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.