From the monthly archives:

April 2011

Bakewell’s Montaigne

by Chris Bertram on April 5, 2011

I’ve got no time for a proper review, so this post is just a mention of Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer [UK Link]. The academic in me was initially put-off by the self-helpy presentation of the book. Because of this, I imagined that it would be (a) irritating and (b) unscholarly. It is only unscholarly in the good sense that it does not come across as a work of dry academic research. And Bakewell isn’t irritating at all: her writing is fluid, witty and unpretentious. The book provides a compelling psychological portrait of Montaigne, contains plenty of interesting background on the wars of religion, and nudges the reader towards the Montaignian attitude of sceptical curiosity about self, others and the world. I enjoyed it tremendously (got through the 300+ pages in a few days) and am now rooting through the real thing, the Essays. Highly recommended.

Hirschman perversity bingo

by Henry Farrell on April 5, 2011

Mark Blyth has a “somewhat different approach”: to the Greenspan op-ed of last week, which looks to be emerging as the fruit fly genome/Enron email corpus/Zachary’s karate club of theories about post-crisis bogus rationalization.

bq. Rather than deal with the crisis as it happened, or even address what it cost, Greenspan dealt with the crisis on a purely rhetorical level. I mean rhetorical in the sense that Albert Hirschman identified twenty years ago in his fabulous book The Rhetoric of Reaction. (Really, if you haven’t read it, read it now – it’s like a Dan Brown crypex for crisis-newspeak). Hirschman pointed out that conservative arguments come in three distinct theses. First is the “Perversity thesis” where any well meaning reform produces its opposite outcome: ‘welfare makes you poor’ – that sort of thing. The second is the “Jeopardy thesis” where reforms put at risk more than they can ever deliver–­ the fear of extending the suffrage is typical. Third is the “Futility thesis” where reforms are simply pointless – fill in any and all opposition to global warming. Greenspan begins with a few vignettes concerning Ford’s inability to get a credit rating on an ABS and how the banks will suffer if their ATM card fees are regulated, but he soon hits his stride. I gave him a “Hirschman Scorecard” of four perversities, three jeopardies, and two futilities in one column …These ranged from bemoaning how “consequences cannot be readily anticipated” (Jeopardy), to noting how prop-trading rules will force operations abroad (Futility), and hand waving about complexity regarding “undesirable repercussions that might happen” (Perversity).

The rest is also well worth reading, but quite depressing.

Connick v. Thompson

by Kieran Healy on April 2, 2011

J.K. Galbraith remarked that conservatism was engaged in a long search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. But that quest may sometimes become boring, or perhaps too difficult. Not to worry, because occasions to be straightforwardly vicious are more easily found, if you have the taste for it. Its spiteful tone aside, in substance Connick v. Thompson seems to be a Lord Denning Moment for the U.S. Supreme Court. The conservative majority preferred to affirm an obvious wrong rather than face the appalling vista of a brutal and corrupt justice system. To be fair to the system, it’s worse than that. Once the initial wrongdoing came to trial a jury, the district court, and the 5th circuit (twice) all decided the other way. It’s only when we get to Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Kennedy that the system chose to further institutionalize prosecutorial immunity. Stitch-ups should be seamless: if someone could pull at a stray thread, the whole thing might unravel, after all.

Academic Freedom and Open Records

by Harry on April 2, 2011

For those interested, here is our Chancellor’s statement on the Cronon affair:

Members of the campus community,

Two weeks ago UW-Madison received an open records request from Stephan Thompson, deputy executive director of the state’s Republican Party, for email records of Professor Bill Cronon.

Professor Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. He is one of the university’s most celebrated and respected scholars, teachers, mentors and citizens. I am proud to call him a colleague.

The implications of this case go beyond Bill Cronon. When Mr. Thompson made his request, he was exercising his right under Wisconsin’s public records law both to make such a request and to make it without stating his motive. Neither the request nor the absence of a stated motive seemed particularly unusual. We frequently receive public records requests with apparently political motives, from both the left and the right, and every position in between. I announced that the university would comply with the law and, as we do in all cases, apply the kind of balancing test that the law allows, taking such things as the rights to privacy and free expression into account. We have done that analysis and will release the records later today that we believe are in compliance with state law.

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Public safety alert

by Michael Bérubé on April 1, 2011

Washington, DC – The National Governors Association has announced a voluntary product safety recall of sixteen governors, due to a structural design problem that could pose an immediate safety risk to consumers.

“We didn’t know, when we made these governors available to the public, how truly dangerous they were,” said an NGA representative who requested anonymity because he feared swift and remorseless retaliation from one of the defective governors.  “In most cases, they seemed like fully functioning human beings.  But now it appears that many of them avoided routine safety checks or managed to buy off safety regulators.”

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