From the monthly archives:

August 2010


by Henry Farrell on August 31, 2010

“Scott Rosenberg”: has a good go at Nick Carr’s claims about what the Internets is Still Doing to our Brains. BRRRAINNNZZZ ! ! !

bq. Carr’s “delinkification” critique is part of a larger argument contained in his book The Shallows. I read the book this summer and plan to write about it more. But for now let’s zero in on Carr’s case against links, on pages 126-129 of his book as well as in his “delinkification” “post”: … The nub of Carr’s argument is that every link in a text imposes “a little cognitive load” that makes reading less efficient. Each link forces us to ask, “Should I click?” As a result, Carr wrote in the “delinkification” post, “People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form.” … [The] original conception of hypertext fathered two lines of descent. One adopted hypertext as a practical tool for organizing and cross-associating information; the other embraced it as an experimental art form, which might transform the essentially linear nature of our reading into a branching game, puzzle or poem, in which the reader collaborates with the author. … The pragmatic linkers have thrived in the Web era; the literary linkers have so far largely failed to reach anyone outside the academy. The Web has given us a hypertext world in which links providing useful pointers outnumber links with artistic intent a million to one. If we are going to study the impact of hypertext on our brains and our culture, surely we should look at the reality of the Web, not the dream of the hypertext artists and theorists.

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Using test scores to evaluate teachers

by Harry on August 30, 2010

At a meeting of teacher’s union chapter leaders I attended recently to talk about Race to the Top, I was struck by two things: one was how open they were in private about the fact that current ways of evaluating teachers are appallingly bad; the other was how hungry they were for a clearer understanding of how evaluation of teachers using test scores (one of the things States were strongly encouraged to include in their Race applications) would work. I gave my modest attempt to explain how it would work and why it was a bad idea. Now, fortunately, they can discard my critique, and get the real thing. Authors including Richard Rothstein, Helen Ladd, Diane Ravitch, and several eminent psychometricians (including Richard Shavelson, Ed Haertel and Lorrie Shepard) have made an unanswerable (but, as the authors certainly know, eminently ignorable) case against using test scores, even value added modeling methods, to evaluate teachers (here). Here’s the executive summary:

Every classroom should have a well-educated, professional teacher, and school systems should recruit, prepare, and retain teachers who are qualified to do the job. Yet in practice, American public schools generally do a poor job of systematically developing and evaluating teachers. Many policy makers have recently come to believe that this failure can be remedied by calculating the improvement in students’ scores on standardized tests in mathematics and reading, and then relying heavily on these calculations to evaluate, reward, and remove the teachers of these tested students.

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Marxists and rational choice

by Henry Farrell on August 30, 2010

In the spirit of more engagement with the left rather than a mere continuation of lobbing potshots at libertarians, let me point out a disjunction between these two “recent”: “posts”: at Lenin’s Tomb

The first, riffing on David Harvey, and what sounds to be a terrible book by Ben Fine and Dimitris Milonakis, is your standard-issue dismissal of economic notions of rationality as a kind of imperialism.

bq. One aspect of this specious conception of “reason” is the encroachment of a set of analytical principles established by marginalist economics into other fields of social science. … Underpinning this approach is three basic analytical principles. … individualism … rational self-interest … exchange. … This imperialism of “reason” (“economic imperialism”, as Fine and Milonakis dub it), has policy consequences. ‘Public choice’ economics, for example, has acquired a prized position in the academia, in think-tanks, and among policy ‘wonks’. … rightist political animus … What I’m describing as the imperialism of market “reason” is nothing other than the ability of the ruling class to naturalise and universalise its accumulation activities, to express it as an ideology, a pseudo-sociology with pseudo-explanations for social phenomena, and to use that ideology as a justification for advancing on and enclosing all areas of public life that are not commodified, not subject to the laws of accumulation.
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Still hanging

by John Q on August 30, 2010

It’s now nine days since the Australian election produced a “hung Parliament”. This term is used rather loosely for any outcome in which neither major party wins a majority of seats, but in this case it’s entirely appropriate. Labor and the Liberal-National coalition[1] each won 72 seats, which means they need the votes of four out of six independents/minor party reps to form government, and the six are wildly disparate.

Anything could happen: four of the six have in the past been Nationals (rural conservatives), though they have gone in very different directions since. If they let bygones be bygones we could have a very conservative government. On the other hand a couple of them now have a greenish tinge, and, with the remaining independent and the single Green party member, we could get a government more progressive than the one that went out.

Overall, this was the kind of election that both major parties deserved to lose and, in some sense, they both did. Isn’t democracy wonderful?

fn1. Here I’m counting as independent one candidate from a dissident branch of the National Party who has stated that he won’t join the coalition.


by John Q on August 29, 2010

Everybody hates drug cheats. But that doesn’t seem to stop it happening, and it’s easy enough to see why.

I just finished the Bridge to Brisbane 10km fun run. I was doing really well on my training, and seemed certain to beat my personal best when I started getting knee pains – nothing really bad, but enough that I stopped before it got any worse. I got some help from the physio and did lots of stretches, but it was still a problem. So, on the day, I just took a couple of ibuprofen, and did my best to ignore it[1]. And, if I could have taken a pill that would fix my knees for me, I would have done so.

Am I, then, a budding drug cheat?

fn1. updated My friend (who beat me by 3 minutes) advises me that my time was 53:20, which is (just) a PB. My knees advise me that they will forgive me just this once. And, I should mention that, thanks to a series of miscalculations, i did the run with no assistance from caffeine, the wonder drug on which I rely for all things. So, with good knees and strong coffee, I can still hope to break 50 (in the right direction – I’ve already broken it chronologically, and of course the wrong way).
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Since I’ve been getting some (well justified) flak from commenters for paying too much attention to interlocutors in the center and right, and not enough to e.g. Marxists, I’m going to try to turn the tables, by pointing out that some of these right wing interlocutors are in fact Marxists without knowing it. “Tyler Cowen”: takes up this bit from Drezner’s review of John’s book (also quoted in John’s post below).

bq. Quiggin thinks he’s only writing about the failure of free-market ideas, but he’s actually describing the intellectual life cycle of most ideas in political economy. All intellectual movements start with trenchant ways of understanding the world. As these ideas gain currency, they are used to explain more and more disparate phenomena, until the explanation starts to lose its predictive power. As time passes, the original ideas become obscured by ideology, caricature and ad hoc efforts to explain away emerging anomalies. Finally, enough contradictions build up to crash the paradigm, although current adherents often continue to advance the ideas in zombielike form. Quiggin demonstrates with great clarity how this happened to the Chicago school of economics. How he can think it won’t happen with whatever neo-Keynesian model emerges is truly puzzling.

hmmm … Stable mode of production. Gradual accumulation of contradictions. Crisis. Emergence of new mode. I wonder “where we might have encountered these claims before …”:

More seriously – I don’t buy Dan’s arguments here. As with most stage theories (not only Marx, but also Kuhn), the mechanisms of institutional reproduction and change in his account are sorely underspecified. ‘Contradictions accumulate’ isn’t a much more helpful empirical claim than ‘shit happens.’ To really understand what is happening, you need a proper theory of the underlying conditions for ideational retention and reproduction. _Why_ do some ideas decay into self-parody, while others do not? After all – not all ideas decay (or at least: not all ideas decay at the same rate). Some economic ideas have continued for centuries (the limited liability corporation), while others have disappeared completely, while others yet have disappeared and reappeared. We don’t know why – but if we want to make the kinds of claim that Dan is making, we _need_ to know why, or at the least, have some rough idea. Otherwise, what we have is at best a sometimes-observed empirical regularity melded to a smidgen of intuition, which is not enough (in my book at least) to dismiss a counter-claim (that one particular idea may have a longer shelf life than previous versions) out of hand. The only large scale effort to come up with a proper theory that I am aware of is the sociological literature on performativity, but this is distinctly more useful in explaining how ideas succeed than how they become ossified, and “lacks any account of the mechanisms producing variation”:

Shorter version: if you want to dismiss someone else’s argument on the basis of a theoretical claim about the life-cycle of ideas in political economy, it’s a good idea to have an _actual theory_ (with mechanisms and such) of the life-cycle of ideas in political economy. I’m not seeing that Dan has one here.

Update: see Dan’s “response here”:, with a set of postulates about what may explain ideational persistence. As he notes, this is not a theory – but in fairness, political science and international relations in particular has done a terrible job in providing such theories to date (some interesting work on norm diffusion, which is not quite the same thing, aside).

A Keynesian zombie idea

by John Q on August 26, 2010

I’ve spent a lot of time double-tapping[1] the zombie ideas of market liberalism. But the comments on my recent rejoinder to Dan Drezner remind me that there are some zombie ideas on the Keynesian side of the fence as well. Perhaps the most important is the claim that the breakdown of the Keynesian system of demand management was the result of an exogenous event – the oil price shock of October 1973, which arose out of the embargo imposed by OPEC during the 4th Arab-Israeli war.

There’s a tiny element of truth in this – after the oil shock, the collapse was rapid and disorderly. But the Keynesian economic order had already broken down by October 1973, and the oil shock was a consequence of that breakdown, not a cause.

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Markets without hierarchy

by Henry Farrell on August 25, 2010

Over the last few days I’ve observed that an increasing number of our spam comments for dubious commercial opportunities in pharmacological products etc have links leading to hijacked pages at “”: Seems quite appropriate. If you want to visit our von Misean friends by the way, be sure to check out this “front page piece”: on how playing _Caesar III_ demonstrates the futility of Marxism and central planning. In its own way, it is quite perfect: the conclusion’s finding that:

bq. As far as it went, Caesar III was an experiment in refutation. If a graduate from the Mises University has trouble planning a make-believe Roman colony, what hope is there that anyone could plan the real thing?

says it all, really.

First Bank of the Living Dead

by John Q on August 24, 2010

That’s the title of Daniel Drezner’s review Zombie Economics along with several other post-crisis books. I’m glad he likes the title, but he offers what seems to me to be a rather unfair representation of my argument. As the author, I’m not exactly unbiased, so see what you think.
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by Henry Farrell on August 24, 2010

“Inside Higher Ed”: has a good article on the Washington Post‘s interesting editorial stance on colleges that make their money through hoovering up the proceeds of student loans rather than, like, actually trying to graduate students with useful degrees.

bq. On Sunday, policy makers, higher education watchers and ordinary readers opened their newspapers and Web browsers to an editorial endorsed by the Post’s staff board that took a stance that could’ve come right out of Kaplan’s playbook. After disclosing the corporate link — noting that the paper is owned by the same company that “owns Kaplan University and other for-profit schools of higher education that, according to company officials, could be harmed by the proposed regulations” — the editorial bashed the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed rules, voicing concerns about access for low-income and working students, and worrying more broadly about how the country could meet President Obama’s higher education goals without for-profit colleges. … The editorial’s disclosure and others like it in the Post’s news coverage of for-profit colleges — touted by the Post’s ombudsman in a column this weekend — don’t go far enough, Asher argued. It’s one thing to acknowledge that Kaplan is owned by the same company, “it’s another to acknowledge the financial dependencies that the Post has on Kaplan, which they don’t do.” Close to 60 percent of the company’s revenues in the most recent fiscal year came from Kaplan. .. Today’s Post features another op-ed denouncing the proposed rules on for-profit higher education. The author is the chairman and chief executive of Strayer Education Inc.

At least this time they are providing some kind of disclosure. I “used to wonder”: why the _Post_ regularly “trotted”: “out”: editorials against broadband regulation, basing arguments on flagrantly bullshit statistics about rural access to broadband. When I found out that the Washington Post Company is the owner of a “cable company”: specializing in service provision to small rural areas my wonderment evaporated. As news publishing becomes ever less profitable in its own right, we can expect ever more attention to the possible side benefits of owning a substantial share of the public debate. The _Washington Post_ has already been a “pioneer”: in exploiting these synergies, and can, I suspect, be relied upon to do more as time goes on.

The Last DJ

by Harry on August 24, 2010

Bob Harris’s 40th anniversary show, here for a few more days. Extraordinary story about David Jacobs and his mum.

Contretemps at Cato

by John Q on August 24, 2010

The intertubes and socialnets have been buzzing with news of big changes at the Cato Institute. First up, there was this piece in the New Yorker, about recent moves by the Koch brothers, who pay the bills, to push Cato more firmly into line with the Repubs and Tea Party, and against Obama. This piece marks the mainstreaming of the term “Kochtopus”, used by the Kochs’ opponents in intra-libertarian struggles to describe the network of organizations they fund.

More striking was the simultaneous departure of Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson. Lindsey has been the leading proponent of a rapprochement between libertarians and (US-style) liberals, under the unfortunate portmanteau of “liberaltarianism”, and Wilkinson was similarly seen as being on the left of Cato.

These departures presumably spell the end of any possibility that Cato will leave the Republican tent (or even maintain its tenuous claims to being non-partisan). And Cato was by far the best of the self-described libertarian organizations – the others range from shmibertarian fronts for big business to neo-Confederate loonies.

On the other hand, breaks of this kind often lead to interesting intellectual evolution. There is, I think, room for a version of liberalism/social democracy that is appreciative of the virtues of markets (and market-based policy instruments like emissions trading schemes) as social contrivances, and sceptical of top-down planning and regulation, without accepting normative claims about the income distribution generated by markets. Former libertarians like Jim Henley have had some interesting things to say along these lines, and it would be good to have some similar perspectives

(a bit more to come when i have time)

EU-US convergence ?

by John Q on August 21, 2010

The NYT ran yet another round in the long-running EU vs US series a week or so ago. Although it’s not covered explicitly in the NYT, there is actually some news to report here, in addition to rehearsal of the same old themes.

For quite some time, the US and the leading EU countries have been fairly comparable in terms of output per hour worked. The US has had higher output per person for two reasons: a relatively high employment/population ratio and very high average hours worked per person. The first of these is important because it raises the possibility that EU countries performing well on productivity measures are benefiting from the “Thatcher effect” . If low-skilled workers are excluded from employment, for example by restrictive macro policy, as in Thatcher’s case, or by labor market sclerosis, as claimed by critics of European institutions, then productivity measures are artificially boosted.

This issue is now moot. As a result of the crisis, the US employment/population ratio has dropped sharply, to the point where the US is now little different from the EU. The difference in GDP per person between the US and leading European countries is driven primarily by differences in average hours worked by employed people.
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Philosophy in the New York Times

by Brian on August 21, 2010

There is a small symposium in the New York Times today about the recent trend in analytic philosophy towards “experimental philosophy”:

As some of the contributors note, it’s easy to overstate the trend that’s going on here. It’s not that for the 20th Century, philosophers used only armchair methods, and with the dawning of the 21st century they are going back to engaging with the sciences. When I was in grad school in the 90s, it was completely common to rely on psychological studies of all of uses, especially studies on dissociability, on developmental patterns, and on what was distinctive about people with autism or with “Capgras Syndrome”: And the influence of Peter Singer on work in ethics meant that purely armchair work in ethics was out of the question, whatever one thought of Singer’s conclusions.

This was hardly a distinctive feature of philosophy in south-eastern Australia. Indeed, we were probably more armchair-focussed than contemporary American philosophers. As Ernie Sosa notes in the entry linked above, 20th century metaphysics is shot through with arguments from results in 20th century physics. The importance of objective chance to contemporary nomological theories is obviously related to the role of chance in different branches of physics and biology, and “modern theories of it”: involve a lot of attention to various sciences. And I’ve lost count of the number of debates I’ve been in in philosophy of language where appeal has been made at one stage or other to cross-linguistic data, which is presumably not armchair evidence unless we assume that the person in the armchair knows every human language. It’s not that I think philosophers do as good a job as they should at drawing on evidence from sources outside traditional philosophy – I’ve even tried to “encourage philosophers”: to do more of this – but they tend to see appeal to other areas of inquiry as a generally acceptable, and often important, kind of move.

So it’s a bit of a stretch to say, as Joshua Knobe does, that in that time “people began to feel that philosophy should be understood as a highly specialized technical field that could be separated off from the rest of the intellectual world.” I’m really not sure which of the great philosophers of the 20th century could be characterised this way. Perhaps if you included mathematics in philosophy and not the “rest of the intellectual world” you can get a couple of great 20th century philosophers in. But I doubt it would get much beyond that.

That’s not to say there’s nothing new or interesting that’s been happening in the last fifteen years or so. In fact I think there are three trends here that are worth noting.
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A Dutch right-wing government?

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 18, 2010

Here comes my long overdue update on the Dutch government formation (I owe you one on Belgium too, but there isn’t much to report, except the lack of progress, and whatever that could be taken to imply). We had “elections in the Netherlands”: early June, and the right-liberals, VVD, emerged as the biggest party. They first tried to form a coalition with the Christian-Democrats (CDA) and PVV, the party of Geert Wilders (in fact, it is not a party, but a ‘movement’: Geert Wilders is the only member and the other people do not have any formal power, and from what we can gather in the media also not much real power.) But CDA refused to enter any talks/negotiations if VVD and PVV did not first come to some rough agreement between the two of them. So that turned into nothing.
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