From the monthly archives:

February 2010

Matthew Yglesias says the necessary to talk people down from the ledge.

(Me? Last week I taught my students everything’s made of monads; mere universal holograms seem fairly ho-hum.)

But there is one point that should be made in these connections that almost never is: deception is a very different concept than error. Deception is a game for two: one to fool, one to be fooled. Whereas you can be wrong all by yourself. You can smudge the distinction with favorite epistemologist phrases like ‘if it turns out I am massively deceived about the way the world is …’ But if you dramatize the possibility of systematic/fundamental error by imagining deceiving demons, Evil Gods, Agent Smith, mad scientists with brain vats, caves equipped with the latest in projection technology, or giant holograms, you confuse people’s intuitions. Specifically, you confuse them into thinking that error is more conceivable (or differently conceivable) than it may really be. Telling people the universe is a hologram makes it sound as though the universe actually intends to pull the wool over their eyes. Reality itself is the ultimate Long Con! But if you just tell them matter is made of atoms, or water is really H20, that doesn’t make it sound as though the micro entities think all the macro-types with minds are marks and suckers. [click to continue…]

Good writing in political science

by Henry on February 17, 2010

Below is an essay that I wrote for my undergraduate class last semester, providing them with my (doubtless idiosyncratic) ideas about how to write good political science essays. It’s also available under a CC license in “PDF format”:, as well as “MultiMarkdown”: (its native format), “LaTeX”: and “RTF”: in case someone wants to play around with it (e.g. by adapting it for another discipline). Feel free to suggest improvements, point out grammatical errors or typos etc in comments, or indeed to comment generally on good and lousy writing in undergraduate papers.

UPDATE: some small improvements made and “Jottit version”: added.

[Cross posted to “The Monkey Cage”: ]
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What should Greece do?

by John Quiggin on February 16, 2010

There’s been a lot of discussion of the problems of Greek sovereign debt, its implications for the euro and so on. But I haven’t seen much discussion, from a standard national policy perspective, of what the Greek government should do in dealing with the simultaneous problems of an economic downturn and unsustainable debt (feel free to point me to good discussions).

The course of action being demanded by the bondholders and their advocates, as well as by the EU governments that are likely to bear the costs of a bailout is that of drastic retrenchment on the lines the IMF would normally advocate in cases of this kind. But that is obviously not a desirable policy response when considered in macroeconomic terms. I’m not well informed on the details of Greece’s budget problems, so I’m mostly going to make generic suggestions that are applicable to a case like this.
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In praise of the European Parliament

by Henry on February 16, 2010

Not wanting to keep on bashing the Economist‘s Charlemagne, who is actually one of my favourite bloggers/columnists,1 but this “piece”: on the sins of the European Parliament is a bit much. To summarize it a little unfairly, Charlemagne feels that the Parliament should really be less bolshie in its tedious efforts to try to increase its powers, and more bolshie about the really important stuff, like saving Brussels hacks five hour train rides cooped up with the _hoi polloi._ 2 I suspect that both Charlemagne and “Gideon Rachman’s hostility”: (I like Gideon a lot, too) to the Parliament comes from their internalization of the Economist‘s perception of the European Union as a technocratic exercise in market integration that would work very nicely if only the member states and specialists were left to run it in peace.

But the EU isn’t merely a “‘fairly impressive experiment in market liberalism.'”: There are lots of other things happening in the EU – most recently including lots of innovations in Justice and Home Affairs, some of them quite remarkably dubious. And it is here that the Parliament has recently proven its merits, by “decisively rejecting”: the EU’s proposed financial data-sharing deal with the US.

bq. the parliament felt, by a 378-196 margin with 31 abstentions, that the US guarantees to protect the privacy of EU citizens were inadequate. Mr Buzek said: “The majority view in the European parliament is that the correct balance between security . . . and the protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights . . . has not been achieved.”

Now it’s worth pointing out that the Parliament’s rejection was not entirely motivated by concerns over EU citizens’ privacy. By vetoing the deal, it’s signalling that the member states (and indeed the US) have to take its policy prerogatives seriously. The member states had tried to rush the deal through the day before Parliament got jurisdiction over Justice and Home Affairs issue, but managed to screw up the technicalities, with unfortunate consequences for transatlantic security relations, but rather better results for the privacy of EU citizens. There would have been a good chance that the deal would have gone down anyway, but it probably would not have gone down in flames.

Which brings us to the main point. Just as it isn’t because of the benevolence of the butcher or baker that we get our dinner, it’s often because of the _amour-propre_ and power-lust of politicians that we get a system that works. The desire of the Parliament for a voice in international justice and home affairs issues, and of individual MEPs for the limelight, means that Parliament is likely to be a highly awkward customer. With any luck, it will continue to prevent security officials on both sides of the Atlantic from reaching mutually convenient deals that are likely to seem rather less politically attractive when they are exposed to the rigors of a public vote by elected representatives. As there are more and more of these deals being cooked up in the EU and elsewhere (a whole world of information sharing arrangements, some justifiable, some not so justifiable, but few exposed to processes of public justification,3 this would be a good thing. MEPs are surely as venal as the next bunch of politicians, but without the Parliament, there would be next to no public debate of these deals, let alone any possibility of vetoing them. It would be nice to see Economist type liberals (who care, I have no doubt about civil liberties, as well as market freedoms) acknowledging this every once in a while.

1Although I may still have one more bout of impertinence in me, depending.

2 Technically, this should really be “cooped up with hoi polloi” since ‘hoi’ is a definite article, but I’m not _that_ much of an arse.

3 The sad yet instructive tale of how the UK “came to adopt the Treaty of Prüm”: being one counter-example where public exposure of the various shenanigans did diddly-squat to prevent it going through. Then, perhaps if it had gotten public traction in the Parliament as well as the House of Lords, it might have gone differently.


by Chris Bertram on February 15, 2010

The policy rumblings before the British general election include an emphasis on the “mutualization” of public services.

James Macintyre in the New Statesman on Labour’s ideas for changing how public services get provided:

bq. … strategists have settled on a big idea that might just help answer all three of those challenges – the idea of mutualism. Labour is focusing on the best-known modern example: the John Lewis model, in which every employee is a “partner” with a stake in the company. Applying this, Labour now believes public bodies can be part-owned by their staff and, where appropriate, their users.

Robert Peston, 15th of February on the BBC website under the headline “The John Lewis State”: :

bq. The Tory proposal for core public services to be owned and managed by “employee-owned” co-operatives contains a number of ideas rolled into one. The two most important are: 1) organisations perform better where staff have a direct financial stake in their success or failure; 2) the role of the state should be limited to providing funds and monitoring outcomes. This is not an example of Tory conversion to late 19th Century co-op socialism. Although the public-sector co-ops would be “not-for-profit” in the narrow sense of not being able to bring in outside capital that could receive dividends, staff would be able to get their mits on the “financial surplus” they generate. So the central idea is that primary schools or JobCentre Plus offices or community nursing teams would become much more productive if teachers, or job advisers or nurses knew that they would become richer from achieving more out of less.

Now I’m all in favour of mutuals, cooperatives, and so on (I wouldn’t have admired the late Colin Ward if I wasn’t), but this doesn’t sound like that. There seem to be two possibilities: either the mutuals have independent sources of funding or they don’t. If they don’t then the year that some happy band of teachers makes a profit by realizing “efficiency gains” is the year before the state cuts back its stipend, leaving them running around trying to repeat the trick with less the following year (and so on). If they do or can have independent sources of finance, then we also get progressive cutting back of state support whilst public sector employees run around chasing “opportunities”, devising ways of charging people for “premium” versions of the basic service, etc. And we can add into the mix the temptation that civil servants will have to write contracts for the mutuals that exercise massive control over the detail of what they do whilst leaving all the responsibility for failure with the co-op members. In fact, all of thus sound a lot less like a “John Lewis” state than a state modelled on the British university system. Good to know we’ll have a choice at the next election.

More guns, less curriculum revision

by Michael Bérubé on February 15, 2010

<a href=””>The point that must not go unacknowledged</a> is that there is no way University of Alabama- Huntsville students can feel safe on campus until professors are permitted to bring guns to faculty meetings.  Apparently, <a href=””>David Beito agrees.</a>

Well, thank goodness somebody’s finally thinking about the children.

In reality, the question of whether professors should bring their .45s and glock nines to faculty meetings has very little bearing on student safety.  But it would definitely raise the stakes for the discussion of whether to revise the Literature Before 1800 requirement of the English major.

<a href=””>h/t</a>.

UPDATE:   via <a href=””>Instapundit</a>:  <a href=”″>Reader Christopher Johnson writes</a>: “I’m guessing the ‘she’s a human’ part won’t get talked about much in the MSM. But if she had been a District 9 alien it’d lead every evening news cast for two months.”

Colin Ward has died

by Chris Bertram on February 14, 2010

Colin Ward, one of the most interesting anarchist writers of modern times, has died. Stuart White has a fine appreciation over at Next Left.

Et Dona Ferentes

by Henry on February 13, 2010

The _Economist’s_ Charlemagne “argues”: that any Greek bailout will have no long term implications for EU integration.

bq. THERE has been a lot of commentary, in the past couple of days, to the effect that Europe is on the brink of a great leap forward in political and economic integration. The theory goes: a bail-out of Greece, accompanied by intrusive monitoring by Eurocrats, would constitute an unprecedented level of EU interference in the fiscal affairs of a member country. … Paul Krugman … finds that logic dictates a swift move towards integration. … I fear I do not agree. Or rather, I think the siren lure of economic logic is blinding a lot of people to the political realities of this crisis. … I have watched the direction of EU travel head firmly away from closer federal integration, and towards a messy sort of intergovernmentalism … I don’t think a Greek default is a big enough crisis to change the political weather in the EU … cannot get that excited about intrusive, monthly monitoring of Greek government spending by officials from the European Commission and European Central Bank, matched by close scrutiny of Greece’s notoriously dodgy statistics by officials from Eurostat. … new territory for the EU … but the International Monetary Fund has been doing this kind of stuff for years. And nobody thinks that when the IMF meddles in the fiscal sovereignty of a country, it means that world government is about to break out …

bq. bailing out Greece is already proving so politically painful for leaders like Mrs Merkel that she would not tolerate any discussion of how such a bailout might take place … a message to voters in rich countries like Germany: do not fear, we are not about to establish a systematic series of transfers to countries in the euro zone … this stuff is toxic politics. … a golden lesson of politics is: political leaders only do really hard and painful things when they absolutely have to. Until then, they would much rather fudge things. … the prospect of a messy, ad-hoc fudge of a bail-out for Greece. … countries … like … Poland … likely to take it rather badly if future convergence flows are diverted away from them, and back to countries that have wasted so much EU cash like Greece … Add to that that newcomers outside the euro zone, like Hungary or Latvia have had to endure horrible austerity programmes in the last two years under IMF supervision, while countries inside the euro zone are to be spared IMF programmes.

But does this really amount to a proper counter-argument? I don’t see any real disagreement here with the basic propositions that (a) EMU isn’t working as it stands, and (b) that the only sustainable equilibrium outcomes here are complete collapse or regearing to allow substantial fiscal transfers (and, insofar as they will do any good, labour market reforms to make increased mobility easier). Saying that politicians will want to muddle through is stating the obvious – but the point is that muddling through is not a sustainable long term strategy. Either the muddling through will be insufficient, in which case EMU will finally succumb to one of the succession of crises that will almost certainly result, or it will be sufficient, in which case it will serve as the basis for a long term shift in the economic governance of the Eurozone towards coordinated fiscal policies and some degree of fiscal transfers in times of crisis, and perhaps more than that. As Adrienne Heritier and I have “argued”:, muddled looking informal deals very often lay the foundations for long term formal institutional changes in the EU.

Finally, the analogy to the IMF doesn’t really work at all. The IMF is not a notably clubby institution, and is particularly unclubby from the perspective of those countries unfortunate enough to need to seek its aid. The EU is quite clubby indeed (Greece will remain on the Council, and in the various eurozone coordination forums), so that whatever the final outcome, it will surely give rise to a lengthy decision making process involving the target countries, those giving aid, and those on the sidelines. This will almost certainly culminate in a set of general institutional mechanisms which applies to all the eurozone countries, including both those countries at risk of default _and_ those which are highly unlikely to get into trouble. That’s the way that the EU works – and this will be a quite significant step towards further integration. Of course – the rescue effort may fail (for example, Germany and Greece’s current spat may reflect irreconcilable political differences) – but if it does fail, so too will the euro project.

One here, but there must be many more. (Hat Tip my friend Matt who found it at Marginal Revolution). They don’t get the concept quite right, of course. But who cares?

ICANN Nairobi; relocation, relocation?

by Maria on February 12, 2010

Although I no longer work for ICANN, I’d planned on attending its meeting in Nairobi next month to meet old friends and drum up some work for my new consulting business. The Nairobi meeting is scheduled to run from 7-12 March. The biggest issue on the table is a crucial stage in the addition of new top level domains; the vote by the Board on how to handle expressions of interest. But in the last 24 hours, ICANN’s COO, Doug Brent, has published a security warning that may result in the meeting being cancelled.

If this happens, it will be a real blow for the Kenyan Internet community. A previously planned meeting in Nairobi was cancelled because of security concerns prompted by election violence a couple of years ago. I thought this was the wrong call at the time, as election violence tends to die down and our meeting wasn’t till several months later. But I didn’t question and don’t envy the people who have to make that decision.
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Climategate revisited

by John Quiggin on February 11, 2010

Now that the main charges of scientific misconduct arising from the hacking of the University of East Anglia email system have been proven false, it’s possible to get a reasonably clear idea of what actually happened here. For once the widely used “X-gate” terminology is appropriate. As with Watergate, the central incident was a “third-rate burglary” conducted as part of a campaign of overt and covert harassment directed against political opponents and rewarded (at least in the short run) with political success.

The core of the campaign is a network of professional lobbyists, rightwing activists and politicians, tame journalists and a handful of scientists (including some at the University of East Anglia itself) who present themselves as independent seekers after truth, but are actually in regular contact to co-ordinate their actions and talking points. The main mechanism of harassment was the misuse of Freedom of Information requests in an effort to disrupt the work of scientists, trap them into failures of compliance, and extract information that could be misrepresented as evidence of scientific misconduct. This is a long-standing tactic in the rightwing War on Science, reflected in such Orwellian pieces of legislation as the US “Data Quality Act”.

The hacking was almost certainly done by someone within the campaign, but in a way that maintained (in Watergate terminology) “plausible deniability” for the principals. Regardless of what they knew (and when they knew it) about the actual theft, the leading figures in the campaign worked together to maximize the impact of the stolen emails, and to co-ordinate the bogus claims of scientific misconduct based on the sinister interpretations placed on such phrases as “trick” and “hide the decline”.

The final group of actors in all this were the mass audience of self-described “sceptics”. With few exceptions (in fact, none of whom I am aware), members of this group have lost their moral bearings sufficiently that they were not worried at all by the crime of dishonesty involved in the hacking attack. Equally importantly, they have lost their intellectual bearings to the point where they did not reflect that the kind of person who would mount such an attack, or seek to benefit from it, would not scruple to deceive a gullible audience as to the content of the material they had stolen. The members of this group swallowed and regurgitated the claims of fraud centred on words like “trick”. By the time the imposture was exposed, they had moved on to the next spurious talking point fed to them by the rightwing spin machine.

To keep all this short and comprehensible, I haven’t given lots of links. Most of the points above are have been on the public record for some time (there’s a timeline here), but a few have only come to light more recently. These Guardian story brings us up to date, and names quite a few of the key players (see also here). For the role of allegedly independent journalists in all this, see Tim Lambert’s Deltoid site (search for “Rosegate” and “Leakegate”).

Update I should have mentioned that much the same team had their first outing in the controversy over the Mann et al “hockey stick” graph. All the same elements were there – supposedly disinterested citizen researchers who were in fact paid rightwing operatives, misuse of accountability procedures, and exceptional gullibility on the part of the “sceptical” mass audience. Details are here (h/t John Mashey).


by Henry on February 10, 2010

Most of our readers who are philosophers will likely be aware of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s ongoing _contretemps._ As the Irish Times “summarizes the affair:”:

bq. In his latest title, Lévy launches a scathing attack on the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”. In framing his case, Lévy – BHL to the Parisian cognoscenti – drew on the writings of the little-known 20th century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul – author of The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant , and a man Lévy has cited in lectures. The problem? Botul never existed. He was invented by a journalist from the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné 10 years ago as an elaborate joke. And since the hoax was revealed, BHL has become a laughing stock.

Scott McLemee, recently accused in these here comments sections of disgusting anti-French-playboy-philosopher-bias for his previous writings on BHL, has the lowdown on this sublime and funky work of scholarship “here”:

bq. A friend who has read _La vie sexuelle_ tells me that the author’s tongue is very conspicuously in his cheek. That BHL cited it as a serious work of scholarship would strongly suggest that he has an employee or two toiling in the erudition mines for him. If so, it is an interesting question whether the person who actually read Botul misunderstood the nature of the book — or passed along the citation as an act of sabotage. Either way, it seems like a fireable offense. (Of course, nothing like that ever happens in the academic world.)

I wondered the same thing myself when I first read about this. When we see BHL’s name on a book, are we to understand it as a brand, rather like Damien Hirst’s signature on ‘his’ spot paintings? Perhaps we can expect an authentication committee “with all the accompanying controversy”: to begin its work after his eventual demise? Or did he indeed write all or most of it himself? There’s much entertaining speculation to be had. Readers should also betake themselves to Scott’s earlier pieces for “Inside Higher Ed”: and “The Nation”: (the _Nation_ piece is a small masterpiece of the ‘the victim pinned and struggling on the wall’ genre; the IHE article has some very astute judgments from Arthur Goldhammer).

The Curtis-Nighy Tobin tax video

by Chris Bertram on February 10, 2010

How long before the video gets the waggy finger of Oliver Kamm I wonder?

Killer App

by John Holbo on February 10, 2010

Various folks – our own Henryhave been weighing the advantages and disadvantages of long and short literary forms. Here’s a different angle. What I would really like – truly – would be a simple app that let me time-lock myself out of the internet (and email) for a substantial block of time. Say, 3 hours. Or whatever. (Obviously I get to choose.) The internet is sort of like a stationary exercise bike that comes equipped, standard, with an ever-full bowl of potato chips on the handlebars. So is this bike good for losing weight and getting fit? Yes. And no. I’m sure you see what I am getting at.

The short-form/long-form distinction isn’t, then, the crux of the issue, because it doesn’t touch on the reason why people are anxious about suffering ADD. I think I agree with Henry about how we should have more short-form stuff, for pretty much the reasons he articulates. But what people are worried about, when they vaguely wish away short-form stuff, is a “nudge”-type issue, in the Sunstein and Thaler sense. It’s not that they seriously think all short stuff is bad stuff. or even that short stuff tends to be bad. Rather, all the stuff we are most tempted to overindulge in, against our own better judgment, is short. (If this were Victorian England, maybe we would be wringing our hands about how everyone is disappearing into enormous triple-decker novels for days and days and neglecting to keep up with current events. They aren’t remembering to send everyone else letters twice a day.)

Saying that all the stuff we are tempted to overindulge in is short is perfectly consistent with saying that, on average, short stuff is much better than long stuff. I think that’s it in a nutshell.

The main reason we are tempted to overindulge in short stuff is that it is there. So obtrusively ready-to-hand, like chips on the handlebars. So I maintain that Western Civilization can be saved, and people can return to reading long Kierkegaard books again – possibly even Melville’s Clarel – if only someone will come up with a simple app for time-locking our computers and mobile devices. Indeed, it would be such a basic and powerful productivity tool that it should come standard on all devices.

Towards A World of Smaller Books

by Henry on February 9, 2010

“Ezra Klein”:–_sort_of.html

bq. It is true that for the best books, there is no substitute for a book. I do not want to read Robert Caro’s blog posts if they will delay his final volume on Lyndon Johnson by so much as an hour. But for many books, a few blog posts, or an article, would work just fine, and the reader would save a lot of time in the process. And time has value.

I think you can push this argument further. I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc – I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object (I seem to remember Tyler Cowen somewhere suggesting that only a relatively small percentage of books bought are actually _read_ ). Books which are, for example, extended versions of articles written for _The Atlantic_, _The Public Interest_ or what have you are _especially likely_ to be over-long for their topic – I don’t remember ever reading one of these books and feeling that I got substantial insights which were unavailable in the original article (in some cases it might have been useful to have a better sourced and slightly better fleshed out version of the original piece available somewhere, perhaps half the length again of the original piece, but there doesn’t appear to be a market for that).

All this may be changing as we move towards an electronic book publishing system. The economics of electronic text production are not the same as the economics of book production (as best as I understand either), and there aren’t the same pressures towards standardization of length. I suspect that people who would feel cheated if they paid ‘book’ price for a long essay (say around 20,000 words or so) will feel less so if they buy an electronic version. Ideally, we will end up in a world where people won’t feel obliged to pad out what are really essays to book length in order to get published and compensated. If I’m right, we will see a lot more essay-length publications than we used to. I suspect too that the effects will be non-symmetrical – that is that we will see an explosion in the number of very short books/essays, which will be somewhat cheaper than traditional books, but not very cheap, a moderate decrease in the number of ‘standard’ (say, 60,000-90,000 word length) books, and stability or decrease in the number of long books (books with 100,000+ words). Long books still cost a lot of money to edit. I also suspect that we will see traditional printed books become (a) more expensive, and (b) more beautiful – their main value will be as display items rather than use items. Of course, I have no direct experience of the publishing industry (except as author) and know that several of our commenters know more, and have strong opinions, so look forward to being corrected on any or all of the above …