From the monthly archives:

March 2012

Autism awareness day/week

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 31, 2012

Monday April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day. Yet in the Netherlands (and I suspect other countries as well), today starts the ‘Autismeweek’ (no translation needed!) – a full week in which people who care about people with autism (which includes people with autism as well!) try to put autism in the spotlights, raise awareness, inform the wider public, and speak up or speak out.

So I am hoping to post one autism-related post every day, covering various aspects – scientific discussions, books and films on autism, a thread on the bright/funny sides of autism, and a few more. If anyone has additional suggestions or special requests, feel free to make suggestions.

This opening post also serves as a place where all of you can post links to your own contributions to autism awareness day/week, and to activities (whether in cyberspace or beyond) that are organized within the frame of World Autism Awareness Day.

Seeds of its own destruction

by niamh on March 31, 2012

John Lanchester has an interesting and thoughtful essay on the continuing relevance of many of Marx’s ideas in the current issue of the London Review of Books. He calls himself an ’empiricist’, meaning someone who takes seriously evidence about how the world as we know it works. He notes that Marx would consider his perspective ‘philosophically and politically entirely invalid’. But he argues that ‘Marx was extraordinarily prescient. He really did have the most astonishing insight into the nature and trajectory and direction of capitalism’. I’m with Lanchester on all these points. His novel Capital  (set in London) is one of the most enjoyable of the recent crop of crisis fiction, and his non-fiction Whoops! is genuinely informative. Here are some of his reflections – there is much  more in the essay itself:

Three aspects which particularly stand out here are the tribute he pays to the productive capacity of capitalism, which far exceeds that of any other political-economic system we’ve ever seen; the remaking of social order which accompanies that; and capitalism’s inherent tendency for crisis, for cycles of boom and bust…

We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism – a term which used to be a favourite of the Socialist Workers Party in describing the Soviet Union, and which only a few weeks ago was on the cover of the Economist to describe the current economic condition of most of the world. This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working…

He foresaw the development of a proletariat who did most of the world’s work and a bourgeoisie who in effect owned the fruits of their labour. The fact of the proletariat being in the developing world, in effect shoved out of sight of the Western bourgeoisie, does nothing to disprove that picture – an ‘external proletariat’, it’s sometimes called…

The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism…  But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat. There’s nothing even close. The proletariat is queuing to get into Foxconn, not to organise strikes there…

There are lots of different capitalisms and it’s not clear that a single analysis which embraces all of them as if they were a single phenomenon can be valid…Pretty much everyone lives longer and enjoys better health. If that is true, can it be true that capitalism consistently and reliably immiserates? Can it be true that the system is destructive, if people who live under it quite simply live longer?

He saw how capitalism would transform the surface of the planet and impact on the life of every single person alive. There is, however, a crack or flaw close to the heart of his analysis. Marx saw the two fundamental poles of economic, and social and political, life as labour and nature. He didn’t see these two things as static; he used the metaphor of a metabolism to describe the way our labour shapes the world and we in turn are shaped by the world we have made. So the two poles of labour and nature don’t stay fixed. But what Marx doesn’t allow for is the fact that nature’s resources are finite…

As Marx wrote, towards the end of the first volume of Capital, ‘man is distinguished from all other animals by the limitless and flexible nature of his needs.’ Limitless needs we see all around us and they’ve brought us to where we are, but we’re going to have to work on the flexible part.

Republican conservatism (complete rewrite)

by John Q on March 30, 2012

The first version of this was a trainwreck, as can be seen from the comments, so I’ve decided to rewrite it completely, trying to be as clear as possible about how I read Mooney and what I think myself.

Chris Mooney has a great talent for knowing just when to push the envelope. Back in 2005, when CT held a book event on The Republican War on Science, the idea that Republicans as a group were hostile to science and scientists was somewhere between controversial and unthinkable, as far as mainstream Sensible opinion was concerned. Now, it’s a truth universally recognised – even the professional Repub defense team doesn’t deny it, preferring the (demonstrably false) line that Dems are just as bad.

Now, with The Republican Brain Chris pushes the argument a step further with the question: why are Republicans  the way they are, and what, if anything, can be done about if? 

Before we start, I’ll observe that the set of “conservative Republicans” has changed over time, as have the specific set of policies associated with these terms and the general temperament that goes with this. On the first point, we’ve seen the disappearance of Eisenhower Republicans, the Southern realignment and the rise of the religious right, all of which have increased the concentration of dogmatic authoritarians in the Repub party. On the second, the emergence of environmentalism as a major political line of division is probably the most important development. The fact that Republicans/conservative are increasingly anti-science reflects both of these trends.

It’s also important to observe that Republican/conservative alignment can’t be explained simply in terms of class, geography and education though all these factors play a role. With a few exceptions (notably including blacks and scientists) a substantial portion of nearly every demographic group votes Republican and self-describes as conservative. So, explanations solely based on (for example) class interests, can’t explain voting behavior without a lot of (self?)deception, and that raises the question of why some people are more easily deceived.

Some people may regard themselves as Republican/conservative simply because they have adopted, without thinking too much about it, the political positions that are regarded as normal by their family, social circle and so on. Lots of people simply aren’t interested enough in either politics or science to devote a lot of thought to these issues. Typically, such people will hold a range of views that aren’t particularly consistent either internally or with any standard ideological line.

An obvious inference is that, if people could be given better information they would change their views. But, as Mooney shows, and has become steadily more evident thanks to the Internet, better educated and informed Republicans are more likely to hold crazy views consistently and less likely to change them in response to new information.

That leads to Mooney’s primary conclusion, that Republicans/conservatives don’t simply have different beliefs from liberals/Democrats (or, for that matter, leftists), or even different values. They have (bear in mind that this a statement about population averages) different psychological characteristics, summarised as high authoritarianism and low openness to ideas different from their own.

I find this pretty convincing. It seems to me that there is an authoritarian type of personality which, in the specific circumstances of the US right now, and for non-poor whites, produces a predisposition to Republican voting and “conservative” political attitudes. In particular this type of personality is (more) strongly associated with confirmation bias. That is, not only do they ignore evidence contrary to their initial position, they tend to reinforce their commitment as a result. The creation of an alternate universe in which this bias can be repeatedly amplified (Fox News, rightwing think tanks and so on) both reinforces this kind of thinking and encourages self-selection.

I don’t think there is the symmetry here that some of the commenters are suggesting. Looking at the standard examples of nuclear power and GM foods, it seems to me that, on the whole people on the left have been more open to evidence than in the corresponding cases on the right. In the case of nuclear power, it seemed for a while (say, from the mid-90s until a few years ago) as if the safety problems might be soluble at a reasonable cost in which case an expansion of nuclear power would be preferable to more coal-fired power stations. While the evidence pointed that way, opposition to nuclear power was muted. As it turned out, the problems couldn’t be solved, at least not at a reasonable cost, and Fukushima was the last straw.

In the case of GM foods, the evidence has mostly supported the position that the use of GM technology per se doesn’t create significant health risks, and AFAICT that has been fairly widely accepted on the left (Greenpeace is a notable exception, but I don’t think their position is representative of the left as a whole). That doesn’t rule out opposition to GM on ethical or aesthetic grounds, or opposition to the whole structure of the food industry – the whole point is that you can have preferences and beliefs without assuming that the facts will always be those most convenient to you.

Similar points may be made about “alternative” medicine, particularly opposition to vaccination. It’s primarily, though not exclusively (consider Michelle Bachmann), associated with liberals and leftists in the same way as creationism is primarily, though not exclusively, associated with evangelical conservatives. But, faced with scientific criticism, there hasn’t been anything like the political pushback and doubling down we’ve seen with creationism. The Huffington Post, which was a big outlet for anti-vaxers has started publishing one of their most vigorous critics, Seth Mnookin.

This brings us finally to the question that set off all the fireworks in the original post. To what extent are authoritarian personalities the product of environment, genes or some combination of the two. Again, it’s worth pointing out that, even if there is a genetic role in personality, there’s no such thing as a genetic predisposition to be a conservative/Republican. The content of these terms isn’t fixed, and the implications are very different depending on social circumstances. To take the most obvious case from comments: Republican policies and rhetoric appeal strongly to (US) white tribal/ethnic loyalty. So, US whites who respond well to in-group appeals are likely to vote Republican and call themselves conservatives. US blacks with similar predispositions obviously won’t vote Republican and are unlikely to call themselves conservatives.

To take another example from Mooney’s book, authoritarian attitudes in the US are typically associated with support for free-market/pro-business economic policies and virulent hostility to “socialism”. By contrast, in the former Soviet Bloc, the same attitudes are associated with support for the old order and positive feelings about “socialism” (I’m using the scare quotes to indicate that, in both cases, the term is something of a blank canvas, onto which all sorts of things can be projected). And indeed, in this context, the term “conservative” is commonly applied to hardline members of the surviving Communist parties.

Following up on a comment, this way of looking at things has a lot of similarities with Corey Robin, and The Reactionary Mind. The difference between Robin’s choice of Mind and Mooney’s choice of Brain is significant. As I argued when I looked at his book, I think Robin doesn’t take enough account of personality/temperament. While most soi-disant “conservatives” are authoritarian reactionaries, there is a genuinely conservative temperament which will tend to align with political conservatism in periods when the general tendency of politics is towards the left.

So, does the genetic part of the story matter. As (I think) Andrew Gelman has observed, in this context and many others, it’s just code for things we can’t change. As long as authoritarian personalities are stable over the adult lifetime of those concerned, it doesn’t matter much whether they are determined by genes, by toilet training (as in the caricature version of Freudian psychology I learned in my youth) or by some much more complex process. That said, I think the evidence that heredity (and therefore genes) plays at least some role in the determination of personality is pretty convincing.

The political implication, which has drawn some flak in the comments, but which I think is correct is that there is no point in political engagement with authoritarian conservatives. In a political environment where they are concentrated in one party,politics is going to be a matter the only strategy open to liberals is to outnumber and outvote them by peeling off as many peripheral groups (for example, those who deviate from the approved cultural identity in some way) as possible. Obviously, that’s an unpalatable conclusion in all sorts of ways, but I think it’s a valid one.

I De-clare, You Could Knock Me Over With a Feather

by Belle Waring on March 29, 2012

Hey, look who isn’t bleeding from the back of his head! At all. Moms isn’t going to have to get out the Thomas the Tank Engine band-aids. Who doesn’t have a grass stain on his jacket? More importantly, who doesn’t have a broken nose? George M.F. Zimmerman, that’s who.

I consider myself something of an expert on the subject of broken noses. Mine first got straight-up broken in a random mugging by a 5’10’-6 ft tall black guy in a black hoodie and jeans. Actually, for real, not lying here. (Needless to say I didn’t bother to report it to the police. I seriously couldn’t have picked him up out of a line-up, and what, I want them to wander along Amsterdam Ave looking for 6 ft tall black guys in hoodies to hassle? What’s the point there? This was a long time ago, at the peak of NYC crime in the early 90s) Not really a mugging because they didn’t end up taking my stuff, more like a freak-out because I was walking too close to him or something and he was high. Whatever. Since then it has been broken numerous times, but because the initial break weakened it, I think, in a number of the cases. I mean, that one time a guy just hit me in the face by accident, that was a plain old hard hit. (Really an accident, not “I’m being abused” an accident.) The later breakages definitely produced less blood/trauma; maybe Zimmerman is in Fight Club?

Anyway, when someone hits you in the face hard enough to break your nose, you look rather distinctly awful. You are pale*, with bruises starting under your eyes, and the place where the break happened is busted open, and there is blood all over the damn place. Coming from the wound on your face, pouring out of your nose: blood everywhere. Now, maybe there’s some other more manly way to get your nose broken I’m not aware of, and that’s just the ladyway of getting the lady-noses broken. Or I’ve been the victim of some particularly bad nose-breakings? That’s frankly not unlikely. In any case, annoying as the video is (the ABC news EXCLUSIVE banner overlays the interesting part of the image for 90% of the running time), it clearly shows a man who was cuffed (so I was wrong about his not being cuffed!), but did not just get the beatdown from Trayvon Luke Cage Martin. He doesn’t even look shook up enough; dude just shot and killed a kid! If I had done that by accident I would be in agony. So, dear readers, a) don’t believe everything you read, and, b) the Sanford police should really have arrested this asshole at the time and their decision looks worse and worse in retrospect.

N.B. in re: trolling. I myself am mildly pro-troll on principle. I would prefer that there was no one trolling. However, if someone has to troll, they should damn sure be doing it right. Piss everybody off at once. Suddenly advocate nuking Japan for no reason. That’s why, when confronted with the weak-ass “trolling” of…bjk? I can’t even remember; I was inclined to call in the big guns and say if someone’s going to derail my thread it’s going to be a high-quality troll like Bob McManus. I know, you’re all thinking “when the hell are you going to tire of his demands that other people’s blood flow in the streets and so on?” I don’t know. He’s strangely almost exactly like my dad along certain axes, so he’s got a gilt-edge pass from me. We all know he would never abuse that by…what? He just? Oh, well.

*Even very dark-skinned people can look ashen or sallow–fundamentally unwell. In white people this expresses as blanching to paper-white, but there are analogues for the majority of the world that is not white.

Not-so-hidden persuaders

by niamh on March 28, 2012

I’m currently spending a great semester in the US (at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a terrific institution with a long and distinguished history – see this! – and excellent academic standing: the very model of the modern public research university; so please don’t cut any more university education spending, NC legislature).

And this has given me an opportunity, among many others that is, to see some US TV close-up…

One thing that is striking, compared with European TV, is what is advertised and how. In particular,  I don’t think you see ads for prescription medicines in Europe, certainly not in Ireland or the UK. They seem to be all over American TV.

I am particularly struck by the way these ads are made. The visuals  typically show someone having a happy and trouble-free life while using these drugs, overlaid with soothing music and a reassuringly bland voice-over. But clearly the US FDA requires advertisers to include all the small print in their ads as well.

Do you read all the known downsides of the medicines you take? Don’t. The list of potential side-effects is usually pretty hair-raising, and hopefully most people won’t encounter them most of the time. So the voice-over has to balance the putative benefits of taking these drugs with all these possible side-effects. But if you actually listened right through to the end, I imagine the last thing you’d want to do is to expose yourself to even a small risk of any of them. Especially when there is another stream of ads by lawyers offering to take up your case and get you compensation for a whole range of damages caused by taking prescription medicines.

So my question is this. Clearly the advertisers think it’s worth running these ads despite the scarifying spoken bits. How does this work? Do they believe that consumers are more impressed by soft-focus pastel visuals and mood-music than by the words? Are consumers more affected by positive visual associations than by the audio information about risk?

We can’t assess the risk rationally ourselves, and I don’t think decision-theory is very helpful here, which is why we rely on regulators and professionals. Yet it seems the advertisers mean us to lobby our doctors to prescribe their brand-name drug. There must be lots of literature on the psychology of advertising that I don’t know about…

Evaluating students: the halo effect

by Chris Bertram on March 28, 2012

In the thread on community colleges (which morphed into a discussion of more general education and management issues), someone mentioned Kahneman on the “halo effect” in grading (or marking) student work. _Thinking Fast and Slow_ has been on my to-read pile since Christmas, but I got it down from the shelf to read the relevant pages. Kahneman:

bq. Early in my career as a professor, I graded students’ essay exams in the conventional way. I would pick up one test booklet at it time and read all the students’ essays in immediate succession, grading them as I went. I would then compute the total and go on to the next student. I eventually noticed that my evaluations of the essays in each booklet were strikingly homogeneous. I began to suspect that my grading exhibited a halo effect, and that the first question I scored had a disproportionate effect on the overall grade. The mechanism was simple: if I had given a high score to the first essay, I gave the student the benefit of the doubt whenever I encountered a vague or ambiguous statement later on. This seemed reasonable … I had told the students that the two essays had equal weight, but that was not true: the first one had a much greater impact on the final grade than the second. This was unacceptable. (p. 83)

Kahneman then switched to reading all the different students’ answers to each question. This often left him feeling uncomfortable, because he would discover that his confidence in his judgement became undermined when he later discovered that his responses to the same student’s work were all over the place. Neverthless, he is convinced that his new procedure, which, as he puts it “decorrelates error” is superior.

I’m sure he’s right about that and that his revised procedure is better: I intend to adopt it. Some off-the-cuff thoughts though: (1) I imagine some halo effect persists and that one’s judgement of an immediately subsequent answer to the same question in consecutive booklets or script is influenced by the preceding one; (2) reading answers to the same question over and over again can be even more tedious than marking usually is. I thing it would be even better to switch at random through the piles; (3) (and this may get covered in the book) the fact that sequence matters because of halo effects strikes me as a big problem for Bayesians. What your beliefs about something end up being can just be the result of the sequence in which you encounter the evidence. If right (and it’s not my department) then that ought to be a major strike against Bayesianism.

Puzzling over money, and debt

by Chris Bertram on March 27, 2012

I’ve just sent back the proofs for the new edition of Rousseau’s _Of the Social Contract and Other Political Writings_ (edited Bertram, translated Quintin Hoare) that Penguin Classics are publishing in September. One of the “other writings” is the _Constitutional Proposal for Corsica_ . Reading through, I suddenly alighted on an sentence and thought, “hang on, that makes no sense!” The relevant phrase in French (OC3: 936) is

bq. …quand le Prince hausse les monnoyes il en retire l’avantage reel de voler ses créanciers …

For which we had

bq. …when the Prince raises the value of a currency he derives the real advantage of stealing from his creditors …

But, but …. Surely what the prince needs to do to steal from his creditors is the exact opposite? You inflate. You inflate away the debt. You make the currency worth less, not more. Isn’t Rousseau just writing nonsense then?

It turns out not, and, thanks to the help of the estimable Chris Brooke I now understand. My thinking on this, and that of just about all modern readers I suspect, is formed by thinking of fiat currency. But if we have currency that (purportedly) derives its value from its metallic content (such as gold) then you can debase the coinage by raising its _face value_ whilst keeping the metal content the same. (Or alternatively, you could adulterate the metal or clip the coin to get the same effect.) Finding out this kind of thing really is great fun.

Counting what really counts

by niamh on March 26, 2012

I’m just back from a conference in Boston where there was a great deal of discussion about the idea of the ‘social investment welfare state’ which I found really fascinating. Many countries have moved in recent years to go beyond ‘passive’ social transfers and to ‘activate’ their labour force. But there are many different ways of doing this. The interesting thing is that the policies that are the most socially equitable are now turning out to be the most economically effective too. New books (1) by Nathalie Morel, Bruno Palier, and Joakim Palme and by Anton Hemerijck show that the countries that invest heavily in early childhood education, in continuous education opportunity, in high-quality training schemes, and in making it easier for women to take part in the workforce,  have both higher growth and productivity rates and less inequality and poverty. An important part of the package is to have high levels of secure benefits as transition measures when people are not in employment or in training. And it seems we don’t already have to be Sweden or the Netherlands before we can start to do relevant things at all.

However, one of the implications of work in this field is that our standard ways of doing national accounts work against adopting the right priorities. Relevant expenditures are counted as transfer or consumption spending rather than investment spending. So it’s all too easy for governments to cut them back in recessionary times.

Remember Sarkozy’s Commission on the on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, prepared by Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, and others? It opened up the question of what growth is for anyway, and what we count when we measure GDP in ways that prioritized ‘societal well-being, as well as measures of economic, environmental, and social sustainability’. The Institute for New Economic Thinking sponsors lots of interesting initiatives in economic theory and comparative analysis.

In historical terms, we are still in a very early phase of response to the latest global crisis. We don’t yet know if it will prove to be a turning-point in the dominant economic paradigm. Lots of people are starting to do the necessary thinking. They need to get out into the wider political debate.

(1) The first of these book is expensive*, but it should be in paperback edition by summer; the second will be published in the autumn. *Update – the Policy Press website quotes what may be the best price to date.

Attacking community colleges

by Henry Farrell on March 26, 2012

Even by the standards of _Washington Post_ op-eds, “this”: is shoddy and misinformed.

bq. Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

bq. Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research. These include many state colleges, virtually all community colleges and hundreds of private institutions. For example, Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week. The faculty handbook states: “Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty.” While the handbook suggests other responsibilities such as curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach, notably absent from this list are research and scholarship.

bq. …I take no issue with faculty at teaching-oriented institutions focusing on instructional skills rather than research and receiving a fair, upper-middle-class wage. Like good teachers everywhere, they are dedicated professionals with high levels of education and deserve salaries commensurate with their hard-earned credentials. But we all should object when they receive these salaries for working less than half the time of their non-academic peers. … An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.
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In touch with the Zeitgeist?

by John Q on March 25, 2012

At around 35k into the cycle leg of today’s Mooloolaba triathlon, with a strong headwind[1] and the seat feeling very hard, I was wondering “why am I doing this”. At the time, the question was more like “why did I get out of bed this morning”, but there’s also a question as to why a middle-aged academic like myself is doing something like this at all.

My own causal account is pretty simple. I gave up my old sport, karate, for a variety of reasons, then started “boot camp” style training (minus silly uniforms and other pseudo-military stuff). to keep fit. As a consequence, I found that, whereas the distance I could comfortably run had been measured in 100s of metres, it was now measured in kilometers. But I still wasn’t particularly fast and my reasoning (captured by a T-shirt I saw today) was, “why suck at one sport when you can suck at three”. And indeed, so it has turned out, but I still enjoy it and keep trying.

So, that’s the purposive agent account. But (while I was not consciously aware of this at the time) triathlons are booming and not just in Australia. So, it seems, there is some general zeitgeist which I (and thousands of others) have somehow been driven by. This is not a unique occurrence

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Danglyparts and decision theory

by John Q on March 23, 2012

Anytime ladyparts are in the news, it’s not long before there’s a palpable feeling that longstanding norms of gender equity have been violated and that balance needs to be restored. Often, this just means getting back to the really important stuff, like whether to invade Iran, Syria or both[1]. But there’s also the point that men have parts too, and should have a share in the limelight, the same as women do when we discuss important stuff.[2]

So, I thought I’d talk about a dangly dilemma faced by men of a certain age – whether to take the PSA test for prostate cancer.

These days a lot of authorities recommend against testing. I have ignored their advice, and get tested every couple of years (news good, so far!). So, who is right? And does the argument extend to other parts and tests?

update I thought I’d add a followup question here, rather than in comments. From a decision-theoretic viewpoint, the arguments against testing imply, for consistency, the following further recommendations (subject to some qualifications I’ll spell out).
*First, that someone who takes the test (ignoring the guidelines) and comes up with a high PSA score should not have a biopsy, and should not be tested again.
*Second, that someone who has a biopsy and gets a bad result should just ignore it, and not get tested again.

The qualification is that this treats the cost of the PSA test and the biopsy (which, as discussed in comments, carries some non-trivial risks) as small, relative to the benefits of even modest changes in treatment (such as a shift from complete ignorance to “watchful waiting”). Does anyone know whether these recommendations have in fact been made? If not, can anyone provide a defence of what seems to me to be an obvious inconsistency? End update

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Trayvon Martin Disgrace

by Belle Waring on March 23, 2012

N.B. I say “disgrace” because it’s not a tragedy, precisely.
I am officially not allowed to look at the internet, as it is likely to give me a terrible migraine. More terrible than the one I already have. All the time. So this will have to be brief (lol srsly). I just scanned the front page to see if there was anything else, but didn’t see it, so I feel as if I have to say something about the shameful, quasi-state-sanctioned execution of Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon Martin was 17, and was staying with family in Sanford, Florida, in what is referred to by the obligatory monicker “mostly-white gated community.” He walked out to buy some candy and a can of iced tea at a local convenience store, and was tailed back by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, who deemed him “real suspicious” and “probably on drugs or something.” This joker George Zimmerman then got out of his truck to (perhaps) scuffle with Trayvon, and then shot him in cold blood, as far as anyone can figure, while Trayvon was pleading for his life. This (the pleading) can be heard in the background of neighbors’ 911 calls. I have to say it’s a little odd none of them stepped out on the porch with a shotgun to say “I’ve called the cops already, cut it out!” The number of people committing crimes who will just run away if you say “I see you down there, knock it off” is high IME. Zimmerman claims it is his high-pitched voice we hear begging for his life between the firing of the first and the second shot, after which there is silence. Take a look at a picture of the man. I don’t even know what to say.

UPDATE: I place this above the fold so everyone will see. I was sort of taking it for granted that people were reading Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ blogging on this, which has been copious and excellent. But if you haven’t, you should.
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Stephen J. Dubner: My Part in his Upfall

by Henry Farrell on March 21, 2012

So it appears that Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of _Freakonomics_ is “upset at various critics”: He is deeply unhappy with Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung, for having written what appeared to me to be a skeptical but intellectually generous take on the Freakonomics project. He is angry at Ezra Klein, whom he describes as someone who is ‘in the business of attacking at any cost’ on the basis of a tweet that Dubner presents in a “rather misleading fashion”: And he believes that ‘a man named Chris Blattman’ (great title for a band btw), was insufficiently abject in his apologies for a post “in which he suggested”: that _Freakonomics_ did not provide sufficient credit to other bloggers. Dubner is entirely right when he suggests that apologies should not be self-serving. So I hope that my own apology – long overdue – is not misinterpreted as same. I’d hereby like to sincerely apologize for having done my little bit to make Stephen Dubner and the whole _Freakonomics_ phenomenon what they are today.

Long-time readers will be familiar with the _Crooked Timber_ seminar that we did many years ago on the original _Freakonomics_ book. I can’t say what exact role it played in helping the book becoming the mass cultural phenomenon that it did, but the publicists seem to think that it played a significant role in generating publicity. Part of this was likely novelty – no-one had done anything quite like this before, so that lots of other bloggers linked to it. The revised and updated paperback edition of the book described the seminar as having provided the most astute analysis to date of the book’s arguments.

Doing this seminar was, I’m afraid, my initiative. I could try to defend myself. I (and others) were more interested in Levitt’s original academic work than the popularization. We sort of said this _sotto voce_ in the seminar, but only _sotto voce._ Nor has _Freakonomics_ been entirely bad. It’s gotten e.g. Justin Wolfers, who is excellent value for money, out into broader public circulation.

But even if it seemed a good idea at the time, I should have known better. Yes – Levitt is an interesting and original economist, but the glib contrarianism and breezy confidence that silly econometric results would tell us something valuable about the world were baked into the cake from the beginning of the _Freakonomics_ project, and perhaps before. D-squared’s perhaps never-to-be-published CT summation of his various posts on Freakonomics makes that clear. It’s a bit like one of those high-end fashion marques that begins with haute couture, and ends up over-extending its brand by using it on everything from cheap plastic novelties to toilet paper.

Both the blog and the second book were pretty dreadful. John has written about the contrarianism of the book, while as Andrew Gelman has hinted, he could have been a lot nastier had he wanted to be, pointing e.g. to the blog’s highlighting of results suggesting that ESP works, that the economy wasn’t actually all that bad in October 2008 etc. Nearly every time that I’ve seen _Freakonomics_ mentioned in the last several years, I’ve felt guilty and embarrassed that I had something to do with its rise to prominence. Very likely, it would have become prominent anyway (it had a very well organized PR campaign). But perhaps, given the chanciness of social contagion etc, it would not.

In any event, there really aren’t any excuses. I’m genuinely sorry for whatever push I gave to help start the _Freakonomics_ snowball rolling down the hill. There’s not much I can do about it now, but there you go.

David Brady on the Welfare State, Unions, and Poverty

by Kieran Healy on March 21, 2012

Here’s a nice profile in the Guardian of my colleague Dave Brady, who was in London recently talking about poverty and social policy:

Brady’s response is that we need to rebuild trust in a welfare state that everyone feels they benefit from. The problem he sees developing in Britain is similar to the situation that exists in the US, where welfare is now only for the very poorest people.

“The more [that] ‘welfare’ is a broad portfolio of social policy to help people across the life span, the more effective it is at reducing poverty,” he explains.

“If you create a small constituency of beneficiaries that doesn’t have broad-based political support, it’s harder to mobilise in support of those benefits.”

For evidence, Brady points out, look no further than the ease with which the welfare reform bill got through parliament compared with the ferocious fight the coalition government has had to get the health bill on to the statute book.

Unluckily for me, Dave will soon be heading off to Berlin to be a director at the WZB, despite the city’s near-total absence of quality baseball.

Poems to celebrate World Poetry Day

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 21, 2012

Today is World Poetry Day, and as previously announced we will celebrate it here at Crooked Timber by having an open thread where all of us can post poems, with or without translations, of our own making or borrowed from someone else. Here’s mine, which dates back to my student days, but I am pretty sure I didn’t write it myself – I think it read it somewhere in the form of street poetry or in a students’ magazine. The original is in Dutch, the English translation mine. Enjoy!

Ze schreef een klein gedichtje
het had niet veel om handen
maar het was als een klein lichtje
dat in het donker brandde.
She wrote a little poem
it didn’t mean much at all
yet it was like a tiny light
glowing in the dark.