From the monthly archives:

December 2010

Zizek On The Financial Collapse – and Liberalism

by John Holbo on December 17, 2010

In First As Tragedy, Then As Farce [amazon], Zizek claims that “the only truly surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is how easily the idea was accepted that its happening was an unpredictable surprise which hit the markets out of the blue” (p 9). He cites the following evidence that people could and, indeed, did know it was coming.

Recall the demonstrations which, through the first decade of the new millennium, regularly accompanied meetings of the IMF and the World Bank: the protester’s complaints tool in not only the usual anti-globalizing motifs (the growing exploitation of Third World countries, and so forth), but also how the banks were creating the illusion of growth by playing with fictional money, and how this would all have to end in a crash. It was not only economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz who warned of the dangers ahead and made it clear that those who promised continuous growth did not really understand what was going on under their noses. In Washington in 2004, so many people demonstrated about the danger of a financial collapse that the police had to mobilize 8,000 additional local policemen and bring in a further 6,000 from Maryland and Virginia. What ensued was tear-gassing, clubbing and mass arrests – so many that police had to use buses for transport. The message was loud and clear, and the police were used literally to stifle the truth.

The first examples are tendentious, as allegedly successful predictions of market movements tend to be. (Many predicted a crash. They always do. How many predicted the one that actually arrived, and when it would?) But I’m more curious what the last bit is about. What protest was this? The Million Worker March is all I can come up with. But that didn’t involve any far-sighted demands that financial collapse be forestalled. “Organizers have issued 22 demands, a broad array of grievances that go far beyond workers’ rights. Organizers call for universal health care, a national living wage, guaranteed pensions for all working people and an end to the outsourcing of jobs overseas. They also are demanding a repeal of the Patriot Act, increased funding for public education, free mass transit in every city, a reduction of the military budget and cancellation of what they consider pro-corporation pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.” Nothing about the dangers of mortgage-backed securities. Also, so far as I can recall – and Google seems to back me – the Million Worker March was relatively small and peaceful. So is that even what Zizek is talking about?

Also, Zizek has odd ideas about how the bank bailouts were supposed to work. [click to continue…]

Feasible utopia for 20 year olds, Part II

by John Q on December 17, 2010

My previous post on the options society should offer 20-year olds got a big and useful response. But unsurprisingly, given the CT roster and readership, it was very university-centric, and, within that, focused on issues around elite institutions. A sentence and footnote about Oxford and Cambridge got as much attention as the rest of the post put together. And the same is true, more subtly, of other points that were raised in repsonse. So, I want to point to some neglected aspects of the post, and ask commenters to focus primarily on the issues as they affect the majority young people who will not go to top-ranked universities, even in a system with greatly expanded access.

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A little good news for a change

by Michael Bérubé on December 16, 2010

The Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State is pleased to announce its very-first-ever postdoctoral position:

<blockquote>Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities
Postdoctoral/ MFA Fellowships:  Being Humans

<blockquote>For artists and humanists, these are extraordinary times: our sense of “the human” is undergoing remarkable transformations, with implications for the future of all life on the planet.  How should we understand our relation to animal cognition, to artificial intelligence, to the biosphere, to disability, to genetics?  Can we imagine a form of humanism in which the boundaries of the human are unstable?</blockquote> [click to continue…]

Realistic utopianism for 20-year olds

by John Q on December 15, 2010

Looking at the debate over UK protests over the tripling of tuition fees, it seems to me that this is an occasion where realistic utopianism (I’m paraphrasing Erik Olin Wright here) is needed, and is currently in short supply. The present ways in which modern societies determine the life choices available to 20 year olds are unsatisfactory and inequitable, and the British system is (or seems from a distance) to be more inequitable than many, perhaps most. So, defending that system against change, even change that will make things worse, is difficult and problematic. Rather than ask what incremental reforms might make things better, it seems like a good idea to ask how we might design a set of institutions from scratch, and then think about the implications for existing systems.

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“Something NEW has been added!”

by John Holbo on December 15, 2010

I always figured that great scene, and great line, from “The Hep Cat” was some sort of early 1940’s pop culture reference. Now I know.

Internet made me a radio star?

by John Q on December 15, 2010

I’m going to be on the Peter Schiff Internet Radio show, Thursday at 6:35 PM EST, talking about Zombie Economics. It should be interesting. A while ago, I had quite an interesting chat with Russ Roberts, whose views are, I think, fairly similar to Schiff’s, so i’m hoping for some creative interaction on the Keynesian and Austrian approaches to thinking about financial crises and depressions. I planned a full scale post on this, but haven’t had time yet.

I have a legal question about the Wikileaks case, prompted by this this Guardian piece, by John Naughton, linked in Henry’s comments. I must confess: I wasn’t surprised or particularly scandalized when Amazon kicked Wikileaks off its cloud, because I figured Amazon was probably technically in the right. Wikileaks had probably violated whatever terms of service were in place. I thought this sounded like the sort of thing any private company was likely to do, whether or not Joe Lieberman actually brought pressure to bear. If you have a problem customer who has violated your terms of service, you terminate service. (Just to be clear: I think ongoing attempts to shut down Wikileaks in patently legally dodgy ways are an utter scandal. Joe Lieberman pressuring Amazon is a scandal. I’m with Glenn Greenwald. I also think existing intellectual property laws are, by and large, an atrocious mess. Still, the law is what it is, so the question of how a private company like Amazon can and should be expected to react to this sort of situation is narrower than certain other more general questions about free speech and the press and so forth.)

My thought was this: Wikileaks obviously can’t own the copyright, so Amazon should not be expected to be slower to shut them down than they would be to shut down someone hosting pirate copies of Harry Potter novels. An annoying consideration, because it’s perfectly obvious that, if there is a good reason to take Wikileaks down, it isn’t because it’s like Napster in its glory days, or whatever. But there you go. But the Guardian piece says this is wrong: [click to continue…]

Best books 2010

by Henry Farrell on December 13, 2010

Below the fold, a short list of the books I really liked in 2010. Readers are invited to submit their own favorites in comments.
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Ireland’s Budget: living under Draco?

by niamh on December 13, 2010

Budget 2011 which is before the Irish parliament now is widely described as draconian. This is the first instalment in the four-year plan to bring the budget deficit to below 3% by 2014. The adjustment is front-loaded to take out €6bn in spending cuts and tax increases in 2011. The total retrenchment will come to €15bn, under the terms of the recent IMF-ECB rescue plan.

The scale of the effort required is massive. The reason is not because the government deficit is so high – by itself, this would be painful but manageable – but because, as part of the loan agreement, no renegotiation of bank debts is possible. The large private deficits in the financial sector have been, in effect, socialized. There is no real distinction any more between the sovereign debt and bank debt. As a result, the government deficit this year stands at 32% of GDP.

Ireland thus becomes an international showcase for a new kind of politics. What happens to a country swallowing the political poison of internal deflation, and trying to grow its way out of trouble when it can neither gain competitive advantage by devaluing, nor inflate away the distributive conflicts that must ensue? Suppose the interest rate payable on its large loan is 5.7%, growth estimates of 2% are deemed too ambitious, and the immediate consequence of the stabilization plan is to be awarded a downgrade by the international bond ratings agencies? Note that national per capita income is already 20% lower in 2010 than it was in 2007. Add in the facts that the ruling coalition is deeply unpopular, the smaller party has declared its plan to withdraw soon, and the slim government majority relies on the votes of two often fractious independent deputies. How might this grim scenario unfold?

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Another threat to the humanities and social sciences?

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 13, 2010

A group of scholars at the Freie Universität in Berlin is distributing via E-mail and their website alarming information about downsizing of the EU research funding in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The EU is currently drawing up its 8th framework program, in which it decides how to allocate its money – to which fields, for what type of research, what the conditions are, etc. Apparently it is not only a matter of less money going to the humanities and social sciences (which, to the best of my knowledge, is already a small percentage of what the other sciences get; sadly I forgot the exact figure, but — from the top of my head — less than 20%). In addition, the ‘impact’ or ‘valorisation’ discourse/ideology seems to take hold here too, since according to the information which is spread by the scholars from Berlin, EU funding for the humanities and social sciences would be earmarked for more applied research, and to research that contributes to the competitiveness of the EU on global markets.

It’s the last week of term at my University, and I happen to have a heavy teaching load this term, which means I have no time to properly check this out. So consider this as the mere spreading of information and the opening up of space to discuss these issues in greater depth by those of you who know more about this, and/or have currently more time at their disposal to investigate this. I’ll invite some EU research directors to join the debate.

Wireless Speakers?

by Harry on December 12, 2010

My wife has asked for wireless speakers for Christmas, for using an ipod or ipad with. I’ve looked through some of these options at amazon and, frankly, I’m clueless. I want speakers that are easy to set up, not too fancy or expensive, but reliable. Something like my Sanyo Internet Radio (much admired by my teenage daughter’s friends) that even I managed to set up in 5 minutes flat. I assume that our least tech-savvy reader is more tech-savvy than I, so I thought you might be able to give advice.

The Haunted Man

by John Holbo on December 12, 2010

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain

Tis the season for posting more original Dickens Christmas story illustrations to Flickr. I just put up a set for “The Haunted Man”, which is, in addition to being a nicely gothic sort of affair – such as suits the season – another nice illustration of Henry’s point that sf has its roots in the ‘condition of England’ novel. “The Haunted Man” is about a mad scientist who finds a way to erase from his own memory all the sorrows and wrongs he has suffered. And: the effect is contagious. Those he touches have their memories erased as well. Of course it turns out to be a terrible idea. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and all. (But a lot more sentimental.) The only one who is immune to the effect is a boy – a feral child. Furthermore, this feral child is, as it were, a morlock rising. A harbinger of a feral race to follow. But there’s a happy ending!

Tell it that way and it sounds like some sort of sf scenario. The mad science-y atmosphere is indeed well conjured: [click to continue…]

How should students address professors?

by Harry on December 12, 2010

Well, prompted by the various criticisms of my practice described in this post on 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education I asked my current crop of freshman students what they think. Some answers below the fold (these do not make things easier). Entirely coincidentally I read this amazing paper about reducing the gender achievement gap in science courses, and it made me wonder whether the this issue (addressing professors) has more significance than I have thought.
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Gifts For Kids

by John Holbo on December 12, 2010

As the father of two moderately manga-mad little girls, I have some X-Mas recommendations. First, Manga Studio is a drawing/comics application that kids can really use and enjoy. At the moment, Amazon is selling the Debut version at the low, low price of $9.99. That won’t last. [UPDATE: nor did it.] If you want to know more, here’s an interesting, 90 minute tutorial from Dave “Watchmen” Gibbons. A good introduction. If you just want to watch him make something neat, go here. Word to the wise: you can’t use this sort of application without some sort of graphics tablet.

Might as well recommend a couple books while I’m at it. A lot of how-to-draw-manga books are not really age appropriate for a 6-year old and a 9-year old. But two by Christopher Hart have been a big hit in our house: Manga for the Beginner: Everything You Need to Start Drawing Right Away!; and Manga for the Beginner, Chibis: Everything You Need to Start Drawing the Super-Cute Characters of Japanese Comics [amazon]. Christopher Hart has published a ton of how-to-draw books. A lot of them aren’t good, in my opinion. But these two hit the spot.

A question for you: I read quite a bit of manga; my daughters, not so much. They draw the stuff day and night but don’t read it. American stuff like Amulet and Bone and Tiny Titans is what they like (influenced by manga, but not manga). The Japanese stuff, with few exceptions, is hard for them. This is even the case when the titles are ridiculously ‘easy’, like Happy Happy Clover (bunnies having fairly quiet adventures, in case you couldn’t guess.) They find the panel layouts baffling and hard to follow. This isn’t just the right-left problem. I tend to agree that it all seems oddly cluttered, given the intended audience. I wonder whether Japanese tots are hyper-literate when it comes to tracing a not-so-obvious line through a series of panels. What do your little girls like to read these days?

While we’re feeling gloomy …

by John Q on December 12, 2010

… let’s look ahead beyond 2012. Based solely on the likely rate of unemployment, the odds are against Obama being re-elected. As Jeff Madrick points out, the odds against a presidential re-election are long whenever the unemployment rate is above 7 per cent, and that’s a virtual certainty. There are other economic variables that reliably affect voting behavior, such as income growth, but they are just as negative. And it’s hard to see anything positive in the current political dynamic.

On the information we have at present, any Republican candidate other than Palin will have very good odds of winning. But there is also a fair chance that Palin will get the Republican nomination, despite her high negative ratings outside the Republican base. That would give Obama his best chance, but still no guarantee.

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