From the monthly archives:

July 2010

How Obama caused the recession

by John Q on July 10, 2010

The idea that Obama (or rather, the wisdom of crowds in anticipating the election of a socialist-Islamist Obama administration) caused the recession is getting another run, this time from Nobel[1] prizewinner Ed Prescott. I haven’t been able to track down more than a precis of Prescott’s argument, but I assume it’s similar to the version put forward by Casey Mulligan. I had a go at this in my Zombie economics book [2], and here on CT, so, I thought I would link to it here, to give a bit of context to the current flap.

[1] Yes, yes, I know about the Sverige Riksbank. And winners of the economics prize aren’t the only ones to say silly things later on.
[2] Still on track for Halloween, and already taking pre-orders! Join the Facebook group here.

Markets in Everything: Political Deniability Edition

by Henry Farrell on July 7, 2010

The Washington Monthly‘s “piece on the US Chamber of Commerce”: has a killer quote.

bq. It also established a branch of a front group, the Campaign for Responsible Health Reform, and hired a Little Rock Republican strategist to run it. The strategist, Bill Vickery, told me that his activities were “backed solely” by the Chamber. In other words, a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work. “I want to give them all the deniability they need,” says [US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO] Donohue. That deniability is evidently worth a lot. According to a January article in the National Journal, six insurers alone—Aetna, Cigna, Humana, Kaiser Foundation Health Plans, UnitedHealth Group, and Wellpoint—pumped up to $20 million into the Chamber last year.

It’s a very good piece on the Chamber’s business model and how Donahue in particular benefits from it.

Center for Ethics: Update

by Henry Farrell on July 7, 2010

I’ve received the below from my former colleague, Joe Carens, responding to the “boilerplate letter”: that has been sent to anyone who has written to University of Toronto officials deploring the proposed closure of the Center for Ethics.


I want to respond briefly to the “standard letter”: that the Provost, Cheryl Misak, is sending to those who write in support of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. Her letter was posted previously on this blog. Cheryl is an eminent philosopher and a friend, but I think that her communication on this issue is misleading. One gets the impression from Cheryl’s letter that the Centre for Ethics had been expected to raise funds to sustain its activities and failed to do so, and also that the closure of the Centre is a regrettable necessity due to the financial crisis within the university. Neither is accurate.

The Centre was created five years ago under a university initiative to spark innovation. It was one of a few projects to which the university committed base funding, not “seed” money. It was always the plan that the Centre should raise major endowment over the long term, but the previous Dean who approved the Centre agreed that it would not be expected to do this in the first five years. The Centre has been very successful in raising funds for particular projects.

In the current climate, it may be necessary (if regrettable) for the University to close research centres that cannot pay for themselves, but it seems unreasonable to do so out of the blue, especially with one that has been as successful as the Ethics Centre at doing what it was previously asked to do. It would be far more reasonable to continue to support the Centre with university funding for a few years, perhaps at a reduced level, while expecting it to raise endowment or face closure.

Reading Cheryl’s letter you might think that the University of Toronto cannot afford even this temporary reprieve. I agree that the budget crisis is serious. There is a $50 million deficit in the Faculty of Arts and Science that has to be eliminated. However, the Dean is not proposing to save the Centre’s $308,000 budget. Rather he is proposing to redeploy much or all of it.

The University of Toronto faces a choice about how to use the “significant resources” that it plans to devote “to support the research and teaching of ethics” to use Cheryl’s words. We could, on the one hand, spend those resources to preserve an already existing and thriving research centre, recognized as one of the three or four best in the world in the area of ethics, or we could, on the other hand, spend those resources on whatever “ethics-based educational initiatives” are eventually proposed by the committee that the Dean plans to construct. The Dean does face some hard decisions in balancing his budget but this should not be one of them.

Joe Carens
University of Toronto

Center for Ethics

by Henry Farrell on July 6, 2010

The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences has decided to “close down”: its “Center for Ethics”: for budgetary reasons. This is a _really_ terrible decision. I spent two very happy years at U of T. When I was there, the university had superb faculties in political theory, philosophy and legal theory, but had difficulty in building bridges between them (the university, for a variety of historical and organizational reasons, is quite decentralized). The Center for Ethics opened shortly after I left – I’ve been following its work ever since. It has brought these faculties together and built a genuinely world class institution. I know that other universities view University of Toronto’s Center for Ethics as a model to be emulated. Now, the U of T is proposing to junk it summarily, for entirely short sighted reasons.

If this goes ahead, I can’t help but think that it’s going to seriously hurt the University’s international reputation. When universities face tough budgetary times, they have to make hard decisions. But they should not gut their core strengths and competences. It is indisputable to anyone in the field (and to sympathetic outside observers to me), that the Center gives a body and an organized presence to one of the University’s most important areas of strength. Below the fold, I have a letter that I’m sending to the relevant university officials (President David Naylor [], Provost Cheryl Misak [], Dean Meric Gertler []). I suggest that other people who are disturbed by this write letters to these officials too (be polite but clear). There’s also a Facebook protest group “here”:, which has gathered nearly 450 members in less than 24 hours.
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Nothing succeeds like success

by Henry Farrell on July 6, 2010

The discussion in the comments section to my last post has turned to the old disagreement over the respective contributions of innate quality (however you want to try to measure it) and external circumstances to economic ‘success.’ Matthew Salganik and Duncan Watt’s research on cultural markets provides some very interesting insights into this question. “This paper”: is the best overall survey of their findings that I know of. What they do is to set up a set of discrete artificial cultural markets, in which large numbers of experimental subjects listen to pop music, and rate it for whether they like it or not. All of these markets have the same music. Most of them have an effective recommendation system (in which subjects can see which are the more popular, and which the less popular tunes); two do not provide this information. Subjects are randomly assigned to different markets.
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The Lies of the Creative Class

by Henry Farrell on July 4, 2010

“Evidence”: that history happens the first time as a “Doug Henwood book”: and the second time as farce.

“the only way to keep your job nowadays is to constantly re-invent it”

This “rather sad article”: in the New York Times about long-term, middle class unemployment got me thinking…

Got me thinking about the cartoon above, in fact.

Any long-time blogger knows this: The only way to keep people reading your blog is by “Constant Re-Invention”. Keep on finding new things to talk about. Keep on DOING and CREATING new things worth talking about.

i.e. Creativity. Yes. That. Exactly.

And what has always been true for bloggers is now true for anyone hoping to live above the basic subsistence level.

The only way to keep your job nowadays is to constantly re-invent it.

Again, Creativity.

And that’s your responsibility, not your boss’. If your boss won’t let you do that, then quit. Right now. Do something else. It’s your move. Nobody else’s. Sorry.

It isn’t rocket science. But sadly, it’s something far too few of us ever think really hard about.

Formatting preserved from the original, which you should read if only to see the sorry-ass cartoon that it is based around. Although the offensiveness of the post is partially mitigated by the stink of desperation that wafts through despite the author’s best efforts. If this post had an XKCD mouseover it would be something like ‘oh god, please. maybe if I can just somehow be creative enough, I’ll make it through while the rest of the fuckers drown. please. god. please.’

Tour de France Open Thread

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 3, 2010

I have almost nothing with the Tour de France, or with any other big sport event for that matter. The only relation between the Tour and me is that it started in Rotterdam this year, the city where I work. I have no interest, no expertise, no patience. But since Bill Gardner “asked for a Tour de France open thread”:, here it is. Enjoy.

Comfortably Numbs

by John Holbo on July 3, 2010

A year ago I said I liked The Bad Plus’ cover of “Comfortably Numb”. Most everyone else seemed to hate it. So let’s get comparative. I just found out about Scissor Sisters’ cover of “Comfortably Numb”, which I also think is pretty great. I expect most everyone else will hate it. But the question is: which do you hate more? The Bad Plus version or the Scissor Sisters version? (Obviously, since I like them both, I can’t vote.)

UPDATE: The Scissor Sisters’ version is blocked in the US. Try this, per comments.

Your Morning Dose of Cold War Insanity

by Kieran Healy on July 2, 2010

July 1962, the U.S. detonates a hydrogen bomb 250 miles over Hawaii. “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling: Good View Likely,” said the Honolulu Advertiser. More details here.

Thanks very much to Nick S for this news – Diageo plc is going to be dealing with its pension fund deficit by making a contribution of up to 2.5m barrels of whisky. Back in the dawn of CT[1], we addressed some of the financial aspects of this sort of thing …
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Joan Rivers is Still Alive.

by Harry on July 1, 2010

I’m sure I first heard Joan Rivers the same way I did Bob Newhart and Woody Allen, on Frank Muir Goes Into… but she never entered my consciousness really till I moved to LA in the mid-80s and started seeing her on daytime TV. I found her captivating — the only thing on TV worth watching a lot of the time. Rude, self-deprecating, very funny, and very clever. So when Swift and I wandered past a theater showing her new movie last night we decided, whimsically, to go in after dinner.

I’d recommend it to just about anybody over 21. It certainly deserves to be seen by a wider audience than the scattering of old Jewish women and two middle-aged Englishmen who saw it in our theater. At first, Rivers simply appears to be a grotesque — right from the opening shot, through the introduction to her diminished life, whining about her lack of success and how it sucks being old. But slowly, gradually, the film humanizes her, never refraining from showing the warts. It is also very funny (not least because she is very funny).

Googling her afterwards I found this delightful profile from which comes this plausible, but odd, story:

As we wait for it to start, she tells me a story about Prince Charles, with whom she has been friends for several years. (“Not inner circle,” she says. “Outer-inner circle.”) HRH sends her a Christmas gift every year, which, more than once, has been two very fancy teacups. “One year,” she says, “I took a picture under my Christmas tree with the teacups and wrote, ‘How could you send me two teacups when I’m alone?’ Another time I wrote, ‘I’m enjoying tea with my best friend!’ and I sent a picture of me in a cemetery. And he never acknowledges it! He never says to me when I see him”—doing his accent perfectly—“ ‘Ohhhh, funny funny funny!’ So this year I thought, I’m just going to write him a nice thank-you note. And the other day our mutual friend calls and says, ‘Just spoke to Charles! He said, “I can’t wait to see Joan’s note this year!” ’ ”