From the monthly archives:

July 2011

I’m teaching “Philosophy and Literature” this semester. For one unit – Well Wrought Urns and Stuffed Owls, or somesuch subtitle – we’re going to read the really strong stuff. Like Irene Iddesleigh, Chapter 1 (not the whole book). But also more genuinely enjoyable incompetence: The Young Visiters. And Crippled Detectives. See this Village Voice piece for some – rather sad – background on the latter. Maybe a bit from A Nest of Ninnies. Who knows? Maybe even Ulysses? I’ve always thought of that book as basically The Young Visiters writ old. Bloom is Mr. Salteena, all grown up, but still a child at heart. [click to continue…]

Don’t look at the rich?

by John Quiggin on July 30, 2011

My last post, arguing that the share of US income going to the top 1 per cent of households is now so great that any effective policy must be financed by reducing or more effectively taxing the income of this group produced a range of interesting (and some not so interesting responses). First up, it elicited what appears to be new variants on a couple of standard rightwing talking points. More interesting to me is a response from Matt Yglesias arguing (as I read him) that, even if there is no serious prospect of reversing the shift of income to the top 1 per cent[1], there is still plenty of capacity for progressive political actions based on a broadly neoliberal (US sense) agenda.
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Text Editors in The Lord of the Rings

by Kieran Healy on July 30, 2011

Prompted by a passing thought about TextMate, I thought I’d make a comprehensive, accurate, unbiased, and irrefutable survey of text editors by way of comparison to locations in The Lord of the Rings.

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I’ve been thinking about what, if anything, to write about the events in Norway. Obviously one’s first thoughts are with the victims of what was an especially horrible crime. I was in Oslo in April, and it really is hard for me to imagine an event such as this taking place there. Really dreadful and heartbreaking, especially since so many of the victims were young, committed, people who looked likely to make an important contribution to the life of their country.

I’m going to limit myself to a few thoughts on its wider significance. Obviously the killer is in some sense crazy, though whether that is technically true is a matter for the professionals. He was imbued with some version of an ideology which is widespread on the internet and to some extent in Western societies: nativism, extreme anxiety about Islam, hatred for liberal multiculturalist “enablers” of this, and so on. Ideas to be found on thousands of blogs, in the writings of wingnut columnists and neocons, in the shared beliefs of Tea Partiers and birthers, among the rabble of the English Defence League, and among the further fringes of extreme supporters of Israel. Is this fascist? I don’t think arguments about definitions are particularly useful. Some of this current predates 9/11, but in its current form it is a product of the US and global reaction to the attacks on the Word Trade Center. Plain and simple racist movements existed before 9/11, but this focus on a particular religion and its adherents coupled with the adoption of extreme pro-Zionism by the formerly anti-semitic right is something new. (This isn’t a single movement though, it is a spectrum, and elements of it have even been given cover, credibility and respectability by people who think of themselves as being on the left but who backed the Iraq war, strongly supported Israel over Lebanon and Gaza and who disseminate propaganda attacking those who take a different line to them on the Middle East as antisemitic racists.)

Following the Norway massacre many of the elite scribblers of this spectrum — many of whom have played the guilt-by-association game to the max over the last decade — are disclaiming all responsibility. Well, of course, they didn’t pull the trigger, but they helped to build an epistemic environment in which someone did. We may be, now, in the world that Cass Sunstein worried about, a world where people select themselves into groups which ramp up their more-or-less internally coherent belief systems into increasingly extreme forms by confirming to one another their perceived “truths” (about Islam, or Obama’s birth certificate, or whatever) and shutting out falsifying information. Put an unstable person or a person with a serious personality disorder into an environment like that and you have a formula for something very nasty happening somewhere, sooner or later. Horribly, that somewhere was Norway last Friday.

Where the money is

by John Quiggin on July 25, 2011

I’ve been largely on the sidelines of the debate about neoliberalism and political theory. That’s mainly because, observing the US political and economic situation, I have a very clear view on what policies could, in principle, sustain a progressive political movement, but (given my distance from the scene and the absence of anything substantial enough to force its attention on the mass media) no real idea about how such a movement might develop.

My analysis is quite simple and follows the apocryphal statement attributed to Willie Sutton. The wealth that has accrued to those in the top 1 per cent of the US income distribution is so massive that any serious policy program must begin by clawing it back.[1]

If their 25 per cent, or the great bulk of it, is off-limits, then it’s impossible to see any good resolution of the current US crisis. It’s unsurprising that lots of voters are unwilling to pay higher taxes, even to prevent the complete collapse of public sector services. Median household income has been static or declining for the past decade, household wealth has fallen by something like 50 per cent (at least for ordinary households whose wealth, if they have any, is dominated by home equity) and the easy credit that made the whole process tolerable for decades has disappeared. In these circumstances, welshing on obligations to retired teachers, police officers and firefighters looks only fair.

In both policy and political terms, nothing can be achieved under these circumstances, except at the expense of the top 1 per cent. This is a contingent, but inescapable fact about massively unequal, and economically stagnant, societies like the US in 2010. By contrast, in a society like that of the 1950s and 1960s, where most people could plausibly regard themselves as middle class and where middle class incomes were steadily rising, the big questions could be put in terms of the mix of public goods and private income that was best for the representative middle class citizen. The question of how much (more) to tax the very rich was secondary – their share of national income was already at an all time low.

The problem is that most policy analysts and commentators grew up in the world of the 1950s and 1960s, or at least in the mental world created by that era. So, we are busy fighting about tax expenditures, barber licensing and teachers unions, and the implications of these things for a hypothetical working class mobilisation. Meanwhile, most of the anger created by the collapse of middle class America is being directed not at the rich but at those who don’t look, sound or pray like Americans of the vanished golden age.

One thing the Tea Party has shown is that, in the current dire state of the US, there are few penalties for abandoning moderation. What the US needs at this point is someone willing to advocate a return to the economic institutions that made America great – 90 per cent top marginal tax rates, strong trade unions, weak banks and imprisonment for malefactors of great wealth.

It seems to me that a good place to start would be a primary challenge to Obama (Bernie Sanders suggested this, and he’d be a good candidate I think). It would be impossible for the media to ignore completely, and might get enough votes to shift the Overton window. Whether such a challenge could form the basis of a mass movement, I don’t really know, but it seems to be worth a try.

fn1. When I was at the American Economic Association meetings in January I went to a session where a group of Very Serious Economists (Holtz-Eakin, Elmendorf and others) discussed the US budget problem, which comes down to the fact that on a structural basis US public expenditure exceeds revenue by something like 7 per cent of national income. I made the comment that this gap was almost exactly equal to the increase in the share of income going to the top 1 per cent of households over the last decade or so. The Very Serious Guys declined to respond, and waited for a serious question. I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t impressed either.

A number of people (including Matthew Yglesias) suggested that they didn’t really understand my arguments about the deficiencies of left neo-liberalism, because they were too abstract. I’ve spent the weekend reading an Advance Reading Copy of Suzanne Mettler’s “The Submerged State”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0226521656/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399373&creativeASIN=0226521656, which in addition to being a fantastic little book in its own right (and excellent value!), has a number of relevant – and quite concrete – points. Mettler wrote up a broad summary of her arguments “last month”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/julyaugust_2011/features/20000_leagues_under_the_state030498.php for the _Washington Monthly._ But in the book, she goes into much more detail about the sources of the pattern of policy making that she argues against – the provision of welfare state benefits through semi-invisible tax breaks and forms of private provision rather than directly. [click to continue…]

Ian Miller short

by Henry on July 22, 2011

I’m a fan of the artist and illustrator “Ian Miller”:http://www.ian-miller.org/, much of whose work combines very fine ink drawing with watercolor and collage, and among my most precious possessions are a couple of the illustrations from his graphic novel collaboration with M. John. Harrison, “The Luck in the Head”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1878574469/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20. He’s been working together with a couple of other people on a short animated film, which provides a good sampling of his combination of the sinister and the jolly. Work in progress is “here”:http://www.behance.net/gallery/Jacobs-Lament/1355483 for those who are interested.

Irregular verb watch

by Kieran Healy on July 21, 2011

I am someone focused on trying to figure out what the right answer is. You are a skeptical aggressor. He, on the other hand, is an asshole.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s “new authority”:https://crookedtimber.org/2011/06/27/why-is-ireland-such-a-bastion-of-anti-israel-feeling/ on the depths of anti-Israel hatred in Ireland, expands on the topic “in some interesting ways”:http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/kevin-myers/kevin-myers-theres-never-been-a-safer-time-for-children-2824766.html.

bq. Now in the toxic Post-Catholic Politically-Correct Pseudo-Consensual culture that has emerged in PC3 Ireland, one may be as loudly anti-Semitic as one likes about Israel, even as one makes a great posturing display show of not being “anti-Semitic” in domestic politics. This is Phoney Liberalism at its most unprincipled. Fear of unjustified allegations of anti-Semitism should not prevent us considering some difficult — that is to say, adult — issues that will probably violate all the dogmas of PC3ness.

bq. Here goes. It is now very possible that a state law governing private Catholic sacramental practices will be introduced by a Jewish Minister for Justice. This raises the question of whether it is ever prudent for a member of any minority to introduce laws affecting the private religious practices of the majority. Moreover, is it acceptable to have a rigorously-enforced state law over children and Catholic priests, but not one concerning Jewish babies and rabbis? How, otherwise, would the rabbinical removal of a baby boy’s foreskin, a deed that by definition involves a non-consensual and irreversible injury and which results in a permanent reduction of the sexual-sensitivity of the glans, be allowed under the proposed new child-protection laws? You no doubt find these questions uncomfortable; well, believe me, not nearly as uncomfortable as I do in asking them.

The pivot, in successive paragraphs, from the claim that (a) that everyone else in Ireland is anti-Semitic (b) that only he is willing and able to ask the uncomfortable questions about whether Jews should govern Catholics (and did he mention by the way that the law doesn’t stop them from mutilating baby boys’ todgers?) is remarkable. And this isn’t to mention Myer’s earlier stuff about permanently tumescent African layabouts who have too many children (one senses that Mr. Myers has a thing about penises). I really think that Jeffrey Goldberg needs to publicly reconsider his stated reliance on this particular source. It doesn’t do any favors to his reputation, or that of the magazine he works for.

Update: It turns out that Jeffrey Goldberg “did apologize”:https://twitter.com/#!/Goldberg3000/status/85433001403613185 (but still wants to “stick to his main claim”:https://twitter.com/#!/Goldberg3000/status/86060718855684096_ )via Twitter after seeing the Myers Africa rant.

Update 2: via Paddy in comments, this really quite revolting Myer “meditation”:http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/why-drought-in-somalia-is-not-our-problem-2821058.html from last week on how feeding starving African babies is a bad thing – after all, one day they may turn into Islamist terrorists.

bq. There is another question here — the difficult one, the painful kind that gets people into trouble. It is this: what is the rationale for keeping a particular demographic group alive when the main result is the maintenance of an implacable enmity towards the rescuers? It is that existential argument — not the one that the UN admits to, of aid-material falling into the hands of the Islamists — that we should be discussing.

bq. It’s not easy, to be sure. For immediately we must face a fourth question: who can look at the photograph of a tiny, fading child, with flies supping the last juices from its desiccating eyes, and decide to let her die? And likewise, hundreds of thousands of other such children?

bq. … A Somali you save today is unlikely to turn into a sort of grateful Nilotic-Dane in 20 years. No, indeed: the chances are he will remain a proud and resentful Somali Islamist, and even if he comes to the West — as hundreds of thousands already have — he will probably despise us as backward savages, who are too lazy even to circumcise our little girls the wholesome radical way, as they should be, with rusty blades and no anaesthetic.

Marc Hauser Resigns

by Kieran Healy on July 19, 2011

Embattled Psychology Professor Marc D. Hauser, who has been investigated for falsifying scientific data, will resign from the University, effective August 1, Harvard Spokesperson Jeff Neal said in a statement Tuesday.

This cyber-stalking is getting beyond a joke

by Chris Bertram on July 19, 2011

Well not content with his inaccurate digs at Henry, Brad DeLong is “having another go at me”:http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2011/07/chris-bertram-gets-a-wish-granted-and-is-very-unhappy-indeed.html . (It really does seem to be some kind of obsession with him.) He says my post “here”:https://crookedtimber.org/2011/05/22/the-fragmenting-coalition-of-the-left-some-musings/ advocated abandoning social-democracy to

rely instead on a combination of:

populist nationalism[:] culturally conservative, worried by immigration (and willing to indulge popular anxieties), anxious about the effects of markets on working-class community…

and zero-growth greenism.

And that “now”:https://crookedtimber.org/2011/07/19/out-of-the-blue-into-the-black/ I’m horrified by the consequences in the form of Maurice Glasman.

Well, unsurprisingly, *wrong*, though I guess I lack the talent to write so clearly as to avoid misunderstanding from someone as determined to misunderstand me as Brad DeLong is.

First, I didn’t say that the left should abandon social democracy as such, I said that it should break with the “technocratic quasi-neoliberal left as incarnated by the likes of Peter Mandelson.” And …. Brad Delong, I guess.

Second, I didn’t advocate an alliance with culturally conservative populist nationalism, rather I argued that the group of people currently attracted by such politics would “either move towards the eco-left or will drift towards xenophobic right-wing nationalism.” And so I argued – in a post which was trying to start a conversation rather that laying down a line – for trying to build alliances between the eco-left and the traditional working class, between communitarian social-democrats and people with a more environmentally informed politics. DeLong is entitled to think what he likes about that, but he really should stop the infantile caricatures which just get in the way of having a sensible discussion. Pathetic.

Aaron Swartz indicted

by Henry on July 19, 2011

The “NYT story”:http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/reddit-co-founder-charged-with-data-theft/?ref=technology is here.

bq. Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old programmer and online political activist, was indicted Tuesday in Boston on charges that he stole over four million documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers. (Read the full indictment.) The charges were filed by the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, and could result in up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. In a press release, Ms. Ortiz’s office said that Mr. Swartz broke into a restricted area of M.I.T. and entered a computer wiring closet. Mr. Swartz apparently then accessed the M.I.T. computer network and stole millions of documents from JSTOR.

The indictment is “here”:http://t.co/Bc9xaRe – a petition supporting Aaron can be found “here”:http://act.demandprogress.org/sign/support_aaron/. I can’t pretend to be at all impartial about the prospect that Aaron could serve serious jail time for this – he is a good friend, as well as an active member of the CT community. It looks as though he has some support from the library community – the petition page has a statement from James Jacobs, the Government Documents Librarian at Stanford University. Furthermore, it claims that the “alleged victim has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they’ve suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute.”

Matthew Yglesias waxes sarcastic about the lack of content of my critique of neo-liberalism, and (on Twitter) ‘underpant gnomes theories of social democracy.’ And in so doing, misses the point quite completely: [click to continue…]

Out of the blue, into the black

by Chris Bertram on July 19, 2011

Just when British Labour Ed Miliband leader is on a roll, along comes Maurice Glasman to spoil things. I’ve been willing to give Glasman the benefit of the doubt up to now, despite feeling somewhat uncomfortable at some of the things he’s had to say on immigration. After all, Labour lost the last election and we do need some proper discussions about how to connect with a somewhat alienated working-class base. Glasman, with his talk of community and his Polanyi-inspired scepticism about the capacity of the market to ensure genuine well-being seemed a voice worth hearing. Well the mask hasn’t just slipped, it has fallen off, and I think the “blue Labour” project has come to a halt with his latest pronouncements. Intra-left polemics have been marked by too much moralizing denunciation in the past, at the expense of genuine dialogue and understanding. But there is a time for denunciation, and it is now.

Today’s Daily Express “front page”:http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/259756 (Headline “Britain Must Ban Migrants”):

bq. Lord Glasman, Ed Miliband’s chief policy guru, wants a temporary halt to immigration to ensure British people are first in the queue for jobs. The Labour peer also urged the Government to renegotiate EU rules allowing the free movement of migrant workers in a decisive break with the open door policy of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. “The people who live here are the highest priority. We’ve got to listen and be with them. They’re in the right place – it’s us who are not,” he said.

UPDATE: Sir Andrew Green, who heads-up the rabidly anti-immigration group MigrationWatch, “describes”:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2015979/Freeze-UK-immigration-British-people-says-Ed-Milibands-policy-guru.html Glasman’s latest pronouncements as “over the top. It is simply not practicable”. That’s pretty extraordinary.

The Limits of Left Neo-Liberalism

by Henry on July 18, 2011

Doug Henwood “has a go”:http://lbo-news.com/2011/07/16/the-limits-of-easy-money/ at Matthew Yglesias.

bq. Orthodox types—and I’m including Yglesias, who describes his political leanings as “neoliberal” on his Facebook profile page—usually prefer monetary to fiscal remedies. Why? Because they operate through the financial markets and don’t mess with labor or product markets or the class structure. A jobs program and other New Deal-ish stuff would mess with labor and product markets and the class structure, and so it’s mostly _verboten_ to talk that way. From an elite point of view, the primary problem with a jobs program—and with employment-boosting infrastructure projects—is that they would put a floor under employment, making workers more confident and less likely to do what the boss says, and less dependent on private employers for a paycheck. It would increase the power of labor relative to capital. I’m not sure that Yglesias understands that explicitly, but it’s undoubtedly part of his unexamined “common sense” as a semi-mainstream pundit.

This is wrong in the particulars – as a correspondent has pointed out to me, Yglesias has repeatedly called for employment-boosting infrastructure projects and the like. But – getting away from the polemics and the specific personalities – I think that Doug is onto something significant here. I’d frame it myself in a more wishy-washy way. There is a real phenomenon that you might describe as left neo-liberalism in the US – liberals who came out of the experience of the 1980s convinced that the internal interest group dynamics of the Democratic party were a problem. These people came up with some interesting arguments (but also: Mickey Kaus), but seem to me to have always lacked a good theory of politics.

To be more precise – Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies _at best_ tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. Even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics. I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is. Of course I may be wrong – and look forward to some pushback in comments …

Update: Brad DeLong writes a “reply”:http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2011/07/henry-farrell-argues-against-left-neoliberals-like-me.html, largely replicating a comment below, which says that I believe things that I actually don’t believe at all. My response to the original claim can be found in comments below.