From the monthly archives:

September 2011

Regime Change Doesn’t Work

by Henry Farrell on September 29, 2011

Alex Downes, who has just become a colleague of mine at GWU, has a “great piece”: on this topic, with this title, in the new _Boston Review._ Key paragraph:

bq. Is the bloody aftermath of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq the exception or the rule? Does regime change work? The short answer is: rarely. The reasons for consistent failure are straightforward. Regime change often produces violence because it inevitably privileges some individuals or groups and alienates others. Intervening forces seek to install their preferred leadership but usually have little knowledge of the politics of the target country or of the backlash their preference is likely to engender. Moreover, interveners often lack the will or commitment to remain indefinitely in the face of violent resistance, which encourages opponents to keep fighting. Regime change generally fails to promote democracy because installing pliable dictators is in the intervener’s interest and because many target states lack the necessary preconditions for democracy.

The rest of the piece is a summary of political science’s findings on the (usually dismal) record of efforts by outside actors to change regimes. These findings:

bq. Despite what interveners hope, regime change implemented by outsiders is not a force for stability. More than 40 percent of states that experience foreign-imposed regime change have a civil war within the next ten years. Regime change generates civil wars in three ways. First, civil war can be part of the process of removing the old regime from power and suppressing its remnants. In Hungary in 1919, a Romanian invasion unseated the Communist regime of Béla Kun. His successor Miklós Horthy carried out a “White Terror” that killed roughly 5,000 supposed Communists, communist supporters, or sympathizers. Similar conflicts and purges followed the ousters of Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile.

bq. Second, regime change fosters civil war because it abruptly reverses the status of formerly advantaged groups. Remnants of the old regime’s leadership or army may wage an insurgency against the new rulers rather than accept a subordinate position. This happened in Cambodia following the Vietnamese invasion in December 1978. The Vietnamese army quickly defeated the Khmer Rouge in conventional battles, but Pol Pot, other top leaders, and many fighters escaped to remote jungle hideouts along the Thai and Laotian borders. Determined to regain power, the Khmer Rouge waged a decade-long insurgency against Vietnam’s puppet, Heng Samrin, and occupying forces. Similarly, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sunni Ba’athist ex-soldiers took up arms to eject U.S. occupiers and restore Sunni rule.

are similar to Chris’s argument of a “few months ago”: that the Libyan intervention was unlikely to produce a stable government because

bq. Some Libyans may rally to the Gaddafi regime out of a sense of wounded national pride at outside interference. And even if Gaddafi falls (which I hope he will) the successor regime will lack the legitimacy it might have had, and will no doubt be resented and undermined by nationalist Gaddafi loyalists biding their time and representing it as the creature of the West.

Chris got some ill-considered flak for purportedly making a normative claim that any new regime would be ‘illegitimate,’ when he was in fact making an empirical argument which accords well with the state of the art among political scientists who study these issues.

Sharing Anne Tyler

by Chris Bertram on September 28, 2011

The latest Financial Times weekend had “a piece”: by Simon Kuper about how studying English literature had spoilt the experience of reading for him. Whereas once, as a child or an adolescent, he could immerse himself in a novel, the academic study of them had taught him to read as a critic. That second-order relationship to the text, just made the whole thing much less fun than it had been. I see what he means. Relatedly, one of the problems about writing for a blog like Crooked Timber with so many readers who know more than I do on just about any topic is the the difficulty in sharing books, films, or music that you’ve enjoyed because I’m scanning the horizon (or the potential comments thread) for the dorsal fin of the Great White Critic for whom the immediate pleasure taken is a symptom of hopeless naivety and a failure to adopt the necessary critical distance. But to hell with that. Sometimes some discovery is so fantastic that I just want to share, and that’s how I feel about reading Anne Tyler. Since reading “a post about her”: on Norman Geras’s blog (Norman is great for that stuff, just ignore the politics) I’ve made my way through The Accidental Tourist, A Patchwork Planet, The Amateur Marriage, Noah’s Compass, Celestial Navigation, Earthly Possessions, Ladder of Years, The Tin Can Tree, Digging to America, Back When We Were Grownups, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and I feel blessed that I still have (by my count) seven to go.

For those who don’t know, Tyler’s novels, nearly all set in Baltimore, are mostly quiet dramas of family life and relationships. The wider world of politics and economics doesn’t intrude much, so we’re a long way from the grand themes of Jonathan Franzen and the like. Many of the books are somewhat similar, in that a person has their habits and their conception of who they are turned upside down by an encounter with someone utterly unlike themselves. Sometimes they are changed; sometimes they revert. Her male characters are often stiff, calculating and habit bound; women more open and spontaneous, but she manages to achieve a sympathetic engagement with all of them. And all of her families conform to the Tolstoyan cliché. Her writing is also extraordinary. Highly economic and unfussy and yet she has an ear to capture a scene or a moment in a phrase that sticks in the memory – “By now he was looking seriously undermedicated” from A Patchwork Planet, for example.

The novels are about you, and me and our relationships and difficulties with spouses, parents, children, in-laws and colleagues. Since I became enthusiastic about Tyler, I’ve given some of her books as presents and then been asked if I was “making a point” about the recipient’s relationship. Well no I wasn’t, but I take this as good evidence that Tyler sees and captures the universal in all of our peculiar cases. I mentioned Tyler to a bookblogger friend, Kate, recently, and she asked me which are the best. I’m hard pushed to say. The Tin Can Tree was a bit of a struggle and some of the others disclosed themselves slowly but turned out to be among the best. Perhaps Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant would be a good place to start.

Colin Crouch – The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism

by Henry Farrell on September 26, 2011

Cover note – over the next several months, I hope to review as many new books on the political economy of advanced industrialized societies post-2008 as I can. There is a lot of interesting work out being done which isn’t getting covered as well as it should in US public debate. Next up: Lane Kenworthy.

Conflict of interest warning: Although I’ve I’ve tried to review the book as though it were written by a complete stranger, Colin was effectively the co-supervisor of my dissertation and is a friend (albeit one whom I don’t see nearly enough of).

Colin Crouch – The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism (available from Powells, “Amazon”: (deprecated)).

The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism looks at the prospects of neo-liberalism (which Crouch sees as claiming that “optimal outcomes will be achieved if the demand and supply for goods and services are allowed to adjust to each other through the price mechanism, without interference by government or other forces”) post-2008, and argues that they are pretty good. Even if neoliberalism _should_ have been discredited, it is emerging more powerfully than ever, as states cut back welfare and public spending in the wake of the crisis. Crouch argues that neoliberalism, despite its claims, is effectively “devoted to the dominance of public life by the giant corporation.” What neo-liberals, and some leftists, see as a conflict between the market and the state is in fact an argument over how the two should relate to each other. Neoliberals are not pushing for free markets so much as a certain style of politics, which masquerades as a commitment to free markets, independent of politics, but in fact is an unhealthy hybridization of the two. To the extent that politics pervades markets, and markets pervades politics, both suffer.
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Reader, I Married Him

by Belle Waring on September 26, 2011

This conversation actually happened at our house just now. In truth, I was first lying in bed with the laptop and then addressing John from a somewhat lascivious position difficult to illustrate with stick figures. No, now you’re imagining something worse. Anyway, I think the xkcd couple should be able to afford a better desk and computer by now. Little thing that pulls out for your keyboard? What is it, 1996?
“I thought of the title! And I helped with Photoshop!”–John.

Booing too good for him?

by John Holbo on September 25, 2011

No, I’m not thinking about our Daniel. I’m working up to a proper follow-up to my conservative cognitive dissonance posts. This isn’t really it, alas, but it’s a start.

It makes no sense for conservatives like Jim Geraghty to express this sort of concern about the booing of Stephen Hill at the GOP debate. (Hill is, as you probably know, the gay soldier who asked about DADT):

Rereading the transcript of last night’s debate, I am struck that Rick Santorum did not thank Stephen Hill, a gay soldier in the U.S. Army currently in Iraq, for his service. Nor did anyone else on that stage.

Whatever you think of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or homosexuality, Hill is risking his life on behalf of his country.

And for sure it doesn’t make sense for Santorum himself to have responded to subsequent questions about the booing, like so: [click to continue…]

The poverty of rationality

by John Q on September 24, 2011

Steve Williamson has written a much longer critique of Zombie Economics. It’s a lot more temperate in tone than the blog post I criticised here, and there are some valid points. Nevertheless, the new version exhibits the same fundamental confusion I pointed out last time, trying to claim that rationality assumptions are both important and unfalsifiable.

I’m criticising it again because, in making this mistake, Williamson is not exactly Robinson Crusoe[1]. The same confusion is evident among a great many economists, and even more among proponents of rational choice models in political science and other social sciences. This, despite the fact that the key error was skewered by William Hazlitt nearly two centuries ago, writing on self-love and benevolence.

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Banks and the bezzle

by John Q on September 24, 2011

As a sort of response to Daniel’s post, I’d like to toss up some not fully digested thoughts about the fact that there have been very few high profile criminal prosecutions of bankers or others in the finance sector arising from the 2008 meltdown. There was of course the Madoff case, but it’s something of a rule-proving exception – Madoff was essentially a one-man show and he got caught for the very simple reason that his Ponzi scheme ran out of money.

The general immunity of the financial sector is an exception to the usual pattern described in JK Galbraith’s theory of the bezzle (exemplified by Madoff). The bezzle is the amount of undetected corporate fraud. As a boom continues, and everyone does well, people realise they can siphon off money and use it to make even more money. If they are threatened with detection, the original amount stolen can be returned to the till, and thye are still ahead. But, in a crisis, this can’t be done and, in any case, outside accountants are all over the books. So, embezzlers are caught and the bezzle shrinks. It stays small in the early stages of recovery when most decisions are being made by the cautious types who survived the crisis. But as the boom continues, hungrier and less-risk averse types come to the fore and the bezzle begins to grow again.

It’s also typically true that actions seen, while profitable as corner-cutting at worst, and as cleverly overcoming silly regulatory obstacles at best, are commonly prosecuted under much more aggressive interpretations of the law when lots of people have lost their money.

Why is it no one, or hardly anyone has been caught and convicted this time around? A few possible explanations over the fold, along with an attempt to respond to DD on whether this matters.

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Joris Luyendijk’s new project up at the Guardian is aiming to apply the methods of social anthropology to the financial sector in the City of London. He’s carrying out interviews in pubs and coffee bars with people at all levels and in different roles in financial services industry, to get a proper picture of how the social roles all fit together. So far, he has made at least one major discovery:

I know, I was just as surprised. I’ve been doing my own amateur social anthropology exercise too. By which I mean that I’ve got a Twitter account and some spare time, and as a result, have been collecting[1] prime specimens of banker abuse. So far, I’ve gathered that I, personally, have stolen from every single benefits claimant in England, and that Sir Fred Goodwin (crime: got a big pension, managed a bank poorly) is clearly a bigger criminal than Sir Anthony Blunt (crime: betrayed dozens of serving agents to Stalinist Russia). And, of course, during the recent London riots, dozens of variations on “who is the real criminal – the man who smashes a shop window and steals an iPod, or the man who gets paid a bonus?”

Because, at the end of the day, Dr Harold Shipman murdered 52 infirm old women in order to steal money from their wills, but bankers, get bonuses. Who is the real criminal, eh??

It is without any anticipation of popularity or agreement (or even any real hope of not being called an asshole on my own blog, although I must say that would be jolly nice if you were in the mood) that I tell you that I think this is all rather a pack of bollocks.

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Contradictory beliefs

by Chris Bertram on September 22, 2011

It isn’t a good thing to have contradictory beliefs. Since I’ve notice what appear to be such beliefs in myself recently, I thought I’d share, both because I guess that there are others out there who also have them, and in the hope that Crooked Timber’s community of readers can tell either that I should discard some of them (on grounds of falsity) or that I’m wrong to think them contradictory. So here goes.

Belief 1: As a keen reader of Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong (yes, really), our own John Quiggin and other left-leaning econobloggers, I believe that most Western economies need a stimulus to growth, that austerity will be counterproductive, and that without growth the debt burden will worsen and the jobs crisis will get deeper.

Belief 2: As someone concerned about the environment, I believe that growth, as most people understand it, is unsustainable at anything like recent rates. Sure, more efficient technologies can reduce the environmental impacts of each unit of consumption, but unless we halt or limit growth severely, we’ll continue to do serious damage. There are some possibilities for switching to less damaging technologies or changing consumption patterns away from goods whose production causes serious damage, but the transition times are likely to be long and the environmental crisis is urgent.

Belief 3: Some parts of the world are just too poor to eschew growth. People in those parts of the world need more stuff just to lift them out of absolute poverty. It is morally urgent to lift everyone above the threshold where they can live decent lives. If anyone should get to grow their consumption absolutely, it needs to be those people, not us.

Belief 4: The relative (and sometimes absolute) poverty that some citizens of wealthy countries suffer from is abhorrent, and is inconsistent with the status equality that ought to hold among fellow-citizens of democratic nations. We ought to lift those people out of poverty.

If I were to attempt a reconciliation, I’d say that this suggests zero or negative growth in material consumption for the wealthier countries but a massive programme of wealth redistribution among citizens at something like the current level of national income, coupled with a commitment to channel further technological progress into (a) more free time (and some job sharing) or a shift in the mix of activity towards non-damaging services, like education (b) switching to green technologies (c) assistance to other nations below the poverty threshold. All of those things need mechanisms of course if they’re to happen — and I’m a bit light on those if I’m honest, outside of the obvious tax-and-transfer. What we don’t need is more in the way of “incentives” to already-rich supposed “wealth creators” and the like. What we certainly don’t need is a strategy that purports to assist the worst off in the wealthiest countries by boosting economic activity without regard to the type of activity it is, in the hope that this gives people jobs and, you know, rising tides, trickling down and all that rigmarole. The trouble is that Belief 1, which I instinctively get behind when listening to the austerity-mongers, is basically the same old tune that the right-wing of social democracy has been humming all these years. It is just about the only thing that will fly for the left politically in a time of fear, joblessness and falling living standards, but it seems particularly hard to hold onto if you take Belief 2 seriously.

Collective Wisdom

by Henry Farrell on September 20, 2011

Via “Kevin Drum”:, a piece by Ed Yong “which argues”:

bq. Whatever it’s called, the principle is the same: a group of people can often arrive at more accurate answers and better decisions than individuals acting alone. There are many examples, from counting beans in a jar, to guessing the weight of an ox, to the Ask The Audience option in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But all of these examples are somewhat artificial, because they involve decisions that are made in a social vacuum. Indeed, James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, argued that wise crowds are ones where “people’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.” That rarely happens. From votes in elections, to votes on social media sites, people see what others around them are doing or intend to do. We actively seek out what others are saying, and we have a natural tendency to emulate successful and prominent individuals. So what happens to the wisdom of the crowd when the crowd talks to one another?

bq. … You can insert your own modern case study here, but perhaps this study ends up being less about the wisdom of the crowd than a testament to the value of expertise. Maybe the real trick to exploiting the wisdom of the crowd is to recognise the most knowledgeable individuals within it.

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Two weeks ago I made a post that was as comprehensively misunderstood, relative to my intent, as anything I have written in quite a while. So let me try again. I meant to assert the following:

1) Sometimes Republicans (conservatives) make loud, radical, extreme ‘philosophical’ claims they don’t really mean. Democrats (liberals), on the other hand, don’t ever really do this.

I was interpreted by some as asserting the following:

2) Invariably, whenever Republicans (conservatives) seem to say something crazy or radical, they don’t mean it. They are always moderates about everything. In fact, they are liberals. We can ignore any appearances to the contrary.

Well, I for sure didn’t mean 2. Crikey.

In general, the way to keep 1 clear of 2 is by applications of ‘some’, and appropriate cognates. (I’m saying that sometimes Republicans/conservatives do something that Democrats/liberals never do, not that Republicans/conservatives never don’t do this thing that Democrats/liberals never do.) It may be that my original post was insufficiently slathered with ‘some’. For present post purposes, if I should ever seem to be saying 2), add ‘some’ until it turns into some variant on 1). On we go. [click to continue…]

… is set out over the fold. I’m confident readers who take a little time to think about it will realise it’s far superior to existing policy, and to any alternative proposed so far.

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Living in the 70s*

by John Q on September 17, 2011

A bunch of standard measures of US economic wellbeing (median household income, real wages for workers with high school education, educational attainment by age 25 and so on) show strong improvement from 1945 to the early 1970s, followed by stagnation or very slow growth thereafter. A variety of arguments, have been put forward to suggest that the standard statistical measures understate improvements in wages, incomes and so on since the 1970s. Some of these arguments are valid (for example household size has fallen), some not (for example, the fact that we now have more of goods that have become relatively cheaper). Regardless of validity, the main reason people believe these arguments is that, for anyone who was around at the time, it seems implausible that our parents’ living standards in the 1970s were comparable to our own today (assuming roughly similar class positions)

This reasoning is invalid for a reason that should be familiar to those on the conservative side of debates over inequality. The measures mentioned above compare snapshots of incomes at different times. But (as conservatives regularly point out) standards of living are determined mainly by lifetime incomes, not by income in any particular year. Given the pattern described above, lifetime income for someone who worked, say, from 1940 to 1985 was well below that for someone in a similar class position who started work in 1970, just when the long increase in real wages was slowing for most and stopping for some. For every year of their working life, the 1970 starter gets a wage (adjusted for age, education and so on) that’s as high as the maximum attained by the 1940 starter after 30 years of steady growth. Unsurprisingly, that translates into a bigger house, and more of most items that require savings, whether or not their price has risen relative to the CPI.

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Money, sex, economics and stuff

by Chris Bertram on September 16, 2011

Aside from containing a brilliant exposition of how blogospherical “rebuttal” actually works — basically endless posts by halfwits repeating that X (an eminent scholar) is an ignoramus because X has contradicted the received wisdom of a tribe — this post by Dave Graeber at Naked Capitalism has to be one of the most informative and entertaining pieces I’ve read in a long while. What happens when the findings of anthropologists about earlier societies clash with the a priori assumptions of economists about how things _must_ have happened? Well, you can guess. The really interesting stuff is in the anthropological detail, so read the whole thing, as they say, but I’ll just quote Graeber on economics and scientific method:

bq. Murphy argues that the fact that there are no documented cases of barter economies doesn’t matter, because all that is really required is for there to have been some period of history, however brief, where barter was widespread for money to have emerged. This is about the weakest argument one can possibly make. Remember, economists originally predicted all (100%) non-monetary economies would operate through barter. The actual figure of observable cases is 0%. Economists claim to be scientists. Normally, when a scientist’s premises produce such spectacularly non-predictive results, the scientist begins working on a new set of premises. Saying “but can you prove it didn’t happen sometime long long ago where there are no records?” is a classic example of special pleading. In fact, I can’t prove it didn’t. I also can’t prove that money wasn’t introduced by little green men from Mars in a similar unknown period of history.

Danish elections

by niamh on September 14, 2011

Denmark goes to the polls tomorrow, Thursday 14th. For those who incline to the view that elections don’t matter, this one may be particularly interesting, since the centre-left group of parties looks very likely to win. This will not only put the current right-wing government out of power, but will marginalize the far-right Danish People’s Party. The DPP has pulled the framework of debate well to the right in recent years on immigration, rights, welfare, because it’s been pivotal to government-making initiatives since the early 2000s. This time, the Social Democrats have managed to focus debate on economic issues:

Thorning-Schmidt has promised a new era of public investment in welfare, education and infrastructure. The government is preaching austerity and public spending cuts, the general trend across a Europe dominated by the centre-right.

Discourse really matters!

On a completely irrelevant note, but one that I find mildly interesting nonetheless, SD leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who’s been SD leader since 2005, is married to a son of Neil Kinnock.