From the monthly archives:

January 2011

The end of US decline

by John Q on January 30, 2011

There was another round of the more-or-less endless debate about the decline of the US not long ago, focused on the weak employment growth that has characterized the current ‘recovery’. I expect that the obvious inability of the US to exert significant influence, in either direction, over the fate of client regimes in North Africa and the Middle East will provoke some more discussion among similar lines.

As a public service, I’d like to bring an end to this tiresome debate by observing that the decline of the US from its 1945 position of global pre-eminence has already happened. The US is now a fairly typical advanced/developed country, distinguished primarily by its large population[1]. Precisely because the US is comparable to other advanced countries in many crucial respects, there is no reason to expect any further decline. [2]

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The end of the Arab exception?

by John Q on January 29, 2011

Looking at the downfall of the dictatorship in Tunisia, and the exploding protests against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, it’s obviously hard for Western/Northern commentators, let alone Australians, to say much about what is happening now and will happen. In part that reflects the cultural and political distances involved, and in part the opaqueness of political and cultural life that is inevitably associated with dictatorship and censorship. But it seems clear that some basic premises of US policy towards the region have been rendered invalid.

Most obviously, the Mubarak regime is finished in its role as the key US ally in the Arab world. If the regime survives at all, it will be through brutal repression which makes it clear once and for all that the dictatorship is held in place solely by military force. That in turn will make the provision of substantial economic or military aid politically untenable (the Republicans were already keen to cut aid to Egypt). But without continuing aid, there is little reason for any Egyptian government to support US foreign policy in the region.

The bigger casualty is the ‘Arab exception’: the idea that the concept of democracy is not really applicable in Arab countries and that foreign policy therefore amounts to a choice of which dictator to support. [1][2]
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Income, welfare, convergence

by Chris Bertram on January 27, 2011

Doug Saunders has “a blog post”: about Branko Milanovic’s new book “The Haves and the Have-nots“: . I haven’t read the book, but, according to Saunders, it denies that there is a convergence in living standards between Western workers and the Chinese. Here’s the reasoning:

bq. “If the U.S. GDP per capita grows by 1 per cent, India’s will need to grow by 17 per cent, an almost impossible rate, and China’s by 8.6 per cent, just to keep absolute income differences from rising,” he observes. “As the saying goes, you have to run very, very fast just to stay in the same place. It is therefore not surprising that despite China’s (and India’s) remarkable success, the absolute income differences between the rich and poor countries have widened.”

bq. And they have: Even as the Chinese worker has gone from $525 per year to $5,000 in two decades, the average American worker has gone from $25,000 to $43,200 – meaning that the income gap has widened from about $25,000 to $38,000, and, he notes, “of course so has the absolute gap in welfare between the average American and the average Chinese.”

Spot the non-sequitur. Even if the dollar income gap has widened in absolute terms there’s no reason to believe that the welfare gap has similarly widened, for the simple, and obvious reason of the declining marginal utility of income. On any plausible picture, the $525 to $5,000 transition is life-changing, whereas the $25,000 to $38,000 change is merely nice (especially if enough other people get the same increase and much of the increase goes on bidding up the price of inherently scarce goods).

Saunders continues:

bq. You may think of the United States as a place of extremes of wealth and poverty, and it is. Nevertheless, at the moment, the very poorest people in America, the 5 per cent with the lowest incomes, have better lives and more purchasing power than the top 5 per cent of income earners in India and the top 10 per cent in China.

Well I won’t quibble with the “more purchasing power” point, but “better lives” is really pretty dubious, since we know that by many objective measures “poor black men in the US do worse than even some poor people in India”:

Information Feudalism

by John Holbo on January 27, 2011

Matt Yglesias writes:

A lot of our politics is about symbolism. And symbolically intellectual property represents itself in the contemporary United States as a kind of property—it’s right there in the name. But it’s better thought of as a kind of regulation. Patents and copyrights are modeled, economically, the same as you would model any state-created monopoly.

I think the idea that intellectual property is property is too entrenched, at this point, for this to be an effective rhetorical strategy. Furthermore, rhetoric aside, philosophically the real breakthrough would be for people to realize that defending property rights is not tantamount to defending freedom. What strong IP protection generates is not a free market but something more like information feudalism: a market-unfriendly clusterfuck of fiefdoms and inescapably inefficient lord-vassal terms-of-service arrangements that any friend of freedom, in any ordinary sense, ought to look upon with disgust. The reason why libertarian rhetoric – defend property rights! – can underwrite feudalism, of all things, is that a certain sort of libertarianism, i.e. so-called propertarianism, really just plain is a form of feudalism. I’ve made the case at length.

I don’t see much hope of making a snappy rhetorical case that would break the unhealthy property = freedom link. But I think it might actually be possible to sidestep it by coming up with something like ‘information feudalism’ or ‘cyberfeudalism’ as a catchy term for IP rent-seeking or patent trolling. (Of course, ‘rent-seeking’ and ‘patent trolling’ are already pretty snappy.) To put the point another way, lots of folks are so averse to ‘government regulation’ that you will never get them to trade ‘private property’ talk for ‘regulation’ talk, as Yglesias suggests. But really what these folks are operating with is a kind of centralized = lots of regulation; decentralized = deregulated mental shortcut. The advantage of ‘feudalism’ would be to break that by making vivid the obvious possibility that decentralized stuff can still be too highly regulated, in effect.

UPDATE: turns out someone wrote the book already. Or at least picked a great title already.

Daniel Bell

by Kieran Healy on January 26, 2011

Daniel Bell has died at the age of ninety one. The New York Times has an obituary, and I’m sure there will be more to follow elsewhere. I heard a story once about Bell being asked what he specialized in. “Generalizations”, he replied. But not the sterile, merely verbal generalizations of something like structural-functionalism, the dominant “grand social theory” of his day. Bell was prepared to sick his neck out. This meant he could get things wrong. I’ll leave his political writings for others to assess. His cultural criticism has not aged well: his sniffy disdain for “aggressive female sexuality”, for instance, or his view that the “new sound” of the Beatles made it “impossible to hear oneself think, and that may indeed have been its intention” are unlikely to play so well today. But we should be so lucky to coin so many phrases that become part of the language — “The End of Ideology”, “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society“. The latter book, in particular, is one of the most impressive pieces of economic sociology written in the twentieth century. It asks a big question about the future, it works out an answer, and gets it mostly right. At the beginning of his academic career Bell was on the periphery of the self-consciously scientific sociology department at Columbia that had Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld at its core. (A little like C. Wright Mills, interestingly enough.) I believe they thought of him more as a journalist and political type, at least initially, given his background at Fortune magazine. Yet a book like The Coming of Post-Industrial Society has more truly scientific spirit about it than Social Theory and Social Structure.

Feminist Philosophers“: has for some years been conducting a “gendered conference campaign”:, a campaign against conferences where all speakers are men. I support this campaign. A conference in which all speakers are men is undesirable in terms of its outcomes: it gives a biased representation of the field, the likelihoods are that wo/men cover different topics and/or use different methodologies, we don’t want to put off (female) grad students by giving them the implicit message that the field is not welcoming to them, and we want women scholars to be given an opportunity to present their work. A conference with only male speakers is also likely to be the result of a biased process in which the organisors have given free hand to gendered stereotypes that influence us when thinking about who the ‘interesting speakers’ in the respective fields may be; although the evidence on these kind of implicit bias processes is by now vast, I still regularly come across instances where conference organisors have not given this any thought.

Now it seems like we’ll have to extent this campaign to include Summerschools: to my surprise, I received a call for participation for “a Summerschool”: on ‘Justice: Theory and Applications’ yesterday, which includes six teachers, all male. Theories of justice belong to my own area of specialisation, and I thus can say with some confidence that there are plenty of interesting, excellent contributors out there who are female. In fact, in my Research Master Course ‘Contemporary Theories of Justice’, one student remarked that he had never had a philosophy course with so many female authors on the reading list.

Clearly there may be additional hurdles: for example, it may be the case that female scholars are more likely to refuse an invitation. Or there may be areas where it really is much more difficult, bordering at the level of the impossible, to find female teachers. But that’s definitely not the case for theories of justice.

SF Film Regressivism and Progressivism and Revisionism

by John Holbo on January 26, 2011

Teaching ‘Philosophy and Film’ this semester, with a focus on sf, I’m amused to read this bit from a Salon piece by Michael Lind:

If there was a moment when the culture of enlightened modernity in the United States gave way to the sickly culture of romantic primitivism, it was when the movie “Star Wars” premiered in 1977. A child of the 1960s, I had grown up with the optimistic vision symbolized by “Star Trek,” according to which planets, as they developed technologically and politically, graduated to membership in the United Federation of Planets, a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN. When I first watched “Star Wars,” I was deeply shocked. The representatives of the advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization were now the bad guys, and the heroes were positively medieval – hereditary princes and princesses, wizards and ape-men. Aristocracy and tribalism were superior to bureaucracy. Technology was bad. Magic was good.

He’s got the film history wrong. Metropolis came before Star Wars. Hell, so did Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times: that’s dystopian sf. Also, it isn’t really right to say that the theme of Star Wars is ‘technology bad’. Star Wars is really more a case of lacking a ‘science good’ message. Also, Star Trek is conspicuously moderate in its pro-science thematizing. Kirk is the captain, exemplifying the properly adventurous equilibrium point between McCoy’s emotionalism and Spock’s rationalism. Hell, that’s the theme of Metropolis, too. You need ‘mediation’ and ‘moderation’ between pure science and … some more human source of meaning.

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Irish Politics: A Pre-Election Primer

by Henry Farrell on January 25, 2011

It appears that the Irish election will take place on “February 25”: It should be an interesting one. Some basic briefing notes below: commenters should feel free to add stuff/disagree as appropriate.

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Kant and shooting down hijacked airliners

by Chris Bertram on January 25, 2011

In the UK we are being treated to “a rich and enjoyable series of programmes on Justice featuring Michael Sandel”: . No doubt there will be quibblers, but I think he’s done a great job so far. Last night’s episode discussed Bentham, Kant and Aristotle and, for my money, both utilitarians (in the shape of Peter Singer) and various German Kant-fans came across as slightly unhinged. The moment that most summed this up, however, was discussion of the German Constitutional Court’s Kant-inspired dismissal of a law that would allow the federal authorities to shoot down a hijacked airliner destined to crash into a city with catastrophic loss of life. “Judgement here”: . According to these Kantians, even if the passengers are doomed to die in the next few minutes and shooting-down the plane will save many lives on the ground, to attack the airliner would show a lack of respect for their human diginity, purposiveness, endiness etc. and so is forbidden. For me, that looks like a reductio.

Better Book Titles

by Kieran Healy on January 24, 2011

Erik over at The Monkey Cage points me towards the excellent Better Book Titles, where you can find numerous contemporary and classic works slightly altered in a way that the title is more informative about their actual content. In closing he says,

If you can do anything like this with a political science book, I’d consider putting it on the Cage.

So what he’s looking for are titles that better convey the core of the argument of academic monographs. Like this.

Couch Potatoes

Of course, we shouldn’t just pick on the famous. So, below the fold, one a bit closer to home.

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One size fits nobody?

by John Q on January 22, 2011

Much recent discussion of the future of the euro, most notably that of Paul Krugman, has started from the idea that Europe is not an optimal currency area, and that a ‘one-size fits all’ monetary policy is therefore bound to lead to the kinds of problems we are now observing. At any given time, some countries would benefit from a more expansionary policy and others from a more contractionary policy, so the effect of monetary union is an unsatisfactory splitting of the difference.

Without resolving that issue in general terms, I want to argue that this is not an accurate description of the current state of the eurozone. It’s true that Germany is doing a lot better than the eurozone as a whole, and the peripheral countries a lot worse. So, the optimal policy for Germany alone would be tighter than for the rest of the eurozone. The peripheral countries might benefit from an even more expansionary policy (though that’s not as clear to me as it seems to be to others. A heavily indebted country that undertakes monetary expansion is likely to find it hard to sell bonds denominated in its own currency).

But when you look at the actual policies of the ECB, including Trichet’s recent threat to raise interest rates, it’s hard to see that this policy is optimal for any EU country, even Germany.
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Discovering the Limits of Ordnungspolitik

by Tobias Schulze-Cleven on January 20, 2011

As the Euro crisis deepened, the German government’s crisis management became the object of increasingly intense criticism. Being perceived to have “fallen out of love with Europe,” the country seemed to be “making a huge profit at the expense of the other Europeans, while simultaneously, at the political level, relinquishing its European responsibility.” 1 Many of the individual charges directed at Germany were right on the mark, particularly those about the one-sidedness and self-serving nature of German discourse about the country’s economic renaissance, which largely failed to acknowledge the strongly positive impact of the Euro on the economy. But other accusations were remarkable for their own biases. With the often clearly defined drawbacks of German actions, it has been relatively easy to criticize them. However, given the complexity of the challenges facing the Euroarea, it is far harder to say what German positions should actually be.

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Germany: The Necessary But Not Sufficient Nation?

by Sheri Berman on January 20, 2011

During the global economic crisis, Germany has received more attention than probably most scholars and observers would have predicted. Early on, much attention was paid to the country’s purported decision to go the “austerity” rather than the “Keynesian” route; more recently scrutiny has been focused on its purportedly obstructionist role in the European Union’s meltdown. While both of these claims have some truth on the surface, neither really captures fully what is going on.

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Most of the contributions to this seminar begin with Germany’s internal politics and work outwards. This short piece instead emphasizes the external consequences, asking what they mean for European Union politics, taking Ireland as a test case. Ireland is the only ‘Anglo-Saxon’ member of an economic and monetary union which was built largely in order to match German preferences. Both its current crisis, and the ways in which Germany (and other EU member states) are seeking to respond to it, provide evidence about German preferences, and their intellectual and material limitations when they become generalized as policy prescriptions at the European level. Because Economic and Monetary Union only provides fiscal restraints, and no very useful means of intervening in private markets, Germany and other member states face stark limits in their ability to prevent, and even to respond to crises that originate in the private sector. Moreover, when they do, they are likely to find their interventions politicized, and strongly resented by the populations of the countries that are intervened in.

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Germany Seminar Conclusion

by Henry Farrell on January 20, 2011

I’m about to post the final contributions to the seminar on Germany. Many thanks to the participants and to the Center for German and European Studies and Mortara Center for International Affairs at Georgetown, who hosted the original meeting. The URL for the entire seminar is “”: Those who would prefer to read the seminar on paper, or using your PDF-compatible portable reader of choice, can find the complete seminar “here”: