From the monthly archives:

November 2010

Pot’o’goldbollocks and social partnership

by Henry on November 23, 2010

“Tyler Cowen”: links to my post on Ireland, which is somewhat embarrassing, as I was convinced in comments that my basic argument was wrong (short version: _always_ check taxation statistics you think you have a fair idea of before you post opinions regarding their implications). While property taxes played a crucial role in Ireland’s fiscal disaster, corporate taxes were simply not a large enough part of revenue to be worth talking about (and probably would not have been under any plausible alternative regime).

Nonetheless, I still want to make a (weaker and more indirect) argument about the relationship between Ireland’s efforts to attract inward investment (which included, but were not limited to, its taxation regime) and its current state of disaster. The short version: the desires (a) to attract inward investment, and (b) to maintain peaceful industrial relations helped reinforce an unsustainable fiscal strategy. This has implications for the left as well as for the right.

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In the course of concocting a bad argument against Peter Singer, Zizek says something … well, you tell me:

Jacques-Alain Miller, the main pupil of Jacques Lacan, once described an uncanny laboratory experiment with rats. In a labyrinthine setup, a desired object (a piece of good food or a sexual partner) is first made easily accessible to a rat; then, the setup is changed in such a way that the rat sees and thereby knows where the desired object is, but cannot gain access to it. In exchange for it, as a kind of consolation prize, a series of similar objects of inferior value is made easily accessible. How does the rat react to it? For some time, it tries to find its way to the “true” object; then, upon ascertaining that this object is definitely out of reach, the rat will renounce it and put up with some of the inferior substitute objects. In short, it will act as a “rational” subject of utilitarianism. It is only now, however, that the true experiment begins: the scientists performed a surgical operation on the rat, messing about with its brain, doing things to it with laser beams about which, as Miller put it delicately, it is better to know nothing. So what happened when the altered rat was again let loose in the labyrinth, the one in which the “true” object is inaccessible? The rat insisted; it never became fully reconciled to the loss of the “true” object and resigned itself to one of the inferior substitutes, but repeatedly returned to it, attempted to reach it. In short, the rat was in a sense humanized; it assumed the tragic “human” relationship toward the unattainable absolute object that, on account of its very inaccessibility, forever captivates our desire.

Zizek provides a footnote for the rat experiment: “See Jacques-Alain Miller, Ce quifait insigne, unpublished seminar 1984-85; lecture given 3 Dec. 1984.” Unfortunately, since it is unpublished, I cannot. It doesn’t sound impossible. But the whole ‘doing things with laser beams’ aspect is suspiciously approximate. Has any rat experimenter, to your knowledge – oh, CT commentariat – devised a method of consistently laser-inducing utopianism in rats, I suppose you might call it. Rats that just won’t settle for second best, jouissance-wise? Or is Zizek peddling some Lacanian urban myth?

The Zizek passage is from “A Plea For Leninist Intolerance” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), p. 549-50.

The crisis of 2011 – in 2010?

by John Quiggin on November 20, 2010

Back in July, no one seemed to be talking about a shutdown of the US government following the Dems loss of control of the House. Now the only question is – when?

David Dayen at FDL says it could be as soon as December (I don’t understand the mechanics well enough to confirm or reject this claim). Among those looking forward to the shutdown, the most notable, for a variety of reasons is Alan Simpson. Obama must really be feeling the gratitude there.

There’s still a chance that the Dems can manage a pre-emptive capitulation/collaboration so massive that some on the other side will be willing to cash in their gains without taking the risk of a shutdown. I imagine that would entail, at a minimum, full extension of the Bush tax cuts, effective repeal of the health care bill, no more money for the unemployed, Social Security ‘reform’ and a bunch of spending cuts directed at the tribal demons of the Tea Party. Of those, health care is the only one where I can see the White House taking a stand. I’m less clear about the priorities of the Congressional Dems.

The Social Security Trust Fund

by John Holbo on November 20, 2010

Yglesias has a post about the rhetoric of The Social Security Trust Fund, in response to a Planet Money podcast on the subject. The puzzle of the podcast is: how can there even be an argument about whether a giant Trust Fund exists or not? Shouldn’t that be sort of obvious? Yglesias is in the ‘it exists’ camp. And I think that’s right.

Here’s the way to think about the Trust Fund, to make it seem it doesn’t exist. The Social Security Trust Fund takes in money that it socks away, for an elderly day, in the form of government bonds. But, since it’s all just the government, that’s your right hand loaning your left hand money. If I am poor, I can’t get rich selling myself a lot of ‘Holbo bonds’. I can’t have my cake and eat it, too, earning money with the left hand, then loaning that money to the right hand, to spend on a piece of cake to be eaten now, while also writing on a piece of paper, ‘the right hand owes the left hand a piece of cake’. That seems like double-counting in the worst way.

Here’s the way to think about it, so it seems like the Trust Fund exists. The parents (government) agree that the child (Social Security) should have an allowance. The child wants to save the money. So the parents keep a running account. Every week, the parents write the child an IOU, which the child dutifully puts in a little box. Over time the box comes to contain a lot of IOU’s from the parents. Meanwhile, the parents are not separately putting funds that would correspond to those IOU’s into yet another box. They are just running the household. But the IOU’s exist, and are backed by the parents. [click to continue…]


by John Quiggin on November 17, 2010

Most of the discussion I’ve seen of the financial crisis as it affects the eurozone seems to me both confused and confusing. A country outside the eurozone and without the “exorbitant privilege” of being able to sell lots of debt denominated in home currency has three options when it runs into debt trouble: default, depreciation and dependency.

Default is the straightforward solution, but it involves a big loss of face, and unpredictable long-term costs. Depreciation doesn’t directly improve the debt position, since debts are in foreign currency, but by making exports cheaper and imports dearer it helps a country to trade its way out of difficulty, without the need for a reduction in domestic prices and wages. Finally, there’s the option of dependency on an outside rescuer, normally the IMF. This has been the most common solution, but the IMF always demands a price (in terms of policy “reforms”) that makes a rescue only marginally more attractive than default.

A eurozone country doesn’t have the option of depreciation. In return, however, it has two dependency options, calling on either the IMF, or the European Financial Stability Fund. Since the EU would like to keep the IMF out, a distressed debtor can expect slightly better terms from the EFSF.

The default option isn’t affected, except in the same way as any kind of behavior viewed as discreditable affects membership of any club. A government that defaults on its debts might be thrown out of the eurozone, but then again it might be thrown out of the OECD, and the eurozone might expel a member that facilitated tax evasion.

The big question is whether the EFSF will work. That’s certainly challenging, but it still seems like a better bet for debtor countries than going it alone. And of course, there’s more commonality of interest than is often supposed because any bailout benefits the creditors, usually French and German banks

Breaking News: Humanities in Decline! Film at 11.

by Michael Bérubé on November 16, 2010

<a href=”″>Drew Gilpin Faust does a reasonably good job of defending the study of the  humanities</a> in this brief interview, especially after interviewer Tamron Hall’s second question puts the concepts of “critical thinking” and “imagination” on the table.  But I have to say that the whole thing gets off to a false start — no, wait, hold the phone, make that <i>two</i> false starts.

The second false start is the opening of Faust’s response to the first question, which raises the likely possibility that the “perhaps the occupation of an art historian won’t pay the bills.”

<blockquote>Well, I think that the issue of jobs is sometimes misunderstood by students.  We have many Harvard undergraduates who did major, as we say at Harvard concentrate, in the humanities who’ve gone on to be very prosperous and to be very successful in fields like business and a wide range of professional fields.  So what you study as an undergraduate is not necessarily the path that you will follow professionally once you leave school.  And in fact humanities majors, a wide range of liberal arts majors, prepare you very well for a variety of different fields.  So I think students need to understand that as they make their choices as undergraduates.</blockquote> [click to continue…]

The Political Economy of Autism Education

by Henry on November 16, 2010

“Laura at 11D”:

bq. Our next IEP is a big one. Every four years, a child must be tested in a variety of ways. We met back in August to discuss which tests would need to be done on Ian. He was tested for speech, IQ, educational levels, and audio-processing. He went through his first battery of tests back when he was four, so it will interesting to see how far he’s progressed. So, why is an IEP a game of chess? Because I want Ian to receive more therapy and the school district wants him to have less. … Every school district assigns a case worker to supervise your child. Their stated mission is to represent the interests of the child. However, the real mission of the case worker is to limit the amount of money that a school district spends on the child.

bq. He needed to be in a specialized school that had experienced teachers and ABA specialists. Instead, he went to a half-day program in our school with a general special ed teacher, who had no idea of how to work with him. The school district wanted to keep him there, because it was cheaper than sending him to a full day program in another district. They knew that he needed extra help. They discouraged me from going to a neurologist, who would have given us that very important diagnosis. When I was in distress about his education, they told me to stop worrying and get a manicure.

bq. We have a superintendent who gets up in public forums and announces that we are one autistic child away from blowing the budget. Town council members have said in public sessions that we can’t build any more houses in our town, because a family might move in with an autistic child and it will cost us $100,000. During our recent town budget crisis, another case manager in our town said that our expenses are so high, because we pay our therapists too much money. There is a witch-hunt atmosphere around special ed students.

bq. … So, I will enter a conference room in the next few weeks with a carefully arranged speech and specific demands. If Ian needs five hours of after school therapy, I’ll ask for ten. Maybe we’ll get three hours, if we’re lucky.

Tom Waits, Glitter and Doom

by John Holbo on November 16, 2010

This NPR Concerts presentation of Tom Waits, live, on his Glitter and Doom tour, may be the best damn concert recording I’ve ever heard. You can also get it through iTunes. Search NPR concerts.

Recipe Corner: two gluten-free cakes.

by Harry on November 15, 2010

Don’t be put off by the title. I’ve been entertaining students this week — members of my current freshman seminar on Monday, who watched an episode of Freaks and Geeks on campus for which I bought healthy food (after assuring the one who was made nervous by my reference to “healthy” that it would indeed be filling), and 12 members of my 2007 seminar on Friday at my home. One of the 2007 class is now working as a teacher critic/peer mentor in the current class, so she was at both events, and suspects that she has an allergy to gluten. (I hired her to tell me what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong as a teacher, which she is even better at than I imagined, and has time left over to get to know the freshmen, participate in class discussions, etc). I planned to bake one cake for the current class, and two for the 2007 class: and thought I’d just try to do it gluten free.

Working on the principal that of the four main grains corn and rice are far inferior to wheat, it occurred to me that, since oats are superior to wheat, maybe that was the way to go. So I’d try making my cakes with oat flour. My daughter observed that without gluten the rising process might be inhibited, and suggested adding an extra egg or two, and some chemical leavening (no idea whether she’s right about the chemistry, but I thought it worth a try). So I did. Both cakes turned out absolutely delicious — definitely no less good than when made with regular flour. Honestly, if you have a gluten-allergic guest or someone gluten-allergic in the house, these are cakes you’ll be happy to serve to everyone (I was also rather surprised how good the quinoa pasta tasted — as long as you have it pretty al dente, its good). Anyway, here they are:

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One-dimensional chess

by John Quiggin on November 14, 2010

The big issue to be decided by the lame-duck Congress is whether to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the very rich[1]. This is a one-dimensional chess game, with the obvious zero-sum property that if the tax go through, the Republicans win and (at least in standard political terms) the Democrats lose by an equal amount.

There seems to be a near-universal consensus that
(i) The game is a forced win for the Dems (pass a bill extending the cuts for everyone but the rich and dare the Repugs to oppose it)
(ii) The Dems opening move will be to resign

This analysis certainly gives support to the idea of unobserved dimensions, presumably monetary

fn1. The option of not extending them for the well-off, and doing something serious about the deficit without too much impact on demand is way outside the Overton window.

Chestertonian Antinomies

by John Holbo on November 13, 2010

Somehow I ended up reading about Tolkien’s anarcho-monarchism in this First Things piece, by David B. Hart. (Yes, yes.)

There should be a rhetorical term for the sort of stock, boilerplate, conservative antinomian complex irony with which the piece concludes. (‘Antinomian’ from an + tinom, proto-Germanic for ‘on tin’. The earliest occurrence is in Wodehouse: “The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.” By metaphoric extension, ‘antinomianism’ was retroactively picked up by the likes of Martin Luther – who would have found Chesterton a trying personality – and applied, generally, to anyone who, like Chesterton, considers that, for some obscure reason, the law doesn’t apply to him. Antinomians can mint paradoxes, while indignantly fulminating against paradox. They can speak up for plain, English commonsense in terms that would make a Frenchman blush at the extravagance of the gesture. That sort of business.)

I suppose we could do worse than just calling it a Chestertonian antinomy. Hart’s goes like this:

We all have to make our way as best we can across the burning desert floor of history, and those who do so with the aid of “political philosophies” come in two varieties.

There are those whose political visions hover tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages, and who are as likely as not to get the whole caravan killed by trying to lead it off to one or another of those nonexistent oases. And then there are those whose political dreams are only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.

I like to think my own political philosophy—derived entirely from my exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows—is of the latter kind. Certainly Tolkien’s was. Whatever the case, the only purpose of such a philosophy is to avert disappointment and prevent idolatry.

Now how does Hart hope to evade the awkward consideration that trying to cross a desert with only a dog-eared copy of The Wind in the Willows as your guide is as likely to get the whole caravan killed as any other method that might be tried? Well, obviously he doesn’t mean it. But that’s the trick. Because this is the point in the discussion at which Hart is most obliged to mean something by something. Because this is the point at which the circular peg of anarcho-monarchism fits into the round hole of solid English conservatism – of plain common sense, disdaining all conceptual extravagance and idle concept-mongery! Well, how does it?

Imagine a world in which progressives penned pieces that ended like so: ‘I like to think there are two sorts of political philosophies. Utopian dreams, and down-to-earth, pragmatic proposals for things that just might work. My own ideas about politics – derived wholly from a bongwater-stained edition of the 1970 Whole Earth Catalogue and a close reading of the liner notes to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma – are decidedly of the latter sort.’ Rhetorical life – if not mental life – would be greatly eased if this sort of gesture – superficially silly – seemed to promise a sort of slow, serious, mature attunement to First Things. Ah, that would be The Life.

In other news, my copy of Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword [amazon] just arrived. Oh, joy! I think I’ll read it. You can read just the first 15 pages here.

Belated Remembrance Day post

by John Quiggin on November 12, 2010

Over the fold is the piece I wrote for the Fin which ran yesterday, on Remembrance Day. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the last couple of paras, referring to the present and future, so I need to spell them out a bit more.

First, while I was, in 2002, a fairly enthusiastic supporter of the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, subsequent events and the evolution of my own thinking have led me to qualify that view, and to conclude, in particular, that Australia should withdraw its troops in the near future.

First, some general thoughts

* War is justified only in self-defence, and only to the extent that there is a reasonable expectation that going to war will yield a better outcome than not doing so
* Even when war is justified by self-defence, it should not be used as a pretext for securing benefits that go beyond restoration of the status quo ante bellum (bearing in mind that war changes things, so exact restoration is often not feasible).
* Political and public thinking is biased in favor of the belief that military force is an effective way to deal with political problems and a successful use of military force (even if justified) reinforces this bias. So it is important to create whatever institutional constraints are possible, such as requirements for Parliamentary approval of decisions to go to war
* Even when justified ex ante, war is unpredictable and likely to go badly. The idea that having started on a war that has turned out badly, we should “see it through” is a mistake

Coming to Afghanistan, I think the self-defence case was clear-cut. The US was attacked by terrorists trained in and led from Afghanistan, by a group supported by the Taliban government. It’s possible to make a hypothetical case that absent the incompetence and malice of the Bush Administration (backed by Blair and Howard in the decision to start a new war in Iraq) that there was a reasonable expectation of success. However, I observe with some discomfort that much the same case is put forward by many on the left who backed the Iraq war, where, however, the self-defence case was a transparent sham. In any case, we are past the point where continuing the war can be expected to produce benefits for either Afghanistan or the world. It would be better to withdraw and spend some of the money saved as a result (many times Afghanistan’s annual national income) on aid.

I concluded my post by saying “On this Remembrance Day, we should honour the sacrifice of all those who died by giving up, once and for all, the belief that war should be part of our national policy.” To be clear, I am not a pacifist and do not oppose fighting in self-defence. The idea that “war should be part of our national policy” means to me, that the use or threat of military force can and should be used to advance our perceived national interest. This idea, which forms the basis of military policy in most countries, appears to to both morally wrong and factually false.

Finally, I collected a fair bit of flak not long ago for writing that the outbreak of the Great War was the critical disaster in the history of the 20th century. I don’t step back from that, but I don’t really want to re-argue the case here, so I’m not going to respond to disputes about it.

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Three Years of ‘Understanding Society’

by Henry on November 10, 2010

I’ve been dealing with multiple deadlines, and am about to fly to Boston for another conference, which has stopped me from blogging about several things I wanted to. Perhaps the most significant of which was the third anniversary last week of Daniel Little’s “Understanding Society”: blog. It’s a wonderful, if atypical blog – Little uses the blog to write a couple of mini-essays a week on topics of interest in the hinterlands between sociology and political science.

bq. In beginning this effort in 2007 I had envisioned something different from the kinds of blogs that were in circulation at the time — something more like a dynamic, open-ended book manuscript than a topical series of observations. And now, approaching 500,000 words, I feel that this is exactly what the blog has become — a dynamic web-based monograph on the philosophy of society. … The writing process here is quite different from that involved in more traditional academic writing. … Writing an academic blog has a different structure. It is a question of doing serious thinking, one idea at a time. Each post represents its own moment of thought and development, without the immediate need to fit into a larger architecture of argument. Eventually there emerges a kind of continuity and coherence out of a series of posts; but the writing process doesn’t force sequence and cumulativeness. Instead, coherence begins to emerge over time through recurring threads of thinking and writing.

There really is nothing else quite like it. I also highly recommend Little’s book _Varieties of Social Explanation_, which I’ve taught in graduate seminars (it is twenty years old, and it would be lovely to see a revised edition one of these days, but it is still excellent).

Heckuva job

by John Quiggin on November 10, 2010

Watching a TV report on the Merapi volcano eruption, I was struck by a feeling of deja vu. Warned that the volcano was likely to erupt, Indonesian authorities have organised the evacuation of over 200 000 people into temporary shelters – the report I saw showed people at a large football stadium, well cared for but crowded and anxious to go home. I couldn’t find that report, but here’s another on volunteer teachers helping to keep kids entertained. Indonesia is a poor country that has had more than its share of disaster (natural and otherwise), and there have been plenty of problems, but overall this was an impressive effort.

For those who would like to help, here’s the Indonesian Red Cross site.

Cultures of Impunity

by Henry on November 9, 2010

“Matt Yglesias”: on the horrors of the Irish economy.1

bq. Today of course Ireland is a total disaster. I wouldn’t try to blame their property crash on low tax rates. But by the same token a frightening number of pundits went “all-in” on the idea that Ireland’s conserva-friendly tax policies were behind a boom that was in fact driven by a real estate bubble.

I personally _would_ try to blame a fair chunk of Ireland’s property market crash on low corporate tax rates.
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