From the monthly archives:

August 2011

Martha Nussbaum’s Creating Capabilities

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 29, 2011

Last April, Martha Nussbaum’s book Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach came out. Too late for being included in my entry on the capability approach at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but I’m immediately making up for that omission since I’m working on a book review for the Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews. My verdict? It’s a useful introduction for undergrads and policy makers, but given its length it doesn’t (and cannot) have much depth. (for me, that’s not a criticism: it’s by definition almost impossible for introductory books that cover such a broad range of disciplines to have much, if any, depth). Yet I think it is somewhat more problematic that something is missing that many undergraduates and most policy makers reading this book will want to know, since it doesn’t cover the empirical work being done. Hence the book also ignores all the questions related to measurement, which is, in my experience, the #1 question asked by economists who want to understand this framework, and by policy makers looking for an answer to the question whether the approach has any bite.

One could be inclined to believe that this is merely a teaching book, and it is with that assumption that I read it; yet there is also something in there for scholars of the approach. They will also discover some new claims and statements – some of which I endorse, and some of which I contest.
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Grand Theft Kocherlakotau

by Henry Farrell on August 26, 2011

John Kay has a “piece”: about the travails of modern economic theory in the Financial Times today. This analogy struck me as a bit unfair.

bq. The only descriptions that fully meet the requirements of consistency and rigour are completely artificial worlds, such as the “plug-and-play” environments of DSGE – or the Grand Theft Auto computer game. … Economists – in government agencies as well as universities – were obsessively playing Grand Theft Auto while the world around them was falling apart.

After all, as best as I am informed, _Grand Theft Auto_ has an entire simulated world, with multiple interactions between quasi-autonomous, if scripted personalities. Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models – not so much. But this spurred me to think – how would _Grand Theft Auto_ work if it looked a little bit more like a DSGE model? All interactions taking place with a single modal gangsta, whose preferences were taken as representative of all gangstas across the entire economy? Frictionless exchanges, in which gunfire never occurs because all actors anticipate what other actors are likely to do, and hence avoid welfare-lowering actions? My imagination is limited, both (a) because I’ve never actually played Grand Theft Auto, and (b) because my exposure to the relevant economic arguments primarily consists of dim memories of snotty comments about Robert Lucas in lectures by neo-Keynesian Peter Neary (who taught advanced macro to my undergraduate class and was keen on the Malinvaud tripod). But I’m sure that other members of the CT community don’t labour under these twin disadvantages, and can do better. Also, I recognize that the title of this post is quite unfair, since Kocherlakota, whatever his other faults, is “not especially keen”: on DSGE arguments, but if the belabored wordplay fits, then wear it …

Facing new challenge, Romney stakes out fresh position

by Michael Bérubé on August 25, 2011

Deepinaharta, Texas — Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said today that if he should win the White House in 2012, his administration would seek to introduce legislation barring corporations from having abortions.

“Corporations are people too,” Romney said to a dwindling group of supporters who seemed to be distracted by a picture of Texas governor Rick Perry <a href=””>in a flight suit</a>, “and they should be denied the same basic reproductive rights that I once supported and now oppose for people.”  Romney went on to say that people-corporations should enjoy the same tax and regulatory relief as corporation-corporations, “giving job seekers and job creators alike the freedom to innovate and to invest their money as they see fit.”

Romney did not respond to a question as to whether his administration would permit corporations to merge with other corporations of the same sex.

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The rise and fall of Dr Struensee

by Chris Bertram on August 25, 2011

I’ve been fixing the footnotes to a new translation of Rousseau’s Considerations on the Government of Poland (fn1) and whilst doing so happened upon a really fascinating bit of Danish history. Rousseau has a cryptic remark:

bq. You have seen Denmark, you see England, and you will soon see Sweden. Profit by these examples to learn once and for all that, however many precautions you may amass, heredity in the throne and liberty in the nation will forever be incompatible things.

What would they have seen in Denmark?
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Free children’s books from around the world

by Eszter Hargittai on August 24, 2011

At a talk by Ben Bederson at Webshop 2011, I learned about a fantastic resource: the International Children’s Digital Library. They have books available in full for free from all over the world in their original languages (like Hungarian, Mongolian, Arabic, German, etc.). In addition to offering these books in their original language, they’re also working on getting them translated by people who don’t necessarily speak the language of the original book. Intrigued? See how you can contribute. (This latter link is to the translation site, not the book site.)

Beer chauvinism!

by Chris Bertram on August 23, 2011

Recent discussion on twitter, facebook and blogs involving, inter alia Matt Yglesias (yes, again!), “Erik Loomis”: (who kicked it all off), Scott Lemieux, John Band, Dsquared, me, and others, tells me that people get much more excited about who has the best beer than about the role of the brewing industry in late capitalism and the fate of organized laboour. It also tells me that the claim that country X has the best beer is ambiguous. Some people think that the United States now brews the best beer, but even they are forced to concede that should you wish to actually drink the stuff, you are better placed (for example) in England where a ten-minute stroll from your front door (in any major or minor city) will likely get you to a pub with a decent selection. However, the partisans of nouveau American beer chauvinism have asserted that whilst England may score highly on that dimension, the typical US supermarket has a world-beating selection of brews. I’m not so sure. But first some commentary on our three questions (accompanied by some photographs). (This post is, incidentally, fortified by the excellent Jennings “Sneck Lifter” from Cumbria, a dark bitter at 5.1% abv.)
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And that’s nothing compared to invading Poland

by John Holbo on August 23, 2011

Continuing the all-Yglesias all-the-time quality for which Crooked Timber is lately renowned, Matt’s post here could be stronger. He’s pointing out that a Grover Norquist tweet is nonsense (not an unusual circumstance, I surmise, but there is a point to be made.) “If Keynesian economics worked — shoplifting would create jobs.”

Matt points out that Norquist is committing what he calls ‘the broken windows fallacy fallacy’, which requires some explanation of the money supply in 19th Century France. There is an easier way. W.W. II ended the Depression. So Hitler is like shoplifting, only more so. [click to continue…]

Utilitarian psychopaths

by Chris Bertram on August 22, 2011

Here’s an interesting (or at least provocative) new piece of psychological research (link may need academic subscription) with findings concerning the moral framework generally favoured by economists:

bq. In this paper, we question the close identification of utilitarian responses with optimal moral judgment by demonstrating that the endorsement of utilitarian solutions to a set of commonly-used moral dilemmas correlates with a set of psychological traits that can be characterized as emotionally callous and manipulative—traits that most would perceive as not only psychologically unhealthy, but also morally undesirable.

“The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas”, by Daniel M. Bartels and David A. Pizarro, Cognition 121 (2011) 154–161.

The end of tyranny (updated)

by John Q on August 22, 2011

The seemingly imminent downfall of Muammar Gaddafi may not represent “the end of history”, but, for the moment at least, it’s pretty close to being the end of tyranny, in the historical sense of absolute rule by an individual who has seized power, rather than acquiring it by inheritance or election. Bonapartism (if you exclude its more specialised use to refer to supporters of the Bonaparte family claim to rule France) , is probably the closest modern equivalent. Forty-odd years ago, this kind of government was the rule rather than the exception in most regions of the world (notably including South America and the Communist bloc), and was represented even in Western Europe by Franco and Salazar.

Now, there’s Mugabe clinging to a share of power in Zimbabwe, along a bunch of less prominent, but still nasty, African dictators in the classic post-colonial mode (in the original post, I underestimated the number of these who are still around, but they are clearly a dying breed). Add in a handful of shaky-looking strongmen in the periphery of the former Soviet Union, and that’s about it for tyrants in the classical sense.

Normally classed as tyrants but not meeting the classical definition, Kim jr, Assad jr and Castro minor (and some others mentioned in comments), the first two of whom are certainly tyrannical in the ordinary modern sense, but all of whom inherited their positions, as of course, did the remaining absolute monarchs. The historical evidence, starting with Cromwell jr, and running through Baby Doc Duvalier and others is that regimes like this hardly ever make it to the third generation. They combine the low average ability inherent in hereditary systems with a lack of either royal or revolutionary, let alone democratic, legitimacy.

More interesting cases are those of Museveni in Uganda and Kagame in Rwanda, illustrations of the point that tyrants in the classic sense need not be bad, at least relative to the alternative they displaced. But these seem to be isolated examples, owing much of their appeal to the horrors that preceded them and the fear that those horrors might return.

More surprising to me are the number of cases where classic tyrants, having established one-party states, have been succeeded by self-selecting oligarchies – China is the most striking example, but Singapore also fits. Looking at the evidence of the past, I would have predicted that such oligarchies would either collapse in short order or see the emergence of a new tyrant, but there is no sign of that for the moment.

I don’t have a good theory to explain the rise of so many tyrants in the modern period, beginning with Bonaparte (or maybe Cromwell), or the sharp decline of this form of government from around the mid-1960s. But it seems that it’s a development worth noting.

fn1. Putin is often presented as being a near-dictator. But he doesn’t need to repress his opponents – it’s pretty clear he would easily win elections in Russia with or without doing so. Conversely, there’s no real evidence to suggest that he could or would hold on for long if public opinion turned sharply against him.

Soaking the rich

by John Q on August 22, 2011

Matt Yglesias[1] says

Many on the right and center indicate that in order to restore the economy, President Obama needs to do more to cater to the whims of rich businessmen. Many on the left feel that this is exactly wrong and that in order to restore the economy, President Obama needs to do more to stick it to the rich and dispossess them. History suggests that both are wrong.

He goes on to give plenty of evidence for the wrongness of the first proposition, and none at all for the second.
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Arguing Comics

by John Holbo on August 21, 2011

The question came up in comments to the sf and fantasy top 100 thread: take such debates seriously? Or not so much? Admittedly, it’s kind of like comics fans arguing about which heroes/titles deserve a reboot. (via Comics Alliance)

UPDATE: to judge from comments, some readers may have missed the point of the comics forum post, or failed to click over. The lengthy thread consists entirely of comics fans arguing self-righteously, enthusiastically, angrily, but above all, knowledgeably, about non-existent comics. They really keep the ball going.

“Alls I know is that if they manage to bring back Captain Hayseed and the Ramblin’ Rangers, I’m gonna Freak. Out. Molterstein’s run on that in the 50’s shaped my childhood. Too bad they can’t bring back Tony Modigliani for art, but I heard after that fourth lightning strike, his art really went downhill.”

“If you look at the shifted continents promotion where it says “worlds will change” you can see Hayseed’s symbol of the Haymaker where Asia should be. I bet it gets tied into the Century of Peril series though and Jason Tooth is writing it.”

Pareidolia Sunday

by John Holbo on August 21, 2011

Next week in my Philosophy of Literature module I’ll be talking about pareidolia and theories of how and and why it works. How and why pretty much any closed loop with three dots in it is a face, because it ‘looks like’ one. The occasion for burdening my students with this is discussion of overly-linguistifying (in my view) theories of how literature ‘works’ and, more grandly, linguistifying theories of what Aristotle called mimesis, a.k.a. that whole ‘poetics’ ball of wax. I posted some of my thoughts about pictures and pictoriality before: it’s important to realize that even though a smiley face is an utterly conventional icon, it doesn’t follow that it works by convention.

Anyway, I thought it was a nice coincidence that Andrew Sullivan linked to this today, for his Faces of the Day thing.

Also, I just stumbled on a real sparklepop/powerfolk earworm of a tune by Vetiver, “Wonder Why”, which turns out to have a a pareidolia-based video. Great track. Get it free from Amazon.

The maps and the video are good examples for me because they preemptively emphasize something that is often raised as an objection to efforts to ‘naturalize’ the pictorial function: namely, it’s a learned process. By the end of the map series, and the video, you are more sensitized to faces and figures in maps, mailboxes and trashcans than you were at the start. To that extent your responses are ‘conventional’, in the sense of learned (when you could perfectly well have been learning something else, so the result is somewhat ‘arbitrary’). Fine, fine. But the point still stands. From the fact that a result is path-dependent, it may follow that it is conventional (in a perfectly good sense of that word). But, again, it does not follow from the fact that something is conventional in that sense that it ‘works by’ convention in some other senses that tend to be carelessly bundled in. The mechanism by which we recognize things as faces is cognitively distinct from the mechanism by which we recognize that ‘faces’ denotes faces. My target here is Nelson Goodmanian thinking, which tries to explain pictorial resemblance and representation on the model of linguistic denotation. He doesn’t say it works exactly the same, all the way up and down; that would be pretty obviously crazy. But he pushes the line that, in order to theorize how pictures work, you have to build on a kind of denotational foundation. I think the opposite: theories of linguistic denotation need to rest on a foundational theory of pictoriality. But enough about me. Enjoy the video and the song. Great song, I think.

Small beer

by Henry Farrell on August 19, 2011

“Matt Yglesias”: suggests after a Twitter debate that I and Tom Philpott are conceding a lot to neo-liberalism because we’re OK with microbrews. I’m not so sure.

Matt’s “original claim”: was that craft brewers were somehow analogous to charter schools, giving us delicious individualist brews, rather than unionized mass-produced piss.

bq. So here’s the thing. You may not like Miller or Bud Light, but Miller and Anheuser-Busch both run unionized breweries. And as Loomis notes, one consequence of the cartelization of the American beer brewing industry was to generate monopoly profits for the large breweries. This was good not just for “Miller executives” but for all the stakeholders in the enterprise. When a unionized firm is in a non-competitive marketplace, the union is in a strong position to force the firm to share some of the monopoly rents with the workforce. When the market becomes more competitive, not only does the unionized firm lose market share but the union in general loses leverage. The craft breweries are basically the charter schools (or foreign-built trains) of the beer world.

I think this first version of the claim was wrong, on any reasonable interpretation. If Matt was suggesting that good beer and good unions are somehow incompatible, all I can say is Sir, I refute you “thus!”: If he was arguing instead, as he seemed to be claiming on Twitter, that Big Microbrew threatens the bargaining power of unions in the American beer industry, then he was making a wildly implausible claim. Not only do microbrews only account for a small percentage of the market (about 7% as best as I can see) but they constitute a more or less entirely separate market from the market for Miller, Budweiser etc. There’s simply not that much substitution between the two – hence, not much in the way of market effects. Unlike e.g. steel minimills in the 1980s, microbrews pose no fundamental threat to the way the major industry is organized. He’s correct that charter schools (which I personally have no very strong inherent objections to, by the way) also only constitute a small percentage of the US education market – but beer, obviously, is not subject to the same political forces as is education. There is little likelihood that the appeal of microbrews will lead state, local or federal officials to impose or encourage mandatory hopping levels for Anheuser-Busch, or that US unions would object if they did. Unlike their “Danish compatriots”: they have no skin in the game. Microbrews have no realistic chance of transforming the main marketplace in ways that would undermine unions.

Matt seems now to be making a somewhat different claim, which doesn’t really make much sense to me.

bq. The Farrell/Philpott explanations of why this is okay in the case of domestic craft beer rely on the claim that empirically speaking the impact of the new entrant in question on the marketplace is going to be small. That may be true, but it’s in considerable tension with the impulse of Philpott (based on his original article) and Farrell (assuming “pissy” is not a compliment) to valorize the new entrants. … There seems to me to be a kind of special pleading at work here, where on the one hand a neoliberal approach to the beer market is justified on the grounds that it’s giving consumers superior options, but then it’s okay to be a neoliberal about beer because only a tiny minority of consumers will actually appreciate these new options. Neoliberalism for me but not for thee

This is a very peculiar argument. Matt has been quite good in the past at taking on libertarians and conservatives who claim that all liberals want is a bigger state. Now, he seems to be suggesting that all that people to _his_ left want are bigger regulation and bigger unions, and that when it comes to craft ales and stuff that they really care for, they’re big old hypocrites who want _deregulation all the way._ This claim rests both on a caricature of the left and a fundamental misconception about the issues at stake, which concern personal likes and dislikes, not politics. I have particular tastes in beer, but I don’t feel that other people are missing out on very much if they don’t share those tastes, and instead drink beers that I myself dislike. Not only am I prepared to share a blog with “such people”:, I’m even married to one of them. Nor, even if my tastes were like those of dsquared and my spouse, would I have any reason to oppose deregulation that did no apparent damage to the causes that I believe in. Where a policy change gives people _more choices_, and there are _no discernible negative side-effects_, I’m all in favor. I cannot on earth see why anyone would prefer to describe this stance as ‘special pleading,’ or a major concession to neo-liberalism rather than e.g. ‘common sense.’

Perhaps there _is_ some Bierstalinismus Fraktion out there, which believes that the proletariat will never be fully realized as a class-in-itself until it learns to appreciate hoppy microbrews, but which has reached an accommodation with neo-liberalism in which these joys are reserved for the revolutionary vanguard. I’m not a member of it. Nor, I suspect, is anyone else whom Matt is disagreeing with. This is a rotten test-case for arguments about neo-liberalism, precisely because neo-liberals, left-liberals and social democrats have no reason to disagree with each other. In cases where there is a clash between (a) increasing individual choice, and (b) plausibly weakening political forces that help militate against inequality, there are real arguments to be had (and, depending on the specifics of the case, one might reasonably favor the one side or the other). But I’m not seeing any such clash here, and I’m rather confused as to why Matt thinks that there is, and that people to his left are engaging in special pleading so as to ignore it.

Top 100 SF and Fantasy Picks?

by John Holbo on August 19, 2011

Here’s NPR’s list. (Kevin Drum is musing about it, among others. He points out: no Pohl, Bester, Delany.)

The Silmarillion beat The Hobbit? Fer reals? (Drum is wondering about that, too.) And a D&D Forgotten Realms book is on the list. So it, too, beat The Hobbit?

No Greg Bear or David Brin? Seems we need at least one of those hard sf ‘killer B’s’. No Uplift books? No Forge of God/Anvil of Stars or Moving Mars? (I understand why Larry Niven is on the list, but couldn’t we drop a Niven/Pournelle book to make room for Bear or Brin?) No Bova neither.

No John Crowley, Little, Big? Seems a crime to omit that one.

No Fritz Leiber?

I’m trying to think what multiple Hugo and Nebula-winning authors have gotten the boot on this list.

Take it away!

Institutions and Politics syllabus

by Henry Farrell on August 18, 2011

I’m teaching my Ph.D. level course on institutions and politics this fall. The idea behind the course is to provide Ph.D. students with (a) an understanding of core debates in institutional theory in political science (distinguishing between rational choice, historical institutionalist and ideational accounts), (b) some sense that these accounts go across the subfields of political science, and (c ) an intuition that there are Other Social Sciences with debates about institutions, and that they often have fun and important things to say. Below the fold is my draft reading list: suggested amendments, additions, revisions etc are gratefully received (and if anyone finds the syllabus useful, they should feel free to take it and adapt it for their own requirements &c&c). I also have a class without assigned readings yet – which I hope to fill in with some fun new topic.

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