in my posting duties! Ah well. Moving house (very nice, thank you.) Latest exciting event: the 8-year old brought home the class pet for the weekend. Class pets are not, I’ll wage, especially long-lived entities on average. Still, I can’t help feeling extremely guilty. Smallspice, our cat, is apparently an efficient disposer of turtles. We have not found the body. I suppose it could be an alien abuction. All evidence at the crime scene (there is surprisingly little) points to the cat. I have seen fit to pen a confession on her behalf. (No, I don’t think Photoshopping suspects into the crime scene constitutes evidence either. That’s not the point.) [click to continue…]

We are all Melmottes now

by John Q on January 9, 2010

Hot/cold on the heels of Iceland’s quasi-default, the Roger Lowenstein in the NY Times urges underwater/negative equity homeowners to “Walk Away From Your Mortgage!”. . Lowenstein’s key point is that businesses (including those owned or controlled by the banks themselves) treat default as a straightforward business decision, to be adopted whenever it is profitable to do so. Lowenstein gives a number of examples where leading banks like (inevitably) Goldman Sachs have engaged in strategic default and urges his readers to do likewise. The piece is in a section headed “The Way We Live Now” and it’s striking that it’s taken more than 100 years for the business ethics of Augustus Melmotte to percolate through to the American middle class

To be fair, it’s only in the last thirty years or so that such ethics have become dominant in the corporate sector, to the point where a board that rejected profitable opportunities to stiff their creditors would now be regarded as having violated its fiduciary obligations to shareholders (particularly if the creditors are workers). And despite all the talk about shareholder value, a CEO who passed up opportunities for personal enrichment at the expense of shareholders would be regarded by his or her fellows as a mug.

Millions have defaulted already – (one in eight mortgages is currently in arrears). Bankruptcy is once again as common as divorce. When defaulting on debt is this common, it is hard to sustain any sort of social stigma or internalised notion that this is anything other than a financial option, like refinancing an existing loan. And, as with divorce, we must soon be reaching the point where most people who take out loans will do so in the knowledge that default is an option.

The question is – can the consumer credit system survive this? Probably it can, but the system will need some radical changes. It’s worked for several decades on the basis of creditworthiness criteria that work on the assumption that (nearly) everyone will repay their debts if they can. Until recently, the checks could also rely on the assumption that people would be more-or-less honest in the information they provided in their applications. The financial system, by promoting ‘liar loans’ colluded in the destruction of the second assumption, and by leading the way in strategic default, helped to destroy the first.

The problem for lenders now is that they will increasingly have to act on the assumption that their borrowers (including those who appear creditworthy on the old standards) are planning, at a minimum, to use default as an insurance option. The only good way to protect against this is to demand lots of secure collateral. That means less liberal credit (and, given higher default rates, higher interest rates) for everyone and no credit at all for lots of us.