From the monthly archives:

September 2011

The Effects of the Internet on Politics

by Henry on September 14, 2011

I’ve been buried in seclusion the last several days, trying to get a review article on the consequences of the Internet for politics (from a political science perspective) finished. Obviously, this is far too large an undertaking for a 12,000 word piece, so I’ve concentrated on two debates – arguments over the Internet and political polarization, and arguments over the putative role of the Internet in the Arab Spring. An initial draft is available here – comments and criticisms welcome (I’m already aware of, and planning to fix, the slightly ropy bibliography, the tendency to grossly over-use the word “plausibly” and the unexplained switch from discussion of ‘sorting’ in the opening section to ‘homophily’ in the main text). This is a topic where there are relevant literatures in political science, sociology, communications studies, and computer science that overlap without necessarily talking to each other that well. I’ve tried to gather as much as I can from across these disciplines, but am sure that there is plenty of material out there that I am unaware of.

Belgium sinking deeper and deeper…

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 14, 2011

I haven’t been reporting or commenting for a while on the ongoing political crisis in Belgium, which most recently started with the elections 15 months ago and the inability to form a government afterwards, but in fact genuinely started after the elections in June 2007 and the inability of the subsequent government to tackle some major socio-economic and political problems. In essence, the country has been politically unstable or incapable of effective governance for the last 4 years (In case you lost the story, here are my earlier posts on Belgian politics (starting with the oldest): “one”: “two”: “three”: “four”: “five”: “six”: “seven”: “eight”: “nine”: “ten”: “eleven”:

The last months were filled with one attempt after the other to find a coalition, all in a climate of the absence of trust between the two main linguistic groups, and also in what I’d call the ‘bad-divorce-atmosphere’. With that latter I mean that if one listens to the interpretation or explanation of a certain event by either the Flemish or the Francophones, it is just like listening to two spouses in the middle of a very ugly divorce: it is as if they live in two completely different realities. This, in fact, is probably the factor that makes me most pessimistic regarding the odds that the two linguistic groups will stay in the same country in the long run: just like a bad marriage, they no longer have enough valuable things in common, and their common past may no longer be enough to keep them together.

So now, in this mess, another event was just announced that may cause Belgium to sink even deeper: Yves Leterme, the Christian-Democratic former Prime-Minister, who has been been running the daily affairs for the last 15 months waiting to be succeeded by the new PM, has announced that he is moving to the office of the OECD.
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Running out of excuses

by John Quiggin on September 14, 2011

The latest data on US incomes make for grim reading, both as regards the bottom of the income distribution where the number in (absolute) poverty is at an all-time high (the proportion of the population was the highest since 1993), and in the middle, where median household incomes have fallen back to the 1997 level. For some groups, such as male wage earners without college education, real incomes haven’t risen since around 1970

Having discussed this issue before I’m familiar with most of the standard arguments[1] used to show that things really aren’t that bad. The big ones are
(i) household size is decreasing
(ii) the consumer price index doesn’t take adequate account of product quality
(iii) the Earned Income Tax Credit isn’t taken into account
(iv) health insurance and other benefits are undervalue

Looking at the period from 1970 as a whole, there’s some truth in these claims, though not enough to offset the dramatic contrast between the huge gains before 1970 and the relative stagnation thereafter. But over the last decade or two, these excuses have run out.

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Maybe I should ask to write my own headlines

by John Quiggin on September 13, 2011

My piece in the National Interest is now up under the exciting headline China’s imminent collapse. That’s great for reader interest – the piece has only been up a few hours and is already #1 on the Most Popular list, but I fear readers will perceive a bit of bait and switch when they reach the conclusion

Given the opacity of the system, there is no way of telling how and when a breakdown might occur except to observe that is likely to be precipitated by an economic crisis of some kind. Moreover, there is no way to tell whether a crisis would produce a relatively smooth transition towards democracy or something more chaotic and perhaps bloody.

Paul Krugman tells me he gets to choose his own headlines, a rare privilege in the world of newspapers and magazines. I asked my Australian Fin Review editors about this and they have said I can suggest them if I want to, though the tradition there runs more to cute subeditorial puns that I can’t really replicate.

Meanwhile apologies to readers for not providing accessible links to the papers I mentioned in my previous post. Through a mental process I won’t try to explain, I’d convinced myself that simply uploading the papers to CT would result in the imminent collapse of our hosting facility. Looking at the filesize that’s silly. So here are near-final drafts of:

The Politics and Society piece on financial markets
The Chronicle of Higher Education piece on inequality and the admissions race

Return of the underwater zombies

by John Quiggin on September 12, 2011

CT has long been the go-to blog on the cultural significance of underwater zombies (as in this classic). But now as reported by Paul Krugman in the NYTimes, they’ve taken over the ECB.

Haka Lámh, Lámh Eile

by Kieran Healy on September 12, 2011

The Rugby World Cup got under way last weekend, with no big surprises so far—although Wales were very unlucky against South Africa. Ireland sputtered along against the U.S., clearly in need of something to get them focused. So with that in mind—and in the hope that they can do it the next time they face New Zealand—I suggest they adopt this excellent haka. Some rudimentary knowledge of Irish is required for the full effect.

A fistful of links

by John Quiggin on September 12, 2011

Time to move on past 9/11 after 10 years I think. I’ve had a few pieces out recently that might be of interest to some CT readers: mostly paywalled I think – I guess I’m obligated to give them first dibs, but I’ll put up a near-final draft if there is enough interest

* In Politics and Society a piece entitled “Financial Markets: Masters or Servants? ” Abstract

Throughout the history of capitalism, there have been tensions between financial institutions and the state, and between financial capital and the firms and households engaged in the production and consumption of physical goods and services. Periods of financial sector dominance have regularly ended in spectacular panics and crashes, often resulting in the liquidation of large numbers of financial institutions and the reimposition of regulatory controls previously dismissed as outmoded and unnecessary. The aim of this article is to consider measures to restore financial markets to their proper role, as servants rather than masters of the market economy and the society within which it is embedded.

* In the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Cutthroat Admissions and Rising Inequality: A Vicious Duo developing some ideas I’ve talked about here regarding the narrowing of access to elite universities and jobs in the US

Also, a piece coming out soon in the National Interest, about China and Summer Davos. Generally, I think that the current Chinese regime is unsustainable, and that its attempts to throw its geopolitical weight around are silly. On the other hand, there is no reason to expect a smooth transition to market liberalism, let alone to democracy.

The War on Terror: an old psychohistorical fable

by John Quiggin on September 8, 2011

As rediscovered by Salvor Hardin, in Foundation by Isaac Asimov:

“A horse having a wolf as a powerful and dangerous enemy lived in constant fear of his life. Being driven to desperation, it occurred to him to seek a strong ally. Whereupon he approached a man, and offered an alliance, pointing out that the wolf was likewise an enemy of the man. The man accepted the partnership at once and offered to kill the wolf immediately, if his new partner would only co-operate by placing his greater speed at the man’s disposal. The horse was willing, and allowed the man to place bridle and saddle upon him. The man mounted, hunted down the wolf, and killed him.

“The horse, joyful and relieved, thanked the man, and said: ‘Now that our enemy is dead, remove your bridle and saddle and restore my freedom.’

“Whereupon the man laughed loudly and replied, ‘The hell you say. Giddy-ap, Dobbin,’ and applied the spurs with a will.”

Further reading from the ACLU (via Glenn Greenwald).

Woodrow Wilson Fellowships

by Henry on September 8, 2011

I’ve just returned to teaching after a year’s fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It’s a great place for anyone who wants to write a book (although you usually are expected to have completed one book already before applying), with good conversation (fellows are usually historians, social scientists or journalists) good offices, and a lot of intellectual activity. The Fellowship application page is here. If you think that it sounds interesting, and are able to transplant to DC for a year, I really recommend it (and am happy to provide advice in comments as needs be).

Socialised health care as feasible utopia

by John Quiggin on September 7, 2011

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I got a lot out of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias, and am still hoping our long-promised book event comes to fruition. The general idea of the book was in line with my thinking that technocratic rationality, of the kind offered by, say Obama or Blair, is not a sufficient answer to the irrationalist tribalism of the right – the left needs a transformative vision to offer hope of a better life, both for the increasing proportion of the population in rich countries who are losing ground as a result of growing inequality and for the great majority of the world’s population who are still poor by OECD standards[2]. So, Utopia matters.

But it’s just as important that utopia be feasible. Utopia as a dream may be comforting, but is unlikely to inspire effective political action. And attempts to implement a utopia that isn’t feasible are bound to end in failure, quite possibly disastrous failure, as the experience of communism showed us.

So, my idea was to think about what kind of transformative vision might be both feasible, and capable of inspiring effective action. I had a first go at this here and here, in relation to education.

Turning to health care, we could start with a utopian ideal where everyone got all the health care that could benefit them. But that would be utopian in the pejorative sense – the scope for expanding health services is effectively infinite, and the resources available to society are not.

Thinking about feasible utopia, on the other hand, it seems to me that the system of socialised health care in modern social democracies is not a bad model. That is, if all of society worked like the health care system at its best, we could regard the political project of social democracy as a success.
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Neo-Liberalism Again

by Henry on September 6, 2011

“Matt Yglesias”:, after complaining about the “endless Internet circle jerk over “neoliberalism,”” tries to be a little more conciliatory.

bq. I think when I tried to raise this issue as it pertained to craft beer, I wound up coming across as unduly accusatory and prompted a lot of unproductive responses. So to put the issue as clearly as possible, I wonder if adherents to an anti-neoliberal theory of progressive politics believe the right thing for President Obama to do is to consider the pro-labor benefits of the merger to be an _independent argument_ in favor of the merger that deserves weight alongside other issues. The CWA has an argument on the merits about this that I think isn’t crazy, but the question that I think is philosophically interesting is whether the labor angle deserves consideration apart from the “official” argument about anti-trust economics.

I think the answer to this question is a no-brainer: yes. If you believe, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Paul Krugman etc believe, that the decline of the US labor movement is an important explanatory factor for the rise of inequality in the US, and if you believe that inequality is a problem, then _of course_ you want to think about the consequences of anti-trust policy for union strength. Weakening unions can plausibly further increase inequality, by weakening actors who used to serve as an important counterweight to e.g. financial interests. But I am not at all sure that Matt himself has any deeply rooted philosophical objections to this way of thinking. In a “more recent post”: he quotes a Dean Baker argument that patents and intellectual property contribute to inequality, and concludes:

bq. The general idea is that we shouldn’t accept the view that a world of parasitic finance, asymmetrical globalization, government-sponsored intellectual property monopolies, and Fed engineered wage-suppression constitutes a “free market” outcome relative to which the left wants redistribution.

This seems absolutely right to me – but also to call for an emphatically non-neoliberal approach to politics. As Matt is saying in this post, profound political inequalities are baked into the cake of our current market economy. But if this is right, then it is implausible that we can let markets do their thing, and then worry about the distributional issues later, since inequalities, the power of financial interests, etc not only are part of the system as it is, but also make it very unlikely that we will ever get to the stage of doing substantial redistribution. While Dean Baker (whom Matt is relying on in this post) depicts his reform agenda as a set of pro-market measures, they are not by virtue of this, neo-liberal measures (which would suggest that we should let the market organize itself, and then worry about distribution later). Instead, Dean wants to restructure markets from the get-go so as e.g. to rein in the political power of finance by taxing certain transactions, getting rid of the ‘too big to fail’ problem etc. This political program (like all political programs) emphasizes some problems and de-emphasizes others. But it is, emphatically, a political program, with a theory of what is wrong with the US political economy, and how to fix it.

To put it another way: I think that Matt sometimes adopts neo-liberal language, and is surely friendlier to neo-liberal ideas than, for example, someone like me. But I also think that his agenda – if he were really to draw out its implicit politics – is rather more radical than he is usually prepared to let on. If he is uncertain about whether Chicago-style anti-trust thinking should sometimes be trumped by political considerations, then he should look again at the arguments around the Microsoft trial, which connect directly to the intellectual property questions that he worries about (as a lot of post-Chicago people argued, monopolies tend to stifle innovation in a variety of ways). It isn’t only pro-labor people who would like to see other arguments than George Stigler-style reasoning play a role in anti-trust decisions. If he believes (as he seems to) that inequality is a bad thing, and that current IP policy helps to foster inequality, then he should draw political conclusions from these causal connections.

For what it’s worth, I think that the open information agenda, and the political inequality agenda have a lot more in common than most people think (I have been planning for some time to do more writing on this over the next year). I think it would be a lot more useful to frame the argument as one between different ways of restructuring markets so as to tackle problems of inequality at their source than as one between neo-liberalism and its critics. For one thing, even while different ways of thinking about markets and inequality might point in different directions in specific instances, it would be easier to figure out the trade-offs, especially as they are trying to reach the same end-goal. For another, it would be easier to identify the possible political actors and coalitions that might support the one, or the other, set of reforms, and possible points of agreement or disagreement between them. Both of these would conduct towards better debate.

Bubble Trouble

by Henry on September 5, 2011

The _American Prospect_ has published a “review essay”: I wrote on Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble”: (I’m not quite sure when this went up on the WWW; I’ve been travelling). It’s an interesting book, which takes some of the empirical developments that Tyler Cowen enthused about in _The Age of the Infovore_ and comes to diametrically opposite conclusions about their normative implications.

bq. What Cowen sees as enhancing individual autonomy, Pariser sees as restricting personal development. Instead of constructing personal micro-economies that allow us to make sense of complexity, we are turning media into a mirror that reflects our own prejudices back at us. Even worse, services like Google and Facebook distort the mirror so that it exaggerates our grosser characteristics. Without our knowing, they reshape our information worlds according to their interpretation of our interests … We are beginning to live in what Pariser calls “filter bubbles,” personalized micro-universes of information that overemphasize what we want to hear and filter out what we don’t. … Cowen’s ideal world—where the private vice of self-centered information leads to the public virtue of a lively interactive culture—is unlikely to be self-sustaining. It’s also difficult to see how regulation could pop information bubbles. … As Harvard political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has argued, partisanship creates its own checks and balances. As long as partisans are contending for a majority of public support, they have to temper their own beliefs in ways that will allow them to appeal to the public and to respond to potentially persuasive arguments from their opponents. Democratic competition is not a complete solution. It does not protect individuals from a narrowing of their horizons. … Even so, democracies are far more robust against information bubbles than Pariser believes.

Back to Berlin

by John Quiggin on September 5, 2011

So, I finally stumbled across Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Chapter 1 of which ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ ends as follows

a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted,it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world. Immanuel Kant[1], a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason, no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.

Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to what Berlin is saying here. Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left. But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent. And, whatever Berlin may have intended by it, “prevent people from doing each other too much harm” should not mean leaving the rich to enjoy the fruits of a system constructed in their own interests, and letting the devil take the hindmost.

A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.

It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights). The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises, evident in the global financial crisis, along with the current struggle over austerity provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years while, hopefully preserving the gains.

fn1. As in many such cases, our blog’s name and tagline owe at least as much to Berlin’s translation as to Kant’s original.

American electoral politics: a brief introduction

by Michael Bérubé on September 3, 2011

[Now updated for clarity and symbolic reasons!]

I can see from the comments on <a href=””>John’s post below</a> that there is some confusion out there about the way the American political system works.  Specifically, there seems to be some serious misunderstanding of the dynamics of national elections in the US.  So let me try to clear this up once and for all.

You are welcome.

Basically, post-Watergate America works like this.  It’s what you might call a “twelve-step” program.
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Must We Act As If They Mean What They Say?

by John Holbo on September 3, 2011

Brief thoughts about that Bill Keller op-ed on candidates’ religions, and the kerfuffle that kicked up. But only by way of kicking off in the direction of what’s really going on here. The religion stuff needs a more general frame.

Keller is just being reasonable. If candidates say ‘my faith is a private matter and all that need concern the voters is how I will conduct myself in office,’ fine. But if candidates play up faith, for political advantage; if they announce that their religious views and values inform their political views and policy proposals, then obviously that makes religion fair game. Because in politics, your politics has to be fair game. Keller’s critics suggest that arriving at any such conclusion is tantamount to proposing something like a religious test for public office. Or worse! It’s an attempt to ban Christians from public life! But no. He’s only ruling out one or another of a couple possible norms that are so absurd that no one would ever advocate them explicitly. That you can’t fault politicians for concealing their policy objectives, so long as the politicians favor the policy on religious grounds. Or that you can’t fault politicians’ policy proposals, period, so long as they advocate the policy on religious grounds. Something like that. That’s nuts, so Keller is just being reasonable.

But, like I said, I don’t think this is the right way to think about this issue. For one thing, it misses that the religious case is just a special case of a more general phenomenon. Let me switch over to a question Kevin Drum asked last week: why do Republicans get a free pass? He’s absolutely right that they do. [click to continue…]