From the monthly archives:

September 2010

Amartya Sen on the Quality of Life

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 30, 2010

In May this year, I did an interview with Amartya Sen in Cambridge (the British one) on the Quality of Life. The concrete occasion for this interview was “a workshop/conference”: I was involved in, organized by the Dutch National Science Foundation, on the Quality of Life.
Sen couldn’t come to give a talk at this conference, but was happy being interviewed by me. So if you fancy watching 22 minutes of Sen’s views on how to conceptualise and measure the quality of life, on the Sarkozy report on the measurement of economic progress (Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up) and, at the end, on global poverty and whether the rich people really care about the global poor, you can watch it “here”:

How Do You Like Those Tomatoes?

by Henry on September 30, 2010

“Tim Lee”: takes exception to my “post of a couple of weeks ago on James Scott and Friedrich von Hayek”:, suggesting that I construct a ‘curious straw-man’ of Hayek’s views. Unfortunately, he completely misreads the post in question. Nor – on serious investigation – do his own claims actually stand up.

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Blogs, Bullets and Bullshit

by Henry on September 30, 2010

“Matthew Yglesias”: describes this “Malcolm Gladwell piece”: as a ‘smart’ take on ‘how the kind of “weak ties” promoted by online social media can’t do the kind of work of the kind of “hard ties” that the leaders of the civil rights movement used to knock down an authoritarian system.’ I did a “bloggingheads with Julian Sanchez”: yesterday where we discussed this piece – and, to put it mildly, we didn’t find it smart (Julian describes it as his ‘most recent excretion’). Not because it was necessarily _wrong,_ but because it did the usual Gladwell trick of taking a vaguely counter-conventional-wisdom argument (in this case, a rehashing of what Yevgeny Morozov has been saying for the last couple of years), adding some quasi-digested social science and a couple of illustrative anecdotes, and then spinning out a _New Yorker_ article. He’s a good writer (for pre-masticated values of ‘good writing’) but a quite mediocre thinker.

I’ll confess to being _particularly annoyed_ by the Gladwell piece because it seems like the purest possible distillation of the intellectual-debate-through-duelling-anecdotes that has plagued discussion over the Internet and authoritarian regimes over the last few years. As this “new report”: (PDF) for the US Institute of Peace (co-authored by Sean Aday, me, Marc Lynch, John Sides, John Kelly and Ethan Zuckerman) discusses at some length, we more or less have _no idea_ of whether Internet based media hurt authoritarianism, lead to group polarization or anything else.

bq. The sobering answer is that, fundamentally, no one knows. To this point, little research has sought to estimate the causal effects of new media in a methodologically rigorous fashion, or to gather the rich data needed to establish causal influence. Without rigorous research designs or rich data, partisans of all viewpoints turn to anecdotal evidence and intuition.

The report provides a kind of toy investigation of the Iran protests using network analysis and basic data on informational diffusion to discipline the anecdotes, but is primarily focused on pushing for _actual research_ (which would take substantial investments in developing tools and gathering data) that might try to answer the relevant questions. Without such research, we’ll be left relying on Malcolm Gladwell articles to guide our thinking. And that is not a particularly good place to be.

It’s about the distribution, stupid

by Chris Bertram on September 30, 2010

_The workers’ flag is palest pink, since Gaitskell dropped it in the sink, now Harold’s done the same as Hugh, the workers’ flag is brightest blue …._

My hopes for Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party are limitedly optimistic. One of the first things I did after the result was to lift my copy of _The State in Capitalist Society_ off the shelf, where his father wisely writes (p. 244):

bq. “social democratic leaders in government illustrate particularly clearly the limits of reform. For while they raise great hopes among their followers and many others while in opposition, the constrictions under which they labour when in government, allied to the ideological dispositions which lead… them to submit to these constrictions, leave them with little room to implement their policies.”

Indeed. Still, Ed Miliband represents a great improvement on New Labour in one crucial respect. Blair, Mandelson, Milburn and the rest of the gang not only failed to achieve Labour’s goals concerning inequality and social justice, they abandoned them, an abandonment summed up in Mandelson’s notorious statement that he was “intensely relaxed” about people at the top becoming “fithy rich”. New Labour, taking their cue from the Clinton Democrats, abandoned the distributive objectives of the left on the basis that the rising prosperity engendered by growth, markets and globalisation would benefit everyone. Well it hasn’t. Personally I think it was never going to, for “spirit-level” type reasons, among others. But anyway, that model ran into the wall of the banking crisis and we’ll shortly see the absolute standard of living of the poorest falling as the deficit gets clawed back at their expense. The aspirational middle classes, who Blair and Mandelson wooed will also be having a tough time of it: so I’m far from convinced that a renewed emphasis on distribution will cost Labour the centre ground. A continuation of New Labour would, though, certainly doom the party with its core constituency, many of whom would lapse (further) into apathy or would be tempted by the several varieties of right-wing populism (BNP, EDL) on offer.

Not For Profit

by Harry on September 29, 2010

Over at In Socrates’ Wake (a blog about teaching in philosophy, to which I’ve recently started contributing) we’ve been running a seminar on Martha Nussbaum’s new book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (UK ). I’ll write a more substantial review here shortly, but it’s well worth reading my ISW colleagues’ takes on it (and the book itself, which I recommend highly — on the back cover no less). Here are the posts so far, in chronological order: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.

Semesters and Quarters

by Harry on September 28, 2010

Michael Cholbi at In Socrates’ Wake is looking for input on a survey on the relative advantages and disadvantages of the semester and quarter systems. His institution is considering a switch from quarters to semesters. If you have experience of both, please fill it in.

Mean and Regressive

by Henry on September 28, 2010

I just finished reading Justin Fox’s “The Myth of the Rational Market”: (yes: two years late – I know), and came across this story about Daniel Kahneman which I didn’t know, and which illustrates one of those points that is _ex post_ obvious, but _ex ante_ rather brilliant.

bq. The only point Daniel Kahneman was trying to get across was that praise works better than punishment. The Israeli Air Force flight instructors to whom the Hebrew University psychologist delivered his speech that day in Jerusalem in the mid-1960’s were dubious. One veteran instructor retorted:

On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver, and in general when they try it again they do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution, and in general they do better. So please don’t tell us that reinforcement works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.

bq. As a man trained in statistics, Kahneman saw that _of course_ a student who had just brilliantly executed a maneuver (and was thus praised for it) was less likely to perform better the next time around than a student who had just screwed up. Abnormally good or bad performance is just that – abnormal, which means it is unlikely to be immediately repeated. But Kahneman could also see how the instructor had come to his conclusion that punishment worked. “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean,” he later lamented, “it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.”

The Gray Lady Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

by John Holbo on September 28, 2010

If she is going to be complaining about lack of erudition under headlines like this:

On Basic Religion Test, Many Doth Not Pass

Hat tip: Belle (she was just standing right next to me, so I can’t link to it). “Did they learn about religion from a bunch of old Thor comics?” Belle wants to know.

Speaking of which, our daughters actually use ‘doth‘ in this wrong way quite a bit, because I bought them Mini Marvels [amazon], which is pretty good.

I cut off the final joke: namely, Loki actually is wearing baggy pants. But I think it’s funnier if the joke is just about systematic abuse of language.

UPDATE: Yon Gray Lady Hath Fixethed It.


by Henry on September 27, 2010

I don’t know whether Clive Crook is _deliberately_ trying to show us how thin the partitions are between supposedly sensible centrism and “grand guignol style theater”:, but he’s certainly doing a damn fine job of it.

bq. These and other compromises disappointed the left. But the message to the electoral centre was consistent: Mr Obama would have let the left have its way if he could. What he should have done – and what he ought to do from now on – is simple. Instead of blessing leftist solutions, then retreating feebly to more centrist positions under pressure, he should have identified the centrist policies the country could accept and advocated those policies. … The left will tear its hair over another surrender and the centre will note where the president’s sympathies actually lay. … Substantively, whether taxes on high-income households rise now or two years from now does not matter very much. … Symbolically, though, Mr Obama’s position speaks volumes. … Nothing short of the Scandinavian model (plus stronger unions, minus the commitment to liberal trade) will ever satisfy the Democratic left. Its role, its whole purpose, is to be betrayed. So betray it, Mr President, and start leading from the centre.

This really is a rather wonderful piece of writing in its own, quite particular way. Mr. Crook “doesn’t have a theory of politics”: (he never bothers to provide any evidence for all those confident assertions about how centrists are vigilantly monitoring the Obama administration for the slightest hint of hippy-hugging), so much as a kind of torrid internal psychodrama that (for reasons best known to him) he has chosen to inflict upon us repeatedly in printed form and that (for reasons best known to them) the editorial team of the _Financial Times_ has decided to pay him for. And that psychodrama is on full display here. The dithering Obama, trying to resist the siren-calls of the left and only half-succeeding. The ever-disappointed centrist voter, sadly shaking its collective head yet again as the president hesitates over whether to embrace his true love or to succumb to the allures of forbidden passion. And that frenzied maenad, the left, fated always to be betrayed, because it is only in being betrayed that she can achieve her true destiny. It’s like an opera. A _very bad_ opera. Or perhaps one of those Greek plays in which everyone ends up killing each other after having had sex with their parents and siblings. What it doesn’t resemble – at all – is a piece of serious political thinking and writing. I’d have thought that this would be a significant problem for a political column myself – but then I’m not an editor for the _Financial Times._

Kraken at FDL

by Henry on September 26, 2010

I’m hosting a discussion on China Mieville’s Kraken at FireDogLake, starting 5pm ET. Feel free to drop by if you have any questions for China – I think the URL should be “this”: and if not, just click on the post at the top of “this page”:

Ed Miliband by a sliver

by Harry on September 25, 2010

Open thread.

Trolley Problems

by John Holbo on September 25, 2010

Evergreen philosophy topic! Sure to inspire much friendly discussion!

I don’t usually lecture about the stuff myself, but this semester I decided to, so I cartooned up some images for the PPT slides. So the first thing I have to say is that if anyone has a use for ’em, I’ve released ’em under a CC license. [click to continue…]

The text and the book

by John Quiggin on September 24, 2010

I’ve been living with the text of Zombie Economics for a long time and the cover art came out a while back. But now I finally have my hands on a physical copy of the book, and it’s surprising what a difference the real object makes. My immediate reaction was to open it with dread, sure that some terrible error would jump out at me, but that didn’t happen (no doubt the reviewers will find them, but that’s their job).

With that out of the road, I’ve been filled with irrational confidence. “Surely”, I think, “even the most jaded traveller, passing this book on the airport bookstall, will feel impelled to buy it”. No doubt, this optimistic glow won’t survive the arrival of actual sales figures, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.


by Kieran Healy on September 23, 2010

The application you’ve been looking for:

While some so-called environments that are less free of distraction may display one, three, or even more lines of text—all at the same time—we understand that if you could only achieve the theoretical removal of all theoretical distractions, you would finally be able to write something. And we want ū— to help you almost do that.

I think what makes Merlin Mann compelling is that he knows he has something important to get across about work and creativity, but what he has to convey is a kind of non-demonstrative non-formula, and trying to say it more than once puts him in the same business niche as a legion of people he rightfully despises. He is quite aware of this, so you see him constantly tuning his anti-pitch and sharpening his anti-advice to make sure he doesn’t find himself, late one night, naked on a bed in a motel in Omaha watching himself deliver an infomercial. It’s the problem of trying to teach something that needs to be shown, or of trying to theorize a craft — the way that critics of postwar critical theory used to say that the trouble with those guys was that they had succeeded in unifying theory and practice, in theory. His advice is excellent, but the act of delivering and listening to it subverts the point of the message, or is an example of the problem that needs solving.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to tweak my citation format. I’ve nearly gotten it just right.

Tea Parties and Slime Moulds

by Henry on September 21, 2010

I’ve been mulling over Jonathan Rauch’s “essay on the Tea Party movement”: for the last few days. It is a really fascinating piece of sociological journalism. And this “post by Brad Plumer”: brought some of the inchoate thoughts swirling around my head into focus.

bq. Jonathan Bernstein touches on an interesting question below: Who, exactly, speaks for the Tea Party movement? Many Tea Partiers would say that no one does. It’s a grassroots movement, decentralized, self-organizing, bottom-up—all that jazz. Apart from Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, it doesn’t really have any leaders. And yet, there are plenty of groups that would love to channel the Tea Parties’ energy (and rage, let’s not forget rage) for their own purposes. On top of that, the Tea Party movement may need a bit of centralization and coordination to survive and prosper in the future. But all those competing priorities can create an awful lot of tension.
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