From the monthly archives:

March 2011

International realism and dictatorship

by John Q on March 31, 2011

As a result of the events in the Arab world[1], I’ve been thinking some more about “international realism”, which I take to have the following central premises[2]

1. States have durable, long-term interests and their actions in international affairs are driven by the rational pursuit of those interests

2. The use or threat of military power is the pre-eminent way (or at least one of the primary ways) in which states pursue their interests

It struck me in thinking about recent events that this is essentially a theory for a world of autocracies. (Apologies to those for whom this is old news, but this is a blog, after all). In such a world, international realism reduces to the claim that individuals are driven by rational self-interest. While there are problems with this claim (it’s empirically problematic if self-interest is defined tightly, and tautological if it’s defined by “revealed preference”), it seems like a sensible starting point, at least for the kind of individuals who become successful autocrats.

Moreover, the idea that war is a central part of rational policy makes sense for autocrats. Although war is a negative sum game, it seems reasonable, under a wide range of circumstances to assume that the losses are borne primarily by the autocrat’s subjects, while the gains flow to the autocrats. Even a war that ends with the status quo ante can be beneficial to the rulers on both sides by providing a Malthusian check on a population that might otherwise prove restive, providing an excuse for increased taxation and so on. That implies the failure of the standard negative-sum game argument against war, namely, that both sides would be better off calculating the outcome of war, and agreeing to accept it without a fight.

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The AHRC and the “Big Society”

by Chris Bertram on March 30, 2011

I wish I had time to write more about this, but a few links will have to do. On Sunday the Observer ran a story that the AHRC, the main state-funding body for arts and humanities research in the UK, had caved into pressure from the British government to include “the Big Society” (the Cameron Tories name for their attempt to hijack mutualism while cutting public services) as one of the things they’d support research into. Subsequently, the AHRC issued a vigorous denial, “refuting” [sic] the allegations. Well it looks like the Observer story was wrong, that a journalist misunderstood his informant (the actual government pressure was on the British Academy – see here) and that the AHRC had not bowed to ministers. So why, then, does the AHRC promote “the Big Society” on its website? It turns out that, rather the like the British journalist of the poem, they don’t need to be bribed or twisted but are happy to guess what their political paymasters want and publicize a party-political agenda on their own initiative. British academics are upset. See Iain Pears here and here, and my colleague James Ladyman at the New Statesman. And there’s a petition: do sign it.

“With Notably Rare Exceptions”

by Henry Farrell on March 30, 2011

Alan Greenspan is back as free market evangelist, and it’s rather wonderful.

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

It’s best not to interpret this as an empirical claim, but a carefully-thought-out bid for Internet immortality. It has the sublime combination of supreme self-confidence and utter cluelessness of previously successful memes such as “I am aware of all Internet traditions” and the “argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care,” but with added Greenspanny goodness. I tried to think of useful variations on the way in to work this morning – “With notably rare exceptions, Russian Roulette is a fun, safe game for all the family to play,” and “With notably rare exceptions, (the Third Punic War for example), the Carthaginian war machine was extremely successful,” but none do proper justice to the magnificence of the original. But then, that’s why we have commenters. Have at it.

What should I try to find out in Otjivero?

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 29, 2011

Back in June 2009, I wrote a post on the basic income experiment in Otjivero, Namibia. Recall that this was a two year experiment in which the (about) 1,000 residents of a very poor community were unconditionally given N$100 (about 10 Euro) on a monthly basis for two years (from January 2008 till December 2009). The mid-term effects (on income generating activities, health, school enrollment, reduction of the number of underweight children, …) were very positive.

On Sunday, I’m flying to Cape Town to teach a course on the capability approach, and afterwards I will head to Otjivero to try to better understand the effects and desirability of the basic income grant (BIG), and to gain a better grasp of the overall nature of the project. My South-African colleague Ina Conradie, who is a senior development scholar with many years of experience in development work in South Africa, is joining me; in part we are also interested in finding out to what extent this could be a desirable poverty-reducing policy for South-Africa.
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Wiener on Cronon

by Harry on March 28, 2011

Jon Wiener on Bill Cronon at the Nation’s blog.

I especially liked this:

He’s not Bill Ayers, the education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who happily defends his Weatherman past. Cronon describes himself as a “centrist.” He says he’s never belonged to the Democratic (or the Republican) party. Yet he faces a Republican demand for his e-mail, while Bill Ayers never did.

But also:

The power of this simple fact lies in the way it disrupts the Republicans’ explanation of what they are doing in Wisconsin. They say the new law there ending collective bargaining with public employee unions is an emergency response to this year’s fiscal crisis. They say it’s a response crafted by local Wisconsin state representatives to help their neighbors who are facing big new tax burdens. Cronon suggested that none of this is true: the law is not a response to the current fiscal crisis, it’s been a Republican priority for decades; it’s not a Wisconsin idea, it comes from a national Republican think tank. And the goal is not to protect the little guy in Wisconsin but rather to help the big corporations that fund Republican operations.

One tangential observation. A lot of people round here are getting new email addresses, and migrating sensitive work-related (including student) correspondence to them. Me too.

Additional Update
: Imitation is the greatest form of flattery (Michigan: it’ll be in your state soon).

1) see Anthony Grafton (hat tip: JW)
2) from Cronon’s blog, the Republican Party’s extraordinary response to his second blog post: read in full, but pause, first, to remember Peter Cook (I don’t know why I thought of him, but it does look as it Cook wrote it, doesn’t it?):

For Immediate Release
Contact: Katie McCallum, Communications Director (608) 257-4765
March 25, 2011
In response to Professor William Cronin’s deplorable tactics in seeking to force the Republican Party of Wisconsin to withdraw a routine open records request, Executive Director Mark Jefferson released the following statement:
“Like anyone else who makes an open records request in Wisconsin, the Republican Party of Wisconsin does not have to give a reason for doing so.
“I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government.
“Further, it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request. Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner. The Left is far more aggressive in this state than the Right in its use of open records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media.
“Finally, I find it appalling that Professor Cronin seems to have plenty of time to round up reporters from around the nation to push the Republican Party of Wisconsin into explaining its motives behind a lawful open records request, but has apparently not found time to provide any of the requested information.
“We look forward to the University’s prompt response to our request and hope those who seek to intimidate us from making such requests will reconsider their actions.”

3) Today’s Times.

Today’s Times


Wisconsin comes to London

by Harry on March 28, 2011

Ok, I’m being a bit parochial, but our UK-based colleagues haven’t posted on it, so I felt I should say something. (I thought about threatening them that I’d embarrass the whole site with a loving review of the new Slade Boxed Set (UK) if one of them didn’t do that, but then figured that I’ll probably be compelled to embarrass them all anyway). NYT coverage here; weaker BBC coverage here. The Met decided not to count the numbers, so we can’t be sure, but the standard report seems to be that about 250,000 people marched against the cuts in London on Saturday. I would take this opportunity to point out to my fellow Wisconsinites, what this means about the scale of the protests we have participated in — over 100k in a city of 200k and a state of 5m, versus 250k in a city of 7.5m and a country of 70m — I don’t say that to diminish the significance of the London march, but to remind those on this side of the Atlantic that our own movement has enormous potential, if only we have the nous to know what to do next (more on that later). Not being on the ground I’ll refrain from commenting on the potential of the UK march, but I did want to point to our friend CP’s comment on the role of the anarchist block in deflecting attention away from the political aspects of the demonstration and onto their own self-indulgence.[1] And this rather good, if in some parts unlikely, comment about Fortnum and Mason and the Bullingdon Club, and this, on the BBC website, from a former Met officer.
Comment away.

[1] Yes, I know all about the Poll tax riots and about the role of violence and rioting in British political history, and those are fair points to make, but entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand, which involves a group of people who know perfectly well that what they are doing is self-publicising, not triggering any sort of larger and more threatening action.

Feminist Philosophers gives us the answer. Read it and share it among your networks. For comments, questions, objections, endorsements: go there.

SXSW mp3s

by John Holbo on March 26, 2011

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that it took me, like, 1.5 minutes to find approximately 1.5 gigs of free downloads of SXSW related mp3s. Hardly scratched the surface, I have. Lots of new bands, great stuff, live stuff, lots of mediocre stuff. Amazon has free samplers (here and here and here). Or check here. So far I’ve discovered that I like The Rural Alberta Advantage. Also, the Amazon ‘don’t mess with Texas’ sampler is strong. And Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers are great, but I didn’t learn that by getting them for free. Belle bought the album. They are at SXSW, I gather.

Tell me of your SXSW-related musical discoveries, for better or worse. But especially for better.

Diana Wynne-Jones has died

by Henry Farrell on March 26, 2011

More “here”: In an ideal world, she would have had the recognition that J.K. Rowling has gotten and more; still, she did quite well, and wrote books that were adored by many, many children, and by adults (such as myself) who bought them purportedly to read aloud for their offspring. Her _Tough Guide to Fantasyland_, in its original and updated edition, is a very funny and accurate guide to the cliches of the genre.

Canada and coalitions

by John Q on March 26, 2011

So, the conservative government in Canada has been defeated in a vote of no-confidence. But how, in a Parliament where (what look like to me to be) left-of-centre parties have had a majority since the last election can this have taken it so long? And how can there be a prospect that this situation will be reproduced after the next election?

The answer apparently is a Canadian aversion to coalition governments. In a system where there have long been more than two parties, this makes no sense to me, but my knowledge of the political background is virtually non-existent. Can anyone explain this, or point to some useful resources?

My colleague Bill Cronon tells his story here. This part particularly struck me:

A number of the emails caught in the net of Mr. Thompson’s open records request are messages between myself and my students. All thus fall within the purview of the Federal Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA, sometimes known as the “Buckley Amendment,” named for its author Senator James Buckley—the brother of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley). The Buckley Amendment makes it illegal for colleges or universities to release student records without the permission of those students, and is thus in direct conflict with the Wisconsin Open Records Law and Mr. Thompson’s request on behalf of the Wisconsin Republican Party. I don’t know whether Mr. Thompson intended his request to generate a wholesale release of student records, but I myself think that doing so would represent a dangerous intrusion on student privacy. I’m pretty sure the law supports me in this view. If you’d like to review the terms of FERPA, see

A crucial point Cronon makes later is that without confidence in confidentiality many correspondents might either not email, or be less than frank in their emails. I could live with that when it comes to other adults. But my fear is that students, especially perhaps those who most need to break their silence, would refrain from emailing faculty about personal matters. I have been meaning to post for a while on a related issue, which is the very unusual character of some email correspondence between students and faculty — I have had interactions that I would not have had any other way, and therefore not at all prior to email. But on Cronon’s topic: I have emails from students which are deeply personal, expressing worries and sometimes telling experiences under an assumption of complete confidentiality. Sometimes they express ideas that they would not feel comfortable expressing in class, and which constitute some sort of “thinking out loud”. I have total confidence that without this way of communicating with me at least one student would by now have dropped out of college and probably worse, and I’m certain that others would have foregone considerable benefits. And if it were widely known, as it will be if the Republican Party gets hold of Cronon’s records, that no professor, and especially no professor who gets on the wrong side of a legislator of either party, can guarantee confidentiality, many such correspondences would not happen, to the detriment of the students and, at least in my case, the faculty (though the latter should not really count much in the calculation). The worry I have actually remains whether or not FERPA protects the emails of students (which, like Cronon, I’m pretty sure it does) because when they hear a story like this what they hear is “open records” “all emails” etc, comments like Cronon’s and my “pretty sure”, even if they are noticed, are not wholly reassuring. (Given that neither of us are lawyers, even “absolutely certain” would be cold comfort, especially from someone who thought Green Day come from Milwaukee).

Cronon is a moderate — I don’t know him, but have read his work and seen him talk — there is no question that he is sincere in his claim to be an independent.

It is not inconceivable that this is the beginning of a large fishing expedition triggered by the Carlos Lam affair. (Question: is this the end of Carlos Lam’s political career? Have prominent Republicans in Indiana started condemning him yet?)

: this is everywhere now. Here’s Krugman. Follow his link to Richard Vedder which seems to have nothing to do with whoever that is, but is riveting nevertheless)
Further Update: Our Chancellor comments.
Yet Another Update: Stephan Thompson, enigmatic man of mystery (thanks Kris).

Shakedown artists

by Henry Farrell on March 25, 2011

Via Alex Tabarrok, this “Wall Street Journal article”: is very interesting.

bq. Some U.S. furniture makers and their lawyers have found a reliable way to extract cash from Chinese competitors deemed by U.S. officials to have “dumped” their products in the U.S., selling them at unfairly low prices. Each year since 2006, they have asked the Commerce Department to review the U.S. duties paid by Chinese manufacturers on imports of wooden bedroom furniture. Many Chinese firms, fearing a steep rise in duties, agreed within months each time to pay cash to their U.S. competitors in return for being removed from the review list. “Everybody in the industry in the U.S. and China understands that these payments are clever shakedowns,” said William Silverman, a lawyer representing U.S. furniture retailers, big importers of Chinese products, at an October hearing of the U.S. International Trade Commission. … About $13 million was paid to a group of 20 U.S. furniture makers from 2006 through 2009, according to a November ITC report. The U.S. firms told the ITC that a much larger, but unspecified, amount of money went to pay the U.S. firms’ lawyers.

Not many people realize how much of US trade policy is effectively set by private industry groups, whose interest in free trade, for better or worse, is largely opportunistic. This is especially obvious in the area of property rights. I recently finished reading an excellent “report”: edited by Joe Karaganis on the politics of the piracy debate, which has a good chapter on just this topic by Sean Flynn and Karaganis [click to continue…]

Morality Tales

by John Holbo on March 25, 2011

So I had the flu. Then, a different flu. As to that thing Belle is down with now? I dunno. Something new has been added. But we got to the Joanna Newsom concert, between sneezes. That was great! My brother-in-law asked what she’s like, because he hadn’t heard of her. I said she’s a cross between Bob Dylan and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Do you think that was strictly accurate? Maybe just: a cross between Kate Bush and Arcade Fire, plus harp? (What, you’ve never heard of her? Well, check it out. And this. I was hoping she’d do a live version of that last one, as she does here. No dice. But she did a great version of “Have One On Me”, which is otherwise not one of my favorites.)

The world is so messed up these days that I feel I should be publicly expressing my opinion about that. But instead I’m escaping into an old, wonky-academic philosophy-literary criticism essay that I’ve never managed to get published anywhere. It’s been out of, then back into, the ‘reject’ pile for years. Title: “Ways of World-Breaking and Ethical Escapism”. The question: is there morality fiction? That is, fiction about morality itself being different than we take it to be. No, no, not whether people can disagree about morality, or write about immoral people, or seek to shock, or any of that obviousness. Does anyone write fiction in which they imagine that the world works, morally, a different way than they (author and anticipated audience) take it to work? Or is it rather the case that when we find a ‘deviant’ moral perspective in fiction we either reject it or accept it. And if we do the latter, we export it to the actual world, as part of an expanded moral horizon? So our actual moral horizon and our fictional moral horizon never mutually deviate? Or they sometimes go their separate ways? That’s the question. I say they go their separate ways all the time, so it’s interesting that some folks have denied it. I am responding to some analytic-type philosophers – Kendall Walton, Tamar Gendler, and our own Brian Weatherson – who have taken various positions on this question, the so-called ‘puzzle of imaginative resistance’.

I’ve got the latest draft posted here, for the edification of the interested. I’ll just post one bit from it. I call it “Morality Tale”. I guess I just missed the Hugo Awards nomination deadline. But you can tell me whether you like it. Certainly it goes a long way towards explaining why I can’t publish the whole essay. (Who do I think I am?) [click to continue…]

Interventions – humanitarian or liberal?

by Conor Foley on March 23, 2011

´The trouble with this intervention, and with liberal interventionism itself, is not with the abstract principle but the concrete practice´ writes Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian. Well maybe so, and there has been a very interesting discussion in response to my last post about the current situation in Libya, which pretty much spans the spectrum of the debate about its rights and wrongs.

But I was writing about a ´humanitarian intervention´ (ie a UN authorized external military intervention in an ongoing humanitarian crisis with the specific and limited aim of protecting civilians whose lives are threatened). People can agree or disagree about the principle and the practice, but at least we all know that we are taking about the same thing. If you google the term ´humanitarian intervention´it takes you straight to what is widely accepted as its dictionary definition. The parameters of what constitutes a legtimate ´humanitarian intervention´can certainly be debated and issues such as ´threshold level´, ´right authority´ and ´proportionality´ continue to be discussed in great detail.

If you google the term ´liberal intervention´, by contrast, it takes you to a list of polemical articles discussing the rights and wrongs of a hawkish foreign policy that is most closely identified with George Bush´s and Tony Blair´s invasion of Iraq. The reason for this is simply because the term has no fixed meaning and so can be used to justify whatever the person using it chooses to mean.

My understanding of the term is that it is a military intervention, without the authority of the UN Security Council, to overthrow a sovereign government and occupy all or part of its terrritory until after a new government has been elected under the auspices of a provincial authority appointed by the invading powers. The rationale for this intervention/invasion is that the previous government lacked democratic legitimacy and had committed human rights violations of a sufficient degree of seriousness as to justify an action that prime facie constitutes a crime of aggression in international law. Supporters of ´liberal intervention´often call for the ´reform of international law´ to legitimize such acts.

I think that this is quite different from a UN-authorized ´humanitarian intervention´, but I can see why opponents of such interventions (and supporters of the invasion of Iraq) would wish to muddle the two terms.

Maybe I am missing something though. Can someone give me an alternative reasonably authoritative and widely accepted definition of the term ´liberal intervention´ to the one that I outline above?

Hugo Nominations

by Henry Farrell on March 23, 2011

They close tomorrow. I’m not eligible to vote, but if I was, I’d be nominating the following.

* Felix Gilman – The Half-Made World. See here for my thoughts, and here for Cosma Shalizi’s.

* Ian McDonald – The Dervish House. Very good and interesting near-future book on Turkey – blending together historical conspiracy, complexity theory, theories of religious experience and politics. It somehow works. “True wisdom leaks from the joins between disciplines.”

* China Mieville – Kraken. Not his most intellectually challenging book, and a little bit baggy, but enormous fun.

I’d also recommend Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (which has surely _already_ won the Hugo in the alternate reality that spun off when _Gravity’s Rainbow_ won the award in 1973 (ok – it was the Nebula – but Artistic Licence!)), but I would prefer to wait on that recommendation until its US publication (sometime this year, I think). I also enjoyed Hannu Rajaniemi’s _The Quantum Thief_ (which also gets published in the US this year), but not as much as many others – the intellectual pyrotechnics are dazzling, but it’s still a fairly straightforward caper novel underneath it all. Feel free to add others, agree/disagree etc in comments.