From the monthly archives:

October 2010

After Zombie Economics, Zombie Sociology

by Kieran Healy on October 31, 2010

It’s just a minor chest wound.

The Mad Monckton

by Henry Farrell on October 29, 2010

“Gideon Rachman”:

bq. The viscount is an interesting character. He once worked in the policy unit at Number Ten under Lady Thatcher and is now deputy leader of the anti-European UK Independence Party. More recently he has become famous as a vociferous climate-change sceptic and for fighting a Quixotic campaign to gain entrance into the House of Lords. I was seated opposite him at the pre-debate dinner, and initially I found his conversation rather unsettling: a blizzard of statistics and anecdotes on everything from climate to Europe, all delivered with supreme confidence and a slight gleam in the eye. I began to think that Viscount Monckton might be a formidable opponent during the debate. Then he told me that he has discovered a new drug that is a complete cure for two-thirds of known diseases – and that he expects it to go into clinical trials soon. I asked him whether his miracle cure was chiefly effective against viruses or bacterial diseases? “Both”, he said, “and prions”. At this point I felt a little more relaxed about the forthcoming debate.

Notes on the Generation Gap

by Jon Mandle on October 28, 2010

According to this Nielsen study, American teens between 13-17 years old are sending or receiving, on average, 3,339 texts per month, and teen girls send or receive 4,050 per month. (Obviously, this is among teens with cell phones.) It’s hard to believe that the average is distorted by a minority of massive users – that’s already a text every 7 to 9 minutes across the whole waking day. Of course, I could be wrong about how much they sleep. On the other hand, the study was conducted between April and June, 2010, so at least some of them were presumably in school – not that this necessarily eliminates all opportunities to text, I know, but it must cut down on them somewhat, right? I mean, we’re talking about high school, not college, here.

“Social cleansing”

by Chris Bertram on October 28, 2010

Thanks to some FB comments by Marc Mulholland, I see that there’s an interesting bit of rhetorical back-and-forth going on in British politics today. Labour claims that ConDem plans to cap housing (and other) benefit payments will have the effect of forcing poor people out of London and therefore amount to “social cleansing”. Useful idiot Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg “pretends to be outraged”: :

bq. To refer to cleansing would be deeply offensive to people who have witnessed ethnic cleansing in other parts of the world.

Unfortunately, for him, in a flanking manoeuvre from the right, London mayor Boris Johnson (Tory) then “repeats the charge”: , making it more explicit and destroying its metaphorical character:

bq. What we will not see, and will not accept, is any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London.

None of this, including the faux-outrage from Clegg, would surprise anyone who has hung around the blogosphere since 2001, since charges of “moral relativism”, “moral equivalence” and “you are implicitly comparing X to Y how dare you!” are the common currency of wingnuts and “decents” alike. This one is mildly interesting, though, because it is a complaint about the adaptation of what was originally a piece of “unspeak”: a euphemism. The complaint depends for its force entirely on the euphemism being understood non-euphemistically, if you see what I mean. I see from some discussion at the Unspeak site, that Steven Pinker has a name for this: the “euphemism treadmill”.

bq. People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations. ( _Blank Slate_ p.212).

Graduate student unionization

by Henry Farrell on October 28, 2010

I’m pleased that the NLRB looks to be “reversing its position on graduate student unionization”:

bq. The National Labor Relations Board, in a 2-to-1 decision, has edged away from its recent history of rejecting unionization rights for graduate teaching assistants at private universities.

In the decision, the NLRB found that the graduate students at New York University who are currently trying to unionize with the United Auto Workers deserve a full hearing on the merits of their organizing drive. In so doing, the majority of the NLRB reversed a regional director’s decision that the UAW could not organize graduate students at NYU because of a 2004 NLRB ruling in a case involving Brown University graduate students.

The decision is particularly piquant because it cites to NYU’s own policies as evidence supporting the grad students’ position.

bq. In its new ruling, the NLRB cites differences in NYU’s relationship with its graduate students now as compared with the past and with other universities today to suggest that they may be entitled to a union. For instance, the NLRB ruling notes that NYU has said that its graduate students who teach do so voluntarily and are free to join the adjunct union at the university for representation in their role as instructors. The NLRB ruling says that this is significant because it means that graduate students are being paid as employees, not simply as graduate students.

A not-so-brief history of violence

by Henry Farrell on October 27, 2010

Public health warning: much much more McArdle-blogging beneath the fold. But take heart – this may possibly be my last and most definitive statement on the topic. I certainly can’t imagine that I will want to write at length about this any more.

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If There was a March for Useful Incivilty, I’d Be Going

by Henry Farrell on October 27, 2010

More on McGarble later – Lemuel Pitkin and norbizness are hereby _strongly advised_ to avert their eyes from my next post. But in the meantime, I wanted to point to “Scott’s great column”: today (which is quite apropos in any event).

bq. The Stewart-Colbert rally is bound to draw young people filled with unhappiness about how the world is going, and I’m not about to begrudge them the right to an interesting weekend. But the anti-ideological spirit of the event is a dead end. The attitude that it’s better to stay cool and amused than to risk making arguments or expressing too much ardor — this is not civility. It’s timidity.

bq. “Here we are now, entertain us” was a great lyric for a song. As a political slogan, it is decidedly wanting. If someone onstage wants to make Saturday’s rally meaningful, perhaps it would be worth quoting the old Wobbly humorist T-Bone Slim: “Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack.”

Academic prestige has some social value

by John Q on October 27, 2010

Having written a series of hit pieces on people who perform the traditional journalistic function of revealing facts that those in power would like to keep secret, NYT “reporter” John Burns copped a hit in return from Glenn Greenwald, and then got some hostile emails. Water off a duck’s back, you might expect, except that

his email inbox has been full of denunciations from readers and a number of academics at top-tier schools such as Harvard, Yale, and MIT. Some, he said, used “language that I don’t think they would use at their own dinner table.”

So there you have it. “Reporters” who are happy to act as propagandists and stenographers for the Pentagon, can still be shocked by coarse language from academics at top-tier schools. Sad to say, doesn’t pack quite the same punch, but it’s nice to know that academic prestige is still of some use. CT readers with appropriately prestigious affilations should take note.

Zero-dimensional chess

by John Q on October 26, 2010

One reason I’m thinking a fair bit about the long term future is that immediate prospects look grim, particularly in the US.

According to this piece from the NY Times on Obama’s post-election plan

After two years of operating at loggerheads with Republicans, Mr. Obama and his aides are planning a post-election agenda for a very different political climate. They see potential for bipartisan cooperation on reducing the deficit, passing stalled free-trade pacts and revamping the education bill known as No Child Left Behind — work that Arne Duncan, Mr. Obama’s education secretary, says could go a long way toward repairing “the current state of anger and animosity.”

Translation: Mr Obama and his aides plan a series of pre-emptive capitulations, after which the Republicans will demand the repeal of the healthcare act (or maybe abolition of Social Security). When/if that is refused, the Repugs will shut down the government, and this time they will hold their nerve until Obama folds.

BTW, the only thing I knew about Arne Duncan before this was that he was a fair country (ie Australian NBL) basketball player. But reading his bio (corporate-style charter school booster, fan of incentives based on standardised tests etc) along with the fact that he’s in close with Obama is indicative of why things have gone so badly in this administration.

The crass jokes, they write themselves

by Henry Farrell on October 25, 2010

Benedict Anderson takes time out of his discussion of the Cuban Revolution in _Under Three Flags_ to tell us that:

bq. With the help of two Asturian anarchists, a young Cuban nationalist called Armando Andre hid a bomb in the roof of the ground-floor toilet of the Captain-General’s palace. The device was supposed to explode when Weyler sat down on the pot, bringing the whole second floor down on his head. The plotters were unaware, however, that Weyler suffered so severely from haemorrhoids that he almost never used the facility, preferring an earthenware field-potty when he had to relieve himself. The bomb went off, but no one was hurt, and Weyler decided to inform Madrid that the explosion had been caused by stoppages which prevented the latrine’s gases from escaping normally.

I am sure that Anderson’s discussion on the same page of how the Captain-General was “partly relieved” at this outcome, and of the “diehard colons” of the Revolution, have _absolutely nothing to do_ with the subject matter of this footnote.

Rhetorical violence

by Henry Farrell on October 25, 2010

Megan McArdle “2010 vintage”:

bq. I thought it was pretty creepy when Jon Chait described another liberal journalist, Michael Kinsley, another journalist, as “curb stomping” economist Greg Mankiw for, yes, daring to suggest that higher marginal tax rates might have incentive effects. Woo-hoo! But why stop with curb-stomping? Wouldn’t it be fun to pile ten-thousand gleaming skulls of supply-siders outside the Heritage Offices? We could mount Art Laffer’s head on a rotating musical pike that plays The Stars and Stripes Forever! Then, in the most hilarious surprise ending of all, the mob could turn on Jon Chait, douse him with gasoline and set him on fire, and then sack the offices of the New Republic!

Megan McArdle “2003 vintage”:

bq. So I was chatting about this with a friend of mine, a propos of the fact that everyone I know in New York is a) more frightened than they’ve been since mid-September 2001 and b) madly working on keeping up the who-the-hell-cares-if -I-get-hit-by-a-truck? insouciance that New Yorkers feel is their sole civic obligation. Said friend was, two short years ago, an avowed pacifist and also a little bit to the left of Ho Chi Minh. And do you know what he said? “Bring it on.”

bq. I can’t be mad at these little dweebs. I’m too busy laughing. And I think some in New York are going to laugh even harder when they try to unleash some civil disobedience, Lenin style, and some New Yorker who understands the horrors of war all too well picks up a two-by-four and teaches them how very effective violence can be when it’s applied in a firm, pre-emptive manner.

I’m afraid I’m not quite bright enough to understand why kerb-stomping-as-a-metaphor for-argumentative-victory is creepy and unfunny, while _actually_ beating up war-protesters with bits of lumber is hee-LAIRIUS. Perhaps someone can tease out the nuances for me in comments.

Update: a commenter points to “this apology by McArdle a couple of years ago”: Fair enough, although it is worth noting that the apology makes much of the claim that she was only suggesting that the two-by-fours should be visited upon “violent protesters.” At the time, her definition of “violent protester” appears to have been a rather expansive one, as suggested by the disagreement between her and our own Daniel Davies in the comment section to her original post. DD noted:

bq. d^2 – The “mayhem” referred to appears to refer to such actions as “walking down the street” when told not to by the police, by the way.

To which he received the reply:

bq. D^2—have you ever been to a rally? Do you know what happens when you try to push past the police barriers? You get into a brawl with the cops, is what. Announcing that you’re going to walk on the street where the police tell you not to is announcing that you’re going to start a melee. There have always been jerks who went to these things spoiling for a fight, and I imagine these ones are going to get a little more than they bargained for. New York is not Seattle.

Or (and I believe I paraphrase fairly here) ‘if you want to walk where you are told not to walk by the police, you’re asking for it.’

What’s Happening to the Republican Party II

by Henry Farrell on October 25, 2010

The “New York Times today”:

bq. The anonymously financed conservative groups that have played such a crucial role this campaign year are starting a carefully coordinated final push to deliver control of Congress to Republicans, shifting money among some 80 House races they are monitoring day by day. … Many of the conservative groups say they have been trading information through weekly strategy sessions and regular conference calls. They have divided up races to avoid duplication, the groups say, and to ensure that their money is spread around to put Democrats on the defensive in as many districts and states as possible — and, more important, lock in whatever gains they have delivered for the Republicans so far.

bq. “We carpet-bombed for two months in 82 races, now it’s sniper time,” said Rob Collins, president of American Action Network, which is one of the leading Republican groups this campaign season and whose chief executive is Norm Coleman, the former senator from Minnesota. “You’re looking at the battle field and saying, ‘Where can we marginally push — where can we close a few places out?’ ”

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Cosmopolitan social democracy

by John Q on October 24, 2010

Angela Merkel’s recent denunciation of German multiculturalism marks another step in the tightening of ties between the market-liberal right and ethnic-national tribalism, evident in other European countries and in the US (most obviously with the rise of the Tea Party). In part at least, this is a result of weakness. The positive appeal of market liberalism has declined a fair bit since the triumphalist decades of the 1980s and 1990s, and the global financial crisis exposed the failure of its theoretical basis. But there are obvious problems for social democrats in responding to this development. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and have come to the view that it’s better to put up some half-thought ideas for discussion (and maybe debunking) than to wait for a perfect formulation.

The left needs to offer a transformational vision of a better society if it is to motivate the kind of enthusiasm needed to overcome a rightwing politics of tribalism and (often misperceived) self-interest. The 19th/20th century vision of socialism and class solidarity provides a model and a starting point, but that model is no longer adequate, and the political movements it gave rise to are in disarray. We need, a world view that extends the solidarity of social democracy to the whole of humanity [1].

The institutions of social democracy have been developed primarily at the level of the nation-state and the popular appeal of social democracy rests on notions of solidarity which arise most naturally in a relatively homogeneous society. Most of the last few decades have been spent defending the social democratic welfare state against attacks which were largely justified by claims about the need to respond to (market liberal) globalisation. That defence has been surprisingly successful, even when market liberalism seemed to have won conclusive intellectual and political victories. It’s natural to continue that defensive stance in response to the current push for “austerity”, and to organise that defence at a national level, while seeking to refurbish and to some extent rationalise the national welfare state.

That defensive struggle is necessary, but I don’t think social democracy can endure indefinitely in this defensive/managerialist mode. As I said a while ago we need to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. That means setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. The goals that seem to me to offer the most hope – a world free of nuclear weapons and extreme poverty, an end to the acceptance of war as an instrument of national policy, action to stabilise the global climate – all involve going beyond national governments and concepts of national interest. And, so I believe, does any plausible program to renew and extend social democracy.

The need for global action on issues like nuclear disarmament and climate change is obvious enough. The argument about social democracy is less obvious. In a world where national borders no longer act as an effective barrier to migration, it is harder to justify social welfare systems in terms of solidarity with people like ourselves (since the population is more diverse) or in terms of mutual insurance or past contributions, at least as regards recent arrivals. Particularly where migrant groups are concentrated at the bottom of the income distribution and are therefore net beneficiaries from the welfare state, including health and education systems as well as social insurance. Less obviously perhaps, internationally mobile workers are unlikely to be happy about paying taxes for welfare systems from which they may not benefit. Within the framework of national social welfare systems, the alternatives are to cut back the system for everyone, to discriminate against recent arrivals, or to tighten restrictions on migration.

The alternative is to extend the welfare state beyond national boundaries. This has already happened in a very modest (and often grudging) way with various agreements between national governments, and somewhat more systematically under EU rules which require national governments to treat all EU citizens equally with respect to some social services.

As between very rich and very poor countries, the benefits of this all go one way. People from poor countries gain from access to social services in rich countries, but not vice versa. But we can turn this argument around to say that the achievements of social democracy in the developed world can’t be secure as long as so much of the world is in extreme poverty. As Jeffrey Sachs has argued (and I’ve argued further), ending extreme poverty is entirely feasible, given an effort comparable to that the developed world has put into fighting pointless wars.

The ultimate goal ought to be one in which, everyone, no matter where they happen to be born has access to the basic requirements for a decent life. That doesn’t entail a world government (at least in the sense in which we typically understand the word “government” today) but it does entail a break with ideas based on nation-states as the ultimate focus of sovereignty. One relatively minor, but important step towards this would come with a “contract and converge” approach to CO2 emissions, which would ultimately imply equal entitlements to emissions per person in all countries [2].

All of this seems utopian in (at least) two senses. First, it seems very hard to sell politically. In part this reflects the long-standing distinction between a maximalist statement of long-term goals and a ‘fighting platform’ for a particular election. Part of my argument is that it’s the lack of long-term vision beyond the preservation of past gains that is sapping enthusiasm for social democracy.

But even after making the obvious adjustments to electoral reality, it’s far from obvious how to fashion a platform based on these ideas that is going to attract majority support in the short term. The power of nationalism and tribalism is strong, and the counter-appeal of global idealism goes only so far. On the other hand, it seems as if there is enough support for greens and leftish social democrats to form the basis of a significant minority that would support such ideas. Given a reaction against rightwing austerity politics, this group could form part of a majority coalition with mainstream social democrats.

More importantly, tribalism and monoculturalist nationalism belong to the past (as do essentialist versions of multiculturalism, in which people are defined by birth into some particular culture). The possibility of sustaining, in any country[3] a majority group (or even a dominant minority) that can be defined homogeneously in terms of race, religion, sexual politics and world-view (all at once) is slipping away fast. Part of the rage of the Tea Party is the fact that its adherents at once recognise this and are unwilling to concede the existence of an America that is not overwhelmingly white, Christian and traditionalist in terms of sexual mores and broader social attitudes. So, the more that social democracy and acceptance of social diversity are seen as two sides of the same coin, the better the long term prospects for social democrats.

The deeper question is whether such a program is feasible at all. Traditional views of international politics take the nation-state as an immutable atomic constituent of the system that can’t be wished out of existence by idealistic political movements. But the reality is that the sovereignty of nation-states has been eroded in all sorts of ways over the years since 1945. That’s most obvious in Europe, but all countries are bound up in a web of international arrangements that are increasingly hard to break out of. Big and powerful states like the US, Russia and China still act intermittently on the assumption that the rules don’t apply to them, but such displays (US and Russian military adventures, China’s attempted blackmail over rare earths) typically have high costs and few benefits. The real question is whether (as was assumed unquestioningly in the years leading up the global financial crisis) such constraints work inevitably in the interests of financialised market liberalism or whether they can be turned in more socially productive directions. I don’t know the answer, but I do think that the attempt to do this represents the best hope for a social democratic future.

Obviously, a lot of what I’ve written above is only partly thought through, and at least some of it is doubtless wrong. However, I’m not really interested in dealing with snarky nitpicking and general derailment, so I will exercise a fair bit of discretion in deleting comments I regard as unhelpful. Over at my blog I’ve opened up a “sandpit” thread where I will direct snark and lengthy off-topic monologues and back-and-forth disputes between commenters.

Finally, a few links to things I’ve found useful (not necessarily because I agreed), from John Keane and Policy Network.

fn1. This certainly isn’t a new claim – Ulrich Beck has been arguing for a similar, cosmopolitan and social democratic, position for some time. But it certainly needs a lot of working out and discussion, and blogging provides me with an avenue to try out ideas like this.

fn2. Although I don’t believe the process is as conscious as this, the ferocious rightwing resistance to the reality of climate change ultimately reflects an intuition that some global action of this kind is the only possible response.

fn3. The big potential exceptions are China and perhaps Japan, although it seems obvious that maintaining current restrictions on immigration will be very costly for Japan.


by Belle Waring on October 24, 2010

I congratulate journalist Megan McArdle for having the good fortune to encounter such a talkative fellow passenger on the D.C. bus the other day.

Yesterday, I rode the bus for the first time from the stop near my house, and ended up chatting with a lifelong neighborhood resident who has just moved to Arizona, and was back visiting family. We talked about the vagaries of the city bus system, and then after a pause, he said, “You know, you may have heard us talking about you people, how we don’t want you here. A lot of people are saying you all are taking the city from us. Way I feel is, you don’t own a city.” He paused and looked around the admittedly somewhat seedy street corner. “Besides, look what we did with it. We had it for forty years, and look what we did with it!”

He’s a little off, because I think black control of Washington D.C. officially occurred only in 1975 when Parliament’s “Chocolate City” was released.

Crimes against humanity

by Chris Bertram on October 23, 2010

It has become commonplace for self-styled leftist erstwhile advocates of the Iraq War to whine that their critics have been unkind to them. Can’t those critics accept, they wheedle, that there were reasons on both sides and that the crimes against humanity of the Saddam regime supported at least a prima facie case for intervention? During an earlier phase of discussion, when those advocates were still unapologetic, but whilst the slaughter was well underway, we were treated to numerous disquisitions on moral responsibility: yes there is slaughter, but _we_ are not responsible, it is Al Qaida/the Sunni “insurgents”/Al-Sadr/Iran ….

Well “the latest Wikileaks disclosures”: ought to shut them up for good (it won’t, of course). “Our” side has both committed war crimes directly and has acquiesced, enabled, and covered up for the commission of such crimes by others. The incidents are not isolated episodes: rather we have systematic policy. The US government has a duty to investigate and to bring those of its own officials and military responsible to justice. Of course, this won’t happen and the Pentagon will pursue the whistle-blowers instead. So it goes.