From the monthly archives:

April 2010

Squeaky bum time

by Daniel on April 30, 2010

In the immortal words of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Premier League is reaching the crucial last two weeks. Manchester United and Chelsea are separated by a single point – Chelski have the advantage, but have a tougher game against Liverpool tomorrow, while Man U face Sunderland. Arsenal lost hope last week, but Fulham are going to appear in the Europa League final after thrilling wins against Juventus and Hamburg. Meanwhile, having beaten one of the most astonishing teams in history with a virtuoso tactical display, Jose Mourhino’s Inter Milan face Bayern Munich in the Bernabeu for the Champions’ League.

Of course, any passing Americans are welcome to explain why this is all terribly boring because Everton never really had a chance.

Two views of the economics debate

by Henry Farrell on April 30, 2010

“Hendrik Hertzberg”: on the Brown-Cameron-Clegg faceoff yesterday.

bq. Mainly, though, I was struck by how superior this event was to its typical American counterpart, in a number of ways:

* The crispness and clarity of the debaters.

* The businesslike, non-preening moderator, David Dimbleby—the Brits, it seems, still have a Cronkite.

* The audience, which listened attentively and respected what I assume was a request to refrain from applauding or hooting or otherwise behaving like a mob or a claque.

* The fact that neither Cameron nor Clegg went medieval on Brown for his ridiculous “bigot” gaffe—not that doing so would have benefitted them, given British manners.

* The near-total lack of obviously rehearsed zingers. (Emphasis on obviously.)

* The fact that none of the candidates appeared to be a sociopath, a delusionary, a demagogue, or a serious neurotic. They all seem to be relatively decent people.

“Patrick Dunleavy”:

bq. The dominant feeling was just how bad the House of Commons is as a preparation for government leadership. Parliament teaches MPs to emote, not to reason very well, not to argue, but just to have feelings and find ways of projecting this to others – in short to emote. The acme of a good Commons performance is to emit the maximum number of units of emotion (let’s call them emoticons for short) in any given time period. In the final Prime Ministerial debate David Cameron solely concentrated, and Nick Clegg mainly concentrated, on maximizing the number of emoticons they emitted. You kind of lost count of the number of time they said “What I think is that…”, with a kind of verbal double-bold, large font sign around the I. It doesn’t really matter in the Commons if you are apparently solipsistic, you see – a level of self-absorption that might look a bit mental in other occupations is par for the course amongst top politicians. Nor does it matter what on earth the basis of your emotion or feeling is, just to underscore that you really do feel it. David Cameron’s advocacy of ‘Time for an (unspecific) change’ made the overall vagueness and lack of any intellectual or factual or evidential grounding to what he said really rather starkly apparent. David, it seems, wants what we all want, only he really wants it. When Brown or Clegg pressed him for anything detailed by way of an answer, a kind of ‘disbelief face’ crept over him – his expression said that he just could not believe that a responsible politician could behave in such a bad taste way in public.

I don’t know which of them is right or wrong (I only watched about 2 minutes of the debate myself, having a paper to write on urgent deadline), but found the dissonance interesting. Also Hertzberg’s suggestion that we would be much better off taking a lesson from a Swedish debate that he once saw, where the leaders had briefers behind them with stacks of paper, whom they could mutter to in order to get information as needs be (a sort of open book exam). Also, “this bit from Charlie Brooker”: (via Ian McDonald).

bq. According to some polls, Cameron won, or at the very least tied with Clegg. Which is odd, because to my biased eyes, he looked hilariously worried whenever the others were talking. He often wore a face like the Fat Controller trying to wee through a Hula Hoop without splashing the sides, in fact. Perhaps that’s just the expression he pulls when he’s concentrating, in which case it’s fair to say he’d be the first prime minister in history who could look inadvertently funny while pushing the nuclear button.

American readers may wish to be informed that the “Hula Hoop” in question isn’t “this”: but “this”:

Early Lessons

by Harry on April 30, 2010

Thanks partly to James Heckman’s work there is suddenly a great deal of interest in High/Scope Perry PreSchool in Ypsilanti. Perry Preschool was an intervention with an experimental design, study of which is continuing, nearly 50 years after it started. The results are remarkable. The children involved were mainly African-American, and all poor, all with low IQs, and the initial idea was that the right kind of early education would raise their IQs and, indeed, they gained an average 15 IQ points. But the gains faded, rapidly, which is a common story. However, later follow ups have continued to show that the kids who went to the preschool have done much better than the control children with respect to various bad outcomes — they have higher incomes, higher graduation rates, lower levels of involvement with the criminal justice system, etc. (The findings have recently been replicated for Head Start by David Deming (pdf)).

Emily Hanford has made a remarkable radio show about it, with American Radio Works. Full website here. Listen here. Transcript here. It’s radio at its best — she has interviewed some of the original teachers, describes the social science clearly but meticulously, and interviewed Heckman on what the implications are. A great resource — I’d recommend using it with college students, and even with high schoolers (not, perhaps, with pre-schoolers, though maybe I should give that a try).

And it’s well worth reading Hanford’s account of why, in the end, she chose not to seek out the subjects of the study.

Amartya Sen’s recent book The Idea of Justice is a rich and wide-ranging book, that covers a broad range of issues related to social justice, public reasoning, rationality, human agency, well-being, equality, freedoms, democracy and related concerns. Sen formulates a strong critique of contemporary theorising on justice, and proposes an alternative that focuses more on identifying injustices rather than talking about (perfect) justice, and strongly stresses the importance of deliberation and public debate when addressing questions of injustice.

However, in my discussion here I will limit myself to one major claim that Amartya Sen makes in this book, namely that transcendental theories of justice are redundant (This relates especially to the preface, introduction, and chapter 4 of the book; anyone interested in academic discussions of the other chapters should pop over to “Public Reason”:, which hosts a reading group going through the book one chapter a week). But as said, I will only focus on the ‘Redundancy Claim’, and will argue that it is mistaken, since for justice-enhancing actions we need both transcendental and non-transcendental theorising of justice. Nevertheless I endorse an implication that follows from the Redundancy Claim, namely that theorists of justice should shift their priorities from transcendental theorizing towards thinking about justice-enhancing change. I will argue that this ‘Priorities Claim’ not only follows from the (mistaken) Redundancy Claim, but also from another (correct) claim which Sen advances in The Idea of Justice about the current practice of political philosophy. I will conclude that the Redundancy Claim does need to be rejected, but that this is not a big loss, since what is really important is the Priorities Claim, which is vindicated. [click to continue…]


by Harry on April 28, 2010

Well, its very hard not to feel sorry for Gordon Brown right now, but I seem to be managing it. On the one hand, how unlucky to be caught off-guard like that, after being confronted with such unpleasant and ignorant views. There’s a lovely passage in James Cannon’s The History of American Trotskyism in which, talking about the dog days in the early thirties and describing the cranks and nutters who passed through his group, he says something to the effect of (I’m quoting from memory here) “If, despite my unbelief, there is an afterlife I think I will go to heaven, not because of anything I have done, but because oif everything I have had to listen to”, and I often feel sorry for politicians whose job it is to listen to people like that drivel on, even though I know they chose the job. Still, it seems to me there was only one course of action which would have created a chance, however small, of salvaging the situation, which would have been displaying a little integrity and saying, well, something to the effect of what Cannon said. It probably wouldn’t have worked, but the particular way he’s gone about seems to me like just digging deeper.

A fresh look at the left and right political blogospheres

by Eszter Hargittai on April 28, 2010

It’s exciting to see a paper about blogs across the political spectrum that goes beyond the by-now rather common practice of looking at who talks to whom among bloggers (e.g., whether there are any cross-ideological conversations going on). Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw and Victoria Stodden of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society have just released “A Tale of Two Blogospheres: Discursive Practices on the Left and Right” showing some significant differences in types of blog platforms used (with different affordances), co-authorships and levels of participation among blogs of different political persuasions. Here is one example of specific findings (based on analyses of 155 top political blogs):

Over 40% of blogs on the left adopt platforms with enhanced user participation features. Only about 13% of blogs on the right do so. While there is substantial overlap, and comments of some level of visibility are used in the vast majority of blogs on both sides of the political divide, the left adopts enabling technologies that make user-generated diaries and blogs more central to the site to a significantly greater degree than does the right. (p. 22.)

There are lots of other interesting results in the paper so I highly recommend reading it [pdf].
It’s very clearly written and summarizes related literature well so in case this is not an area you’ve been following, this is a good piece with which to start to familiarize yourself with related debates. If it is an area that you’ve been following then this is a must-read to see some truly original contributions to the literature.

For more on this elsewhere, Ari Melber has an interview with Yochai Benkler on this research in The Nation.

The New New Left Book Club

by Henry Farrell on April 27, 2010

John’s posts have pushed me to write a post that I’ve been thinking about writing for a while – which books are useful for understanding where we (‘we’ here being the left under a reasonably expansive definition of the term) are now, and what possible new directions we might take? I’m putting up this post to learn rather than to dictate, but will list a few books that I think (given my own personal history, values, geographic location etc) are valuable to start the ball rolling. None of these choices will surprise people who have read _CT_ for a while – but they do seem to me to be books that are at the center of a set of interlinked debates that I’ve gotten pulled into over the last few years. Feel free to talk, of course, about other books in other debates (with as much detail about context; why you think these books are important etc).
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Cameron and Blair

by Harry on April 27, 2010

A clarifying (for me) piece by Chris Brooke at the Virtual Stoa, comparing Cameron and Blair:

The reason Blair was far more successful as a centrist politician than Cameron is managing to be is that he went out of his way to humiliate the Left of his party in public as a part of his move to the right. He chose to pick fights that he really didn’t have to fight, with the result that it made it all much easier for former Conservative voters to think that it was safe to vote Labour after all.

Cameron, by contrast, has made a lot of centrist noises, and he’s done various things that the Tory headbanger tendency doesn’t much like (stuff on the website about tackling homophobic bullying in schools, running more women candidates or candidates from ethnic minorities in winnable seats, banging on about the environment, usw), but he’s never seriously tried to stage a meaningful fight with the party’s Right, to lure them out into the open, and to slap them down in public.

Going Swedish

by Harry on April 27, 2010

The headline Tory education policy is introducing Swedish style school vouchers — basically, making it easy for non-profits to set up schools, and funding them strictly on a per-pupil basis (see manifesto p53). I’ve criticized earlier version of this proposal in the past (as an out-of-the-blue email reminded me yesterday — its nice to know that people read 6 year old CT posts). Swift and I (PDF) wrote a piece recently about the latest version of this proposal, not criticizing it, but offering unsought advice about how to implement it in a way that is most likely to produce some benefits for less advantaged children. When we wrote it, it really did seem relevant to something: right now it seems like something written in another age, to me. Still, in case that age ever returns, I thought I’d point to it for people to consider.

My last post, arguing that the left needed to offer a transformative vision as an alternative to rightwing tribalism has drawn lots of interesting responses, and generated some great comments threads, both here and elsewhere (Some of them: Matt Yglesias,DougJ at Balloon Juice, Democracy in America at the Economist,Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet,Geoffrey Kruse-Safford |, and Randy McDonald).

Since my idea was to open things up for discussion, I don’t plan to comment on particular responses. I do want to respond to one theme that came up repeatedly, a combination of discomfort with words like ‘transformation’ and ‘vision’, and a feeling that a politics in which such words are employed is inconsistent with the pursuit of incremental reforms. Even though I stressed the need to learn from such critics as Burke, Hayek and Popper about the need for reform to arise from organic developments in society and to avoid presumptions of omniscience, the mere use of words like ‘vision’ set off lots of alarm bells.

To me, the difficulty of getting this right reflects my opening point in the previous post. After decades of defensive struggle, we on the left no longer know how to talk about anything bigger than the local fights in which we may hope to defend the gains of the past and occasionally make a little progress. But the time is now ripe to look ahead.

My main point in this new post is to reject the idea that there is a necessary inconsistency between incremental progress and the vision of a better society and a better world. (I’ll link back here to my earlier post on Hope, which might be worth reading at this point, for those who have time and interest.)

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Belgian Bishop resigns

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 26, 2010

A Belgian Bishop, “Roger Vangheluwe”:, has resigned last Friday. He admitted that in the 1970s and 80s he has, for many years, sexually abused a young male family member (a nephew, it seems). According to the newspaper reports, last Monday a family member of the victim wrote an e-mail to all Belgian Bishops informing them about the abuse, which caused Vangheluwe to “publicly confess”: and to resign.

“According”: “to”: Peter Adriaenssens, a professor in pediatric psychiatry, who is heading a Commission that is investigating the accusations of sexual abuse in the Belgian Catholic Church, this case has triggered about 40 complaints to the Commission of other cases of sexual abuse in the Church since Friday evening. In the last two years there had been about twenty complaints.

Wondering what more will emerge. In Belgium a very large percentage of the population (officially more than 90%) is Catholic; but as I know from personal experience, this need not mean anything. In many cases it is social conformity, or (in the past, at least) primarily an admission ticket to a good school. Any Belgian who thinks this is a good moment to officially quit the Church, can find instructions on how to do so “here”:

Sunnyside book event coming soon

by Maria on April 25, 2010

Just before Christmas, I wrote a piece discreetly titled “Sunnyside: Best Book of the Year“. I was surprised that one of the most inventive, funny and profound books I’ve ever read hadn’t made it onto the seasonal glut of ‘Best of 2009’ books. That post elicited an email from no less than Glen David Gold himself. And always with you, gentle reader, in mind, I asked Glen if he’d be willing to take part in a CT book event. He said he would.

So here we are, with (northern hemisphere) summer right around the corner and the paperback of Sunnyside due out in the US any minute. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be posting on CT a set of essays about Sunnyside. Some great writers are going to take part. We’ll have Stuart Evers, a writer many of you will know and love from the Guardian’s book review pages; New York comics guy Adam McGovern, the man behind Pood; deadlines permitting, Robert Hanks, who reviews films books and pretty much anything, often for the Independent; and of course Glen himself with an essay in response to all of ours, and plenty of badgering about in the comments.

Consider this a heads up to read that lovely hardback or rush out and buy a copy before the event kicks off. Sunnyside is a terrific read; fantastic fun, tugger of heartstrings, prompter of head-scratching thoughts on the meaning of life. You won’t regret it.

After the dead horses

by John Q on April 25, 2010

We’ve had a fair bit of fun here lately, pointing out the silliness of those who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders of the right, in its libertarian, neoconservative and Republican tribalist versions. But, as quite a few commenters have pointed out (one using the same, maybe Oz-specific, phrase that occurred to me) the exercise does seem to savor a bit of flogging dead horses.

It seems to me necessary to go beyond this, which was one reason for my post on hope the other day. To make progress, we need to reassess where we stand and then think about where to go next. This is bound to be something of a confused and confusing process. Over the fold, I’ve made some (quite a few) observations, making for a very long post, which is mainly meant to open things up for discussion.

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What is happening in the UK election?

by Harry on April 24, 2010


Listening to the BBC and reading the papers I get no sense of the level of panic that it seems to me that the two major parties ought, it seems to me, to be feeling, nor of whether the pollsters have any idea how to model the sudden change in the LibDem popularity. (Fiddling with the BBC site indicates that the LibDems wouldn’t get many more seats even with 30% of the vote — I find it hard to believe that the designers have really thought out their assumptions beyond a 25% or so showing, which itself would be historic). 6 days in, the poll bump seems not to be going away. I’ve no idea whether the polled support for the LibDems will translate into actual votes or gain them more. Is the apparent absence of panic premised on a good understanding that this is all fake? Or is it just impressive acting?

More or less open thread.

Have a Blessed Charles Krauthammer Day

by Henry Farrell on April 22, 2010

The calendar has once again rolled around to the date on which we commemorate Charles Krauthammer’s “pronouncement”:,eventID.274/transcript.asp that:

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

You’ve had seven years now, Charlie. How’s it looking? Hoping for a result sometime in year eight?