by John Quiggin on April 19, 2010

One reason that many on the left of politics preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton is that his rhetoric, at his best, promised something more than incremental reform, a promise summed up by slogans like “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can”.

Given the political realities of the US, and the obvious fact that Obama is instinctively a pragmatist and centrist, it was never likely that this would translate into radical policy action in the short run. Still, it seemed at least possible that an Obama presidency would begin a renewal of a progressive project of transformation, setting out the goal of a better world. One respect in which this hope has been fulfilled, for me, is in Obama’s articulation of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and in the small but positive steps he’s taken in this direction.

I plan to talk about the specific issue of nuclear disarmament in more detail in a later post. The bigger point for me is that after decades in which the left has been on the defensive, it’s time for a politics of hope. We need hope to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. Centrist pragmatism provides nothing to match the enthusiasm that can be driven by fear and anger, as we have seen.

What the politics of hope means, to me, is the need to start setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. They ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future. On the other hand, they ought not to be constrained by consideration of what is electorally saleable right now.

Over the fold, I’ve set out some thoughts I have for goals of this kind. At this stage, I’m not looking for debate on the specifics of these goals or the feasibility of achieving them (again, more on this later). Rather, I’d welcome both discussion of the general issue of what kind of politics the left needs to be pursuing, and suggestions of other goals we ought to be pursuing

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The Pro-Mankiw Movement

by Henry on April 19, 2010

Greg Mankiw suggests that “he has identified the Anti-Mankiw Movement”:http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2010/04/anti-mankiw-movement.html. Apparently, it consists of a graduate student who doesn’t like his textbook very much. On the same expansive definition of social movement, I would like to formally announce that I am re-constituting myself as the Pro-Mankiw Movement. Our (or, rather, my) slogan: Let Mankiw Unleash His Inner Mankiw. In particular, “building on previous suggestions”:https://crookedtimber.org/2008/03/04/principles-and-practices-of-economics/ I would like to advocate in the strongest possible terms that Mankiw rewrite his popular textbook so that the relevant sections cover the intriguing case of N. Gregory Mankiw’s domination of the Harvard introductory economics textbooks market.

Since N. Gregory Mankiw returned to Harvard to teach the College’s introductory economics class, 2,278 students have filled his weekly lectures, many picking up the former Bush advisor’s best-selling textbook, “Principle of Economics” along the way. So, what has professor of economics Mankiw done with those profits? “I don’t talk about personal finances,” Mankiw said, adding that he has never considered giving the proceeds to charity. … Retailing for $175 on Amazon.com … Mankiw asserts that “Principles of Economics” has been the bible of Harvard economics concentrators since before he took over “Economics 10.”

Now this couldn’t possibly be an example of a public spirited regulator wisely choosing the best possible product on the market, and imposing it on his regulatees for their own good. As the N. Gregory Mankiws of this world know, such benign autocrats only exist in the imaginations of fevered left-wingers. So it _must_ be a story of monopolistic rent-seeking and regulatory collusion. And what could be more fitting than that these monopolistic abuses be documented in the very textbook that is their instrument!

I’ve suggested before that if I were N. Gregory Mankiw:

I’d claim that I was teaching my students a valuable practical lesson in economics, by illustrating how regulatory power (the power to assign mandatory textbooks for a required credit class, and to smother secondary markets by frequently printing and requiring new editions) can lead to rent-seeking and the creation of effective monopolies. Indeed, I would use graphs and basic math in both book and classroom to illustrate this, so that students would be left in no doubt whatsoever about what was happening. This would really bring the arguments of public choice home to them in a forceful and direct way, teaching them a lesson that they would remember for a very long time.

But this, in retrospect, seems far too lily-livered approach for the true Mankiw. Why not instead use the class as an experimental setting to see how far the price for the book can be jacked up before profits begin to decline? That would give Harvard econ 10 students a practical grounding in economic theory that they could genuinely claim as unique.

The Forge of Vulcan

by Henry on April 19, 2010

This “post”:http://unlikelyworlds.blogspot.com/2010/04/above-us-only-sky.html by Paul McAuley expresses something that I’ve been groping to articulate to myself.

We live, some believe, in the anthropocene age, an era in which human beings have massively altered global ecosystems, and which may have begun with the invention of agriculture, but certainly accelerated during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, and the oil-based economy of the twentieth and early twenty-first. But Earth’s climate and geography, and human history, has also been shaped by more powerful processes. Volcanic activity has been implicated in the Permian-Triassic extinction event 250 million years ago, which wiped out more than 90% of marine species, and 70% of vetebrate animal species on land. The Toba supereruption between 69000 and 77000 years ago created a decade of global winter that could have caused the reduction in human numbers and the bottleneck in human evolution that marks our genomes to this day. Ashes and sulphur compounds injected into the stratosphere by volcanic activity is believed to have contributed to global cooling during the Little Ice Age between the 16th and mid 19th century, and the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 caused the Year Without Summer, ruining crops around the world and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths (and creating spectacular sunsets documented in paintings by Turner).

Eyjafjallajökull may have created all kinds of disruption to travellers, but compared to supervulcanism of the past, or to what might happen if the volcanic dome under Yellowstone Park lets go, it’s a mere blip. An inconvenience rather than a catastrophe. A useful reminder that the nemesis which may clobber us won’t necessarily be the product of our own hubris. Meanwhile, I’m off to enjoy a spot of peace and quiet while I can.

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