From the monthly archives:

July 2010

Keynes and Germany

by Henry on July 22, 2010

A “bloggingheads”:http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/29563 with Dan Drezner, where we discuss in passing the recent dust-up between Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman on Keynesian demand-stimulation strategies and Germany (see “here”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/business/18view.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=tyler%20cowen&st=cse, “here”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/07/what-germany-knows-about-debt.html “here”:http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/more-stimulus-despair/, “here”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/07/germany.html. I’m mostly on Krugman’s side of this argument, but not entirely – a few points.

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Outed!

by Henry on July 22, 2010

I’ve been hesitating today over whether to write a post responding to the Daily Caller’s publication of a message I wrote on Journolist, talking about how I got emotional on the day that Obama was elected, when I saw African-Americans talking about what this meant to them. Perhaps a bit embarrassing, given that Obama has been in many ways a disappointing president – but as I said in a blogpost on the day, the fact that an African-American with a foreign-sounding name became President was important in itself, regardless of what disappointments came later. My personal feeling about this earth-shattering fact being made public is the kind of mild annoyance felt by Saki’s “Ms. Scrawen”:http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/l_tober.htm – even if one’s private conduct has not been especially embarrassing, one doesn’t necessarily want it to be revealed to all and sundry without one’s permission.

Still, I do think that this tells us something about the whole Journolist-in-the-media saga. That a middling obscure and openly left wing university professor gets teary when an African-American is elected president can be described in many ways, some of which, depending on your point of view, might be uncomplimentary. But what it _cannot_ be described as is breaking news. And that the Daily Caller makes this part of its top front page story, with a headline festooned with exclamation marks, tells us something about the newsworthiness of the material that they have. Without sympathizing with them at all, I can sort-of understand their position. If you believe that there is a Vast Left Wing Conspiracy ranged against conservatism, it must be very exciting to finally get your hands on the Top Sekrit archives of the shadowy network that you think Controls It All. And it must be extremely disappointing to discover that those archives in actuality consist of journalistic gossip, heated political arguments between people who disagree over an enormous range of topics, endless (and to me extremely tedious) threads about baseball and the like. This doesn’t justify the Daily Caller’s demonstrably dishonest efforts to dress mutton as lamb, and pretend that they have smoking gun evidence of coordinated plots against the right. But it does help explain them.

Update: Since Jim Lindgren has been “getting”:http://volokh.com/2010/07/21/journolist-members-suggest-that-fox-news-be-shut-down/ “very”:http://volokh.com/2010/07/22/latest-journolist-revelations-attacks-on-palin/ “excited”:http://volokh.com/2010/07/22/obama-campaign-advisor-participated-on-journolist/ about the possibility that Journolist organized multiple campaigns against this or that obscure conservative figure, coordinated its message with the Obama campaign, and maybe was behind that guy who cut him off when he was on the way into work the other day, he may want to look at this “most recent post”:http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/07/when_tucker_carlson_asked_to_j.html by Ezra Klein.

bq. If this series now rests on Tucker’s credibility, then let’s talk about something else he doesn’t mention: I tried to add him to the list. I tried to give him access to the archives. Voluntarily. Because though I believed it was important for the conversation to be off-the-record, I didn’t believe there was anything to hide. … At the time, I didn’t know Carlson was working on a story about Journolist. And I’d long thought that the membership rules that had made sense in the beginning had begun to feed conspiracy theories on the right and cramp conversation inside the list. … then wrote this e-mail to Journolist:

As folks know, there are a couple of rules for J List membership. One is that you can’t be working for the government. Another is that you’re center to left of center, as that was something various people wanted back in the day. I’ve gotten a couple of recent requests from conservatives who want to be added (and who are people I think this list might benefit from), however, and so it seems worth asking people whether they’d like to see the list opened up. Back in the day, I’d probably have let this lie, but given that Journolist now leaks like a sieve, it seems worth revisiting some of the decisions made when it was meant to be a more protected space.

As I see it, the pro of this is that it could make for more fun conversations. The con of it is that it becomes hard to decide who to add and who to leave off (I don’t want to have to make subjective judgments, but I’m also not going to let Michelle Malkin hop onto the list), and it also could create even more possible leaks — and now, they’d be leaks with more of an agenda, which could be much more destructive to trust on the list.

bq. I want to be very clear about what I was suggesting: Adding someone to the list meant giving them access to the entirety of the archives. That didn’t bother me very much. Sure, you could comb through tens of thousands of e-mails and pull intemperate moments and inartful wording out of context to embarrass people, but so long as you weren’t there with an eye towards malice, you’d recognize it for what it was: A wonkish, fun, political yelling match. If it had been an international media conspiracy, I’d have never considered opening it up. … When I e-mailed him to ask about some of these omissions, his response was admission mixed with misdirection. … Journolist has taken the Daily Caller from about 50,000 hits a day to more than 200,000. There are a lot more answers in those numbers, I fear, than in his editor’s note.

Carlson clearly has access to the list – so if Ezra were not telling the truth about this, he could give him the lie. But Ezra is telling the truth, so he can’t. A political conspiracy led by someone who wants to invite his ideological enemies to come in and take a look is a decidedly peculiar class of conspiracy. I look forward to seeing how Lindgren (and others taking the same line) explain this.

Morris Goldpepper rides again

by Henry on July 21, 2010

Scammers with a little bit of a sense of humor. Found in our spam filter this morning when doing the usual clean-up of crap that has accumulated overnight (asterisks added by me)…

bq. HELP! I’m currently being held prisoner by the Russian mafia x***z p**s enlargement xyzrxyz and being forced to post spam comments on blogs! If you don’t approve this they will kill me. x***z p***s enlargement x***z They’re coming back now. Please send help!

Bonus points for anyone (other than Cosma Shalizi and Nielsen Haydens) who can identify the reference in the title without looking it up.

BS explanation for rising inequality?

by Chris Bertram on July 21, 2010

Chicago economist Raghuram Rajan offers the following explanation for the long-term stagnant real incomes of Americans at the 50th percentile of the income distribution (compared to their compatriots at the 90th):

bq. A number of factors are responsible for the growth in the 90/50 differential. Perhaps the most important is that technological progress in the US requires the labor force to have ever greater skills. A high school diploma was sufficient for office workers 40 years ago, whereas an undergraduate degree is barely sufficient today. But the education system has been unable to provide enough of the labor force with the necessary education. The reasons range from indifferent nutrition, socialization, and early-childhood learning to dysfunctional primary and secondary schools that leave too many Americans unprepared for college.

I really find this difficult to believe. My guess is that, in terms of the real skills objectively needed to do the job, a high school diploma is more than adequate for most office work. Of course, it may be that, because of competition for those jobs, you need a higher level of qualification to get one. But that’s a different story.

Weak Heterophily

by Henry on July 20, 2010

“Jonah Lehrer”:http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/07/twitter_strangers.php has an interesting post on the heuristic benefits of mixing it up by making online social contact with complete strangers.

bq. this is why we should all follow strangers on Twitter. We naturally lead manicured lives, so that our favorite blogs and writers and friends all look and think and sound a lot like us. (While waiting in line for my cappuccino this weekend, I was ready to punch myself in the face, as I realized that everyone in line was wearing the exact same uniform: artfully frayed jeans, quirky printed t-shirts, flannel shirts, messy hair, etc. And we were all staring at the same gadget, and probably reading the same damn website. In other words, our pose of idiosyncratic uniqueness was a big charade. Self-loathing alert!) While this strategy might make life a bit more comfortable – strangers can say such strange things – it also means that our cliches of free-association get reinforced. We start thinking in ever more constricted ways. And this is why following someone unexpected on Twitter can be a small step towards a more open mind. Because not everybody reacts to the same thing in the same way. Sometimes, it takes a confederate in an experiment to remind us of that. And sometimes, all it takes is a stranger on the internet, exposing us to a new way of thinking about God, Detroit and the Kardashians.

Of course, one of the issues with the Internet is that it creates strong tendencies towards homophily (see “Tom Slee”:http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2009/03/online-monoculture-and-the-end-of-the-niche.html and “Ethan Zuckerman”:http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/04/25/homophily-serendipity-xenophilia/ ), which it takes active effort to circumvent. I’ve noticed this especially strongly over the past few months, because I’ve been using Google Reader, and trying out the feeds of more or less everyone who follows “my own one”:http://www.google.com/reader/shared/henry.farrell. Unsurprisingly given this selection process, there are strong tendencies towards homophily – I see a lot of stuff in other people’s feed that I’ve already seen myself. I’ve stopped following some people because their tastes and reading inclinations are _too_ similar to mine to be very useful. But heterophily has its limits too – when others’ interests are too radically dissimilar from my own, I’m probably not going to want to follow them. One possible search strategy to balance out these competing imperatives would be to look at the unshared choices of people who share most of my (and other CT readers’ interests). Here, the underlying theory would be that if someone reads most of the same material as you (and other readers), they are probably tolerably good proxies for your own set of tastes. However, the most valuable information that you can get from them is the sources that they read, but that you do not, since these sources are much more likely than those of a random stranger to be (a) genuinely interesting to you, but (b) hitherto unknown. NB that this is only weakly heterophilous – it won’t usually expose you to material that is genuinely different to your usual reading tastes. But it can inject at least some variation into them. So – if you have nominations for blogs, feeds or Twitter accounts (not that I follow Twitter – but other CT readers do) that are (a) interesting and (b) not part of the ‘shared set’ that you might expect most CT readers to know about, feel free to nominate in comments.

Mr. Crookletide’s Tiger

by Henry on July 19, 2010

Saki’s short story, “Mrs Packletide’s Tiger”:http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/MrsPac.shtml, has a wonderful opening paragraph which finishes:

bq. She had also already designed in her mind the tiger-claw broach that she was going to give Loona Bimberton on her next birthday. In a world that is supposed to be chiefly swayed by hunger and by love Mrs. Packletide was an exception; her movements and motives were largely governed by dislike of Loona Bimberton.

If the American left could be substituted for Loona Bimberton, this would stand as an astute psychological analysis of “Clive Crook’s latest effusion”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/95af8f36-9295-11df-9142-00144feab49a.html on how Obama could get his mojo back.

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Mistakes Were Made …

by Henry on July 16, 2010

I’m quite glad I’m not an Irish taxpayer, or I’d be very pissed off indeed today. Details are beginning to emerge about the reasons why the Irish government stepped in to offer an unconditional guarantee for the liabilities of Irish banks at the beginning of the crisis – a decision which really has had very unpleasant consequences indeed for the Irish economy. Three fact stand out. First – that perhaps the most urgent precipitating factor seems to have been the unfortunate fact that no-one wanted to lend money to Anglo Irish Bank. From an “advice memo”:http://www.oireachtas.ie/documents/committees30thdail/pac/reports/documentsregruarantee/document3.pdf by Merrill-Lynch to the government

bq. However, liquidity for some could run out in days rather than weeks. Anglo Irish has recently approached the Central Bank with a proposal to create a new funding facility that the Central Bank would accept commercial mortgage assets in exchange for cash. Anglo are rapidly approaching the point where they have exhausted all possible sources of liquidity available via the market or their ECB eligible collateral is close to being fully utilized.
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The crisis of 2011?

by John Quiggin on July 16, 2010

I’ve been too absorbed by my book projects and by Australian politics (of which more soon) to pay a lot of attention to the forthcoming US elections, but it seems to be widely projected that the Republicans could regain control of the House of Representatives. What surprises me is that no-one has drawn the obvious inference as to what will follow, namely a shutdown of the US government.
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_Politics and Society,_ which is my favorite journal, has a special issue centered on Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s “Winner Take-All Politics” argument. They’ve made it “freely available”:http://pas.sagepub.com/content/current for a couple of months, and I recommend people read it, not only for the “Hacker and Pierson piece”:http://pas.sagepub.com/content/38/2/152.full.pdf, but for the responses from Lane Kenworthy, Neil Fligstein and others. I’ll be writing a few posts on this, and wanted to start out by pointing to Hacker and Pierson’s discussion of one interesting and not immediately obvious implication of the Senate filibuster and other forms of veto. Very obviously, they make it harder for new pieces of legislation to get through. But they also lead to problems with existing legislation. Over time, legislation can become increasingly unmoored from its supposed purposes, as society changes. Alternatively, existing legislation can turn out to have quite unexpected loopholes. But reorienting legislation or closing loopholes will be very difficult when there are veto points such as super-majoritarian requirements. Hacker and Pierson give the example of an obscure loophole dating back decades, which has been used in a quite unanticipated way to allow hedge fund managers to have their management fees counted as capital gains rather than income (and thus taxed at a much lower rate). Recent efforts to amend the tax code to get rid of this loophole failed in the Senate, and are (as best as I know) unlikely to be revived. This kind of “drift” is also advantageous to politicians who want to favor influential interest groups, because it means that they can protect their interests through inaction (which is often politically invisible) rather than direct action.

It is worth noting though that this mechanism cuts against some of Hacker and Pierson’s previous arguments in _Off-Center._ There, they suggested that the Republican use of sunset clauses to get tax cuts through were likely to lead to long run change.

bq. it means that future politicians will face a fundamental political quandary: Should they allow enacted provisions of the tax code to expire, explicitly taking from (for the most part, wealthy) taxpayers benefits that they already enjoy? Or should they extend these provisions, incurring the $4 trillion in lost revenue and additional debt service that the sunset provisions of the tax cuts represent? The sunsets, in short, create an unprecedented new political environment – one that is highly favorable to tax-cutters’ core goals. … Republicans reasonably predict that the pressure to extend the tax cuts will be intense, not least because well-off folks who receive the big tax provisions that take effect just before the sunsets kick in will be unusually well poised to make their voices heard. They also expect, no doubt, that the need to protect these provisions will provide a powerful motivation for the wealthy to bankroll Republican reelection effects in the future.

Here, the putative mechanism of policy change was _not_ drift (there is some status quo bias but it is not caused by institutional lock in and veto points). Indeed, it was precisely because of the likelihood that the legislation would be blocked by a Senate filibuster that the Republicans had to pass the bill through reconciliation and jiggery-pokery with the numbers. There is a current debate about the tax cuts’ expiration – but this doesn’t look to me to be a “highly favorable environment” for their retention – and not only because of the economic crisis. There is a substantial minority of Republicans and conservative Democrats who can try to block major efforts to increase taxes on the rich, but (pending the elections), it is probably not be enough to pass new legislation to re-enact the taxes. While we still haven’t seen whether the tax cuts will or will not be renewed, it seems to me plausible that Republicans were too smart for their own good. They might have been smarter to settle for more limited cuts without a sunset clause (putting the future burden of change on those who wanted to repeal the cuts, rather than those who wanted to renew them).

Studies in Political Defamiliarization

by Scott McLemee on July 15, 2010

About three months ago, Tim Wise published an essay called “Imagine: Protest, Insurgency, and the Workings of White Privilege” that got a certain amount of circulation around blogs and listservs that I follow. Recommending it on Crooked Timber was high on the list of things I was procrastinating about, at the time.

That seems to happen a lot, which is why this is only the fourth time I’ve posted anything here in a year. Anyway, in the meantime, Wise’s thesis has been translated into still more trenchant form by Jasari X. So let me post it without delay, pausing only to credit Kasama.

Brian O’Shaughnessy remembered.

by Harry on July 15, 2010

I see, with great sadness, that Brian O’Shaughnessy has died, aged 84. (obit here). Brian was my teacher at Bedford College and then at Kings College when our department merged with theirs. We had a brief correspondence a year or so ago, after I mentioned him in a CT thread and Swift send me an email saying that he grew up next door to him. In my first email to him I mentioned something that I’d assumed he had forgotten, and which I’ll tell now.

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Let Us Now Praise Squamous Men

by Henry on July 14, 2010

Brayden King “plays around”:http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/who-do-you-write-like/ with one of those toy textual analysis tools.

bq. Who do you write like? Enter a few paragraphs of your text in this website’s analysis engine and it’ll spit out a famous author whose writing yours closely resembles … It turns out many sociologists’ writing resembles the prose of H.P. Lovecraft, whose guiding literary style was “cosmic horror” and who is associated with the subgenre weird fiction.

This begs further discussion, and, if people have the talent and inclination, mash-ups.

XKCD Query Bad Science Alert

by Henry on July 12, 2010

“XKCD’s Cartoon”:http://xkcd.com/765/ is pretty funny today, but is worded in a way that _seriously_ understates homeopathy’s order of suck.

!http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/dilution.png!

The I’ve diluted the semen 30x’ bit is technically right, but it suggests to the average reader that there is 1/30 as much semen as in the original sample. In fact, as John Sladek says in his wonderful survey of pseudo-science, _The New Apocrypha_, the average amount of the original substance that yer average homeopathic medicine has is much, _much_ smaller. So much smaller that it’s hard to envisage.

bq. … the smaller a dose is, the more powerful its effects. Homeopathic drugs have been diluted to one decillionth of a grain … the homeopathic apothecary takes a pint of the pure drug, mixes it in ten pints of water, throws away nine pints and mixes the remainder in ten pints of water; then he repeats the process sixty times … Martin Gardner compares it to ‘letting a drop of medicine fall in the Pacific, mixing thoroughly, then taking a spoonful. But a decillionth is a far, far smaller dose than this. Try to imagine a globe of water the size of our solar system. Then imagine that every star in the galaxy, and in every other visible galaxy, is surrounded by a similar globe of water. All the water is combined, and into it we drop one 1,000 millionth of a drop of water, mix thoroughly and take as directed … if the purest imaginable water is used in a real homeopathic drug, it must still contain far more natural amounts of even the rarest elements on earth, than it can possibly contain of the medicine.

I’ll leave it to those with more time, arithmetical ingenuity, and basic medical knowledge than me to calculate the likelihood that even a single spermatazoon lurks in the stick-figure’s sample. But I’m pretty sure that the odds ain’t great.

Update: As ‘belle le triste” notes in comments:

bq. But the principle of homeopathy operates by the so-called “law of similars”: what you’re diluting isn’t what will cure the problem, it’s what would (in non-diluted doses) cause the problem. Thus a homeopathic application of macro-diluted sperm would be being deployed to _prevent_ pregnancy, not to cause it.

XKCD is unquestionably guilty of _bad homeopathy._ Can somebody please revoke his license?

Continuing the cephalopod blogging …

by Henry on July 11, 2010

Now that it’s out, I want to strongly recommend China Miéville’s _Kraken_ ( “Powells”:http://www.powells.com/partner/29956/biblio/9780345497499?p_wg, “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/034549749X?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=034549749X ). By complete coincidence, I started Michael Chabon’s _Maps and Legends_ last night. It notes in its introductory essay that:

bq. Many of the finest “genre writers” working today, such as the English writer China Miéville, derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion, and replenishment. When it comes to conventions, their central impulse is not to flout or to follow them but, flouting or following, to play.

This is a nice description, (a few years before the fact), of _Kraken._ Miéville’s previous book, _The City and the City,_ was very tightly controlled. Its metaphors mostly pointed in the same direction. _Kraken_ in contrast, is full of plotlines and images that _aren’t_ intended so much to cohere, as to play with each other, with the hope (but not the certainty) that they will get on well together. This has its problems. The book’s plot is a little baggy in places. But it also means that _Kraken_ overflows with things counter, spare, original and strange; odd and original monsters, horrible villains and quite peculiar magics. The book, at its heart, seems to me to be about the creative potential of incongruous connections – how metaphors, when they are concretized, may have entirely unexpected implications. If I don’t say more about the actual story, it’s because I don’t want to ruin the surprises. The bit (which readers of this post may recognize in retrospect) when Miéville starts to unfold his alternative world before our eyes is quite wonderful – but I imagine it would be less wonderful if someone had told you about it before you read it. If you like Miéville for his imagination, you’ll like this book. I suspect that he had enormous fun writing it. I certainly had enormous fun reading it.

So, the World Cup’s most famous precognitive German cephalopod, Paul, has predicted from his tank in Oberhausen that Spain will beat Holland on Sunday, leading to various death threats, offers of state protection from the Spanish government, and a proliferation of calamari recipes circulating amongst my Dutch friends on FaceBook. All of which means, surely, that it really is true that some people are hoping that the fascist octopus has sung its swan song.

I’ll get my coat.