From the monthly archives:

January 2012

The medicine is killing you? Take some more

by niamh on January 30, 2012

This is a novel approach to getting the Greeks to do what the international lenders (aka the Troika) want: tell them that not only can they not choose their own prime minister, but if they don’t get their policies right, the eurozone will put their own commissioner in charge of making the decisions. Or else they won’t get the next tranche of their bail-out money.

What is this about? Naturally it’s caused Greek public opinion to explode in fury. The sober-minded middle classes can put up with with a bit of external intervention to break domestic political log-jams. And while the ‘technocratic’ government is trying hard to do what is asked of them, it’s found it difficult to fix the faulty revenue system and to make hard spending cut choices for an economy that is already contracting horribly sharply. But the historical and political insensitivity of the proposal leaves me astonished. Sebastian Dellepiane has reminded me that economists seem to find it all too easy to dispatch politics into the rubbish bin when they are convinced they have the right technical answers – see this amazing piece of finger-wagging to Argentina in 2002.

It seems so obvious both from economic theory and from empirical evidence that what Europe badly needs right now is a policy mix that will generate economic growth and facilitate job creation. The forthcoming EU summit is at least going to talk about this (though I’m not holding my breath). So why the heavy warnings?

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No-One Cares About the College Bookstore

by Kieran Healy on January 30, 2012

Some more IT-in-Education nerdery. I want to rebut an idea that’s been doing the rounds as people have been thinking further about Apple’s strategy in the education market. On last week’s Hypercritical, John Siracusa discussed a recent post by McKay Thomas which argued that Apple is following a “brilliant strategy” in education of “going high school first [and] applying the heat to university textbook publishers and bookstores”. John Gruber linked to it as well. Here’s Thomas:

The new iBook textbooks are being marketed in a way that circumvents the university bookstore. Brilliant. Go right to the student in high school. Make them a true believer. Give them an amazing textbook experience starting in 9th grade. By the time these students hit university in 4 more years they aren’t going to know how to not use an iPad while studying.

I don’t think this is right. The bookstore isn’t nearly as important as Thomas imagines. In fact, colleges are much more open to adoption of new technology and curriculum than grade schools for the simple reason that university faculty decide the content of their own courses. This isn’t to say every worthwhile innovation is widely and rapidly taken up, or that everything that diffuses is worthwhile. But when it comes to textbooks, colleges are far more porous than schools.

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Getting ready for World Poetry Day

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 29, 2012

Last Thursday, we celebrated national poetry day in the Netherlands. The cultural office of my university asked all staff teaching on that day to read a poem during class. I selected a couple from a volume edited by Amnesty International, which has translations of wonderful poems by great poets like Nazim Hikmet or Pablo Neruda. Yet since I forgot the book at home, I took refuge to the internet, where I found some lovely poems by Miriam van Hee, a Belgian/Flemish poet who writes in a sober and accessible style and whose poems I read quite a bit in my youth. That’s how I ended my teaching that day, and I hope to be lucky that next year national poetry day is again on a day when I teach.

All this reminded me of a delightful thread we had here at CT a while back, in which Trane suggested we could all come up with translations of our own favorite poems. In slightly amended fashion, I suggest the following: on 21 March, World Poetry Day, I will open a thread where everyone can post a poem of their own making or their favorite poem by someone else – and in both cases with or without translation into English/Globish. Go write, people!

Some reviewers have complained that Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind seriously overreaches when he writes stuff like this:

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of … animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite. (7)

He digs up fun quotes from old, odd sources.

“In order to keep the state out of the hands of the people,” wrote the French monarchist Louis de Bonald, “it is necessary to keep the family out of the hands of women and children.” (15)

At this point conservatives get ticked off: Louis de who?

Can’t pin us to some dead monarchist! Guy was French! Robin is guilty of tarring all of conservatism with the broadest, blackest brush. It’s paranoid stuff. Nasty sniffing around in the alleged id. No respect for the superego.

This sort of dispute is hard to adjudicate, because the only way to do so rigorously is with specifics – examples and counter-examples. But really Robin isn’t claiming that there are no counter-examples to his claim. He is saying his model is the paradigm. He is modeling the typical, not the invariable, conservative. The conservative response is that – today – only conservative extremists think in this bad way. It’s no accident that Robin has to run off to Old Europe for the juiciest quotes. The rest he gets from more contemporary conservatives when maybe they slipped in an interview and said something they didn’t quite mean, or they exaggerated for effect and … taken out of context …

Let’s take a crack at defending Robin, like so. Ross Douthat’s latest column in the NY Times is a good fit for Robin’s thesis. Douthat is no one’s notion of a radical conservative. He’s a squish (well, that’s what lots of conservatives think of him.) His job is to make conservatism sound reasonable to urbane liberals. None of that seamy underbelly, talk radio-style stuff.

So if even Douthat fits Robin’s model – that doesn’t prove anything. Still … [click to continue…]

Social democracy and equal opportunity

by John Q on January 29, 2012


My critique of Tyler Cowen’s post arguing the unimportance of social mobility has started off, or maybe merged into, of those old-fashioned blog firestorms we used to have back in the day, now also reticulated through Twitter – a few links here, here and here. But rather than criticise Cowen further, I thought I would try to work through the bigger issues involved from a social democratic perspective[1].  In particular, as discussed in comments here, should social democrats favor policies to enhance social mobility, or does mobility between generations make inequality even worse, for example by justifying what appears as meritocracy?


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An atheist temple?

by Chris Bertram on January 27, 2012

Any spat between Alain de Botton and Richard Dawkins is one where I’m kind of rooting for both of them to lose. On the other hand, Dawkins has some genuine achievements to his name and has written some pretty decent books, so there’s some compensation when he acts like an arse, whereas in de Botton’s case ….

De Botton’s latest plans (h/t Alex):

bq. to build a £1m “temple for atheists” among the international banks and medieval church spires of the City of London have sparked a clash between two of Britain’s most prominent non-believers. The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief. Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

Not a runner, I think. Though there’s at least one happy precedent: Auguste Comte’s Chapel of Humanity, which Maria blogged about in 2003.

Libya: was it worth it?

by Chris Bertram on January 26, 2012

I’m asking the question, because I don’t know, but the signs are extremely worrying. When NATO intervention was first mooted, I wrote a piece here expressing concern that, if the successor government came about thanks to NATO intervention it would lack legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan people. I’m not sure that I was right about the reasons for that, but the conclusion about the lack of legitimacy itself (much mocked in some quarters) looks to be increasingly vindicated by events. One reason to intervene was to prevent severe human rights violations, including the possibility of massacre in Benghazi. Well a cruel and vicious regime with a dreadful human-rights record has gone, but seems to have been replaced by a squabbling coalition of militias, little inclined to submit to the authority of a central government, with Ghaddafi-loyalists making a comeback. Moreover, said militias seem to be engaged in serious human rights violations themselves, abuses that have been going on pretty much since “victory”. Those who were most enthusiastic for intervention don’t seem to be saying much about these worrying recent developments. An intervention predicated on defending human rights certainly won’t have been justified if the successor regime ends up presiding over similar persecutings, detainings, torturings and killings itself.

A few years ago, I wrote a post explaining that I was no longer going to referee for, or publish in journals published by Elsevier (and that I was likely only to cite Elsevier published articles with an explicit health warning). This was relatively cheap for me, as I work in a field where Elsevier has little presence (I’ve only had one occasion to turn down refereeing in the intervening period), but I did suggest that other readers might do the same. Now, “Tim Gowers”: has independently had the same idea. Unsurprisingly, famous mathematicians are rather better able to rally support than political scientists of middling repute. So far, nearly 400 academics have publicly committed not to cooperate with Elsevier (I suspect this is an undercount, as they are verifying the credentials of signatories before posting their names). I warmly recommend that CT readers, especially readers in the hard sciences sign up. This is a plausibly effective form of collective action, since these journals, published by a notably rapacious and demonstrably dishonest commercial enterprise, rely on a lot of volunteer work to keep going. If academics stop working for Elsevier journals for free, either because they sign up to these commitments, or because they get the broad feeling that Elsevier is bad news, then the company’s business model collapses.

Via “Michael Nielsen”:

How (not) to defend entrenched inequality

by John Q on January 25, 2012

The endless EU vs US debate rolls on, but now with an odd twist. Although the objective facts about economic inequality, immobility and so on are far worse in the US than the EU, the political situation seems more promising. (I’m not talking primarily about electoral politics but about the nature of public debate.)

In the EU, the right has succeeded in taking a crisis caused primarily by banks (including the central bank, and bank regulators) and blaming it on government profligacy, which is then being used to push through yet more of the neoliberal policies that caused the crisis. And, as we’ve just seen, formerly social democratic parties like New Labour in the UK, are pushing the same line.

By contrast the success of Occupy Wall Street have changed the US debate, in ways that I think will be hard to reverse. Once the Overton window shifted enough to allow inequality and social immobility to be mentioned, the weight of evidence has been overwhelming.

This post by Tyler Cowen is an indication of how far things have moved. Cowen feels the need, not merely to dispute some aspects of the data on inequality and social mobility in the US, but to make the case that a unequal society with a static social structure isn’t so bad after all.

Update Cowen offers a non-response response here. Apparently, disliking arguments for inherited inequality, such as his point 3 (because of habit formation, social mobility reduces welfare) is a “Turing test” for reflexive leftism.

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A Modest Proposal for Roe Day

by Tedra Osell on January 22, 2012

I challenge everyone who has commented in the “Do You Trust Women” post and considers themselves pro-choice to donate $2 to Planned Parenthood (or your abortion rights organization of choice) <b>per comment</b> to celebrate Roe Day.

That’s $126 for me, and I’ll round up to $130.

If you do it, leave a comment saying how much you donated. No checking people’s math, and obviously no one can check to see if you actually did donate; we’re on the honor system here.

Apple for the Teacher

by Kieran Healy on January 20, 2012

Yesterday Apple launched some new applications and services aimed at the education market. They extended the iBooks app to include a textbook store; they announced some deals with major textbook publishers; and they released a free application you can use to write textbooks, and which allows you to publish them on the store. They made their iTunes U service a separate application. The app replicates what’s already available on iTunes, but also seeks to replace some or all of what’s offered by course management systems.

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Do You Trust Women

by Tedra Osell on January 20, 2012

Sunday is Roe Day [edited to add: and some good news to celebrate!]. I wrote this piece a long time ago, and I’ve reposted part of it since then. And now I’m doing so again because I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read, let alone said, on the subject. [click to continue…]

Selling Votes

by John Holbo on January 20, 2012

Why aren’t citizens allowed to sell their votes to the highest bidder? (Bear with me for a minute.) You may at first be inclined to say that it’s like the stricture against selling yourself into slavery: we don’t let citizens strip themselves of the most basic political rights and liberties. But I’m not talking about disenfranchising yourself permanently. Let’s focus just on the case in which you sell one vote in one particular election, or on a particular measure. It’ll grow back. You can vote next time. It’s like working for pay, rather than selling yourself into slavery. A short-term surrender of rights and liberties for the sake of something you want: namely, cash. It’s hard to see that giving up the right to vote in one election – which you honestly may not care much about – would be permanently crippling to someone’s status as a free citizen. (We let people not vote. Why not let them not vote for an even better reason?) [click to continue…]

Shorter working week redux

by Chris Bertram on January 19, 2012

Last week’s nef event on shorter working week, which I blogged about a few days ago, is now available to watch via the LSE channel. Enjoy.

Not long ago, I read Daniel Ellsberg’s[1] autobiography, Secrets, and also watched the film, The Most Dangerous Man in America. A striking feature of the book was that Ellsberg’s biggest problem in leaking the Pentagon Papers was the logistical difficulty of making 20 or so copies of a 7000 page cache of documents. It took him and a couple of helpers several months, IIRC. 

Now of course, such a task is easy, as demonstrated by Ellsberg’s successor (allegedly Bradley Manning) who supplied vast quantities of classified documents to Wikileaks. On the other hand, if Ellsberg had been 20 or so years earlier, he wouldn’t even have been able to make a single copy. [2]

Our blackout yesterday as a protest against SOPA and PIPA reflects a simple fact about the Internet – it is, in essence a way of making and distributing vast numbers of copies of documents of all kinds.

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