From the monthly archives:

April 2012

… I guess we might as well discuss this Zizek thingy.

However, even if Lacan’s inversion [If there is no God, then all is forbidden] appears to be an empty paradox, a quick look at our moral landscape confirms that it is a much more appropriate description of the atheist liberal/hedonist behaviour: they dedicate their life to the pursuit of pleasures, but since there is no external authority which would guarantee them personal space for this pursuit, they get entangled in a thick network of self-imposed “Politically Correct” regulations, as if they are answerable to a superego far more severe than that of the traditional morality. They thus become obsessed with the concern that, in pursuing their pleasures, they may violate the space of others, and so regulate their behaviour by adopting detailed prescriptions about how to avoid “harassing” others, along with the no less complex regime of the care-of-the-self (physical fitness, health food, spiritual relaxation, and so on).

Today, nothing is more oppressive and regulated than being a simple hedonist.

This is, I take it, Goldberg’s thesis, minus the Lacan – we’ll see! Namely, the godlessness of liberalism produces an idiot tick-tock between authoritarianism and relativism. The proof: liberal bumper-stickers/slogans oscillate between fatuously broad gestures of total freedom and orthodoxy sniffery re: racism and sexism and a few other things. QED.

I predict it will be at stage two that we discern daylight between the Goldbergian and Zizekian positions: [click to continue…]

The Economist fails the Turing Test again

by Henry on April 30, 2012

“Five years ago”: I linked to a “Bill Emmott column”: on the impending election of Nicholas Sarkozy thusly:

This unashamed mash note from Bill Emmott, former editor of the Economist presents a class of a triple-distilled tincture of the prevailing globollocks on Sarkozy’s victory in France. You don’t need to read the actual column to get the gist; just the Pavlovian dinner-bell talking points that it strings together.

France … paralyzed by powerful interest groups … political elite … beholden … or … afraid … takes a brave outsider … precisely Sarkozy’s appeal … Reagan or a Thatcher … A “rupture” is what France needs … showing that his country is not doomed to decline … cadres of highly globalized managers … etc … etc

I don’t see the words “tough,” “clear-headed,” or “reform” anywhere, so it isn’t quite the full bob major, but it’s close.

Now, his successor as editor at the _Economist_ “plays the same tune again, but even more crudely”:, deploring Sarkozy’s probable successor.

bq. France desperately needs reform .. .neighbours have been undergoing genuine reforms … deep anti-business attitude … proposing not to reform at all … refusal to countenance structural reform of any sort … resistance to change … hostile to change … Until recently, voters in the euro zone seemed to have accepted the idea of austerity and reform. … would undermine Europe’s willingness to pursue the painful reforms it must eventually embrace.

I’ve no idea what Hollande is going to be like (except that he’s certainly going to be disappointing). But I do know that this is one of the most exquisitely refined examples of globollocks that I’ve ever seen. It’s as beautifully resistant to the intellect as an Andropov era _Pravda_ editorial. A few more years of this and the _Economist_ won’t have to have any human editing at all. Even today, I imagine that someone with middling coding skills could patch together a passable Economist-editorial generator with a few days work. Mix in names of countries and people scraped from the political stories sections of Google News, with frequent exhortations for “Reform,” “toughminded reform,” “market-led reform,” “painful reform,” “change,” “serious change,” “rupture,” and 12-15 sentences worth of automagically generated word-salad content, and you’d be there.

I wonder whether even the writer of this editorial would be able to define ‘reform’ or ‘change’ if he were asked, beyond appealing to some sort of ‘social protection bad, market good’ quasi-autonomic reflex embedded deep in his lizard brain. I also wonder whether the people in there are as cynical about their product as Andropov-era journalists were, or whether they actually believe the pabulum they dish out.

Sharp tests of economic theories are rare and hard to find, particularly in macroeconomics. Any examination of particular episodes in economic history necessarily involves counterfactuals, and these provide room for endless dispute. As an obvious example, assessing the impact of the Obama Administration’s 2009 stimulus requires an estimate of how things would have gone without the stimulus, and that is obviously hard to do.

Similarly, arguments about unemployment in the US get bogged down in disputes over whether it is structural or demand-driven and the extent to which policies such as the extension of unemployment benefits to 99 weeks have contributed. 

There is, though, one way in which the current Great Recession/Lesser Depression provides a sharp test of a critical proposition in economics. All forms of classical economics involve, in one form or another, the claim that the causes of unemployment are to be found in labour markets, and not in  macroeconomic variables such as the level of aggregate demand. That’s equally true of the Say’s Law version of classical economics criticized by Keynes, the New Classical macroeconomics of Robert Lucas and the attempts by Real Business Cycle theorists like Kydland and Prescott to explain cyclical fluctuations in terms of labor market shocks.

The crucial problem for all these theories is that labor markets and the associated institutions operate mainly at the national level. Even within the EU, different countries have very different labor markets. So, it is essentially impossible for labor markets in many different countries to move together, except as the result of macroeconomic influences operating at an international level[1]. That means that the occurrence of a sharp and sustained increase in unemployment, taking place in many countries at once, is inconsistent with classical economics.

This point seems trivially obvious, but as far as I can tell hasn’t been made, or at least not clearly. Once it’s conceded, it seems impossible to avoid a view of the world that is basically Keynesian in its analysis of the macroeconomy.  It is possible to hold such a view and reject Keynesian policies on pragmatic grounds, as in Friedman’s critique of ‘fine-tuning’. But the longer and deeper the recession the harder it is to sustain this view.

This seems like a good time to plug the fact that a paperback edition of Zombie Economics will be out soon (May 6) with a brand-new chapter on Austerity, bits of which have been seen here. On 9 May, I’ll be launching an Australian edition, where the added material is a chapter on Economic Rationalism. And a week or two ago, I received some copies of the Italian edition










fn1. Of course, you can cheat and label these macro influences “technology shocks”, then assume them to be internationally correlated. But in the ordinary meaning of technology, there is no plausible way in which economies as disparate as, say, the US and Greece can experience a common technology shock.

Advice For Writers

by John Holbo on April 27, 2012

I’m reading Chesterton on George Bernard Shaw (no, I’m not really sure why either):

“A quick eye for ideas may actually make a writer slow in reaching his goal, just as a quick eye for landscapes might make a motorist slow in reaching Brighton. An original man has to pause at every allusion or simile to re-explain historical parallels, to re-shape distorted words. Any ordinary leader-writer (let us say) might write swiftly and smoothly something like this: “The element of religion in the Puritan rebellion, if hostile to art, yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.” Now a man like Mr. Shaw, who has his own views on everything, would be forced to make the sentence long and broken instead of swift and smooth. He would say something like: “The element of religion, as I explain religion, in the Puritan rebellion (which you wholly misunderstand) if hostile to art — that is what I mean by art — may have saved it from some evils (remember my definition of evil) in which the French Revolution — of which I have my own opinion — involved morality, which I will define for you in a minute.” That is the worst of being a really universal sceptic and philosopher; it is such slow work. The very forest of the man’s thoughts chokes up his thoroughfare. A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.”

Ah, graduate school, and trying to write my dissertation. I remember it well. (Shudder.) I don’t know whether I was a budding universal philosopher, but I did commit the sin of wanting to be a multifold heretic within the scope of a single paragraph, or sentence. I’ve tried to stop doing that.

Harvard Library pushes open access

by Henry on April 23, 2012

“This”: looks like a bombshell announcement to me (I’m not aware of the internal politics behind the announcement, but I’m presuming that Robert Darnton’s fingerprints are all over it). Discuss.

bq. We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. … The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. … It is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive. … since faculty and graduate students are chief users, please consider the following options open to faculty and students (F) and the Library (L), state other options you think viable, and communicate your views:

bq. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies (F). Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F). If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning (F).

Some of this may be hardball bargaining with the two unnamed providers (one of which, I presume, has a name starting with E). But not very much – to state the problem so bluntly, and to encourage faculty to stop publishing in, and resign from the boards of non-open access journals sounds more like pushing for system-change than for a better deal within the current system. This may be the beginning of the end.

Jonah Goldberg finds further confirmation of his views (the whole liberal fascist thing – you remember) in a 1932 Atlantic article. I must admit, I braced myself before clicking, expecting to learn that, yes, someone argued, back then, that Hitler was just FDR on stilts, or FDR was mere Hitler-lite. Turns out the author in question made the familiar and sensible point that Hitler wasn’t a socialist in any leftist sense, pace Goldberg.

But it’s true: ‘Nazi’ is short for ‘National Socialist’. So there’s that.

“Future generations” are already here

by John Quiggin on April 22, 2012

The Journal of Public Economic Theory has a special issue on Managing Climate Change, to which they are providing free access (hopefully, this link will work). I’m mentioning it partly because I have an article which I think is really important, even though the point it makes is a simple one, and partly because any initiative to make important information more freely available (even a limite special case like this one) deserves some applause.

My paper is a bit wonkish, but the basic point is simple, and, I think provides a knockdown argument against any form of utilitarianism that discounts future utility (including those misleadingly referred to as future generations.

[click to continue…]

Happy Krauthammer Day

by Henry on April 22, 2012

It’s that time of the year again – it’s been five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months plus five months since Charles Krauthammer “told us”:

bq. Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

I’ll confess that I was a bit disappointed last week, when Charles Krauthammer didn’t make the cut for Atrios’ shortlist for Wanker of the Decade (he did get a nod-in-his-direction though; Fred Hiatt’s nod was intended to honor the Washington Post‘s editorial page as a whole). But having reflected a bit, I think this was the right call. To be a really first rate wanker, you have to be at least partially oblivious to what you are. I’ve always had the sense that Krauthammer knows exactly what he is – nasty and thoroughly mendacious. Not a wanker then, but rather worse than a wanker. He’s whatever it is that Karl Rove is (when rugose and squamous entities drag out their tortured forms from under rocks, to caper and desport themselves beneath the gibbous moon, they console themselves at least they’re not working for American Crossroads).

By the way, next year will be the tenth anniversary. Still writing for the Washington Post, still syndicated, still on the talk shows.

Two banjo greats

by niamh on April 20, 2012

Further to Chris’s post, other recent losses merit a mention too – coincidentally, two legendary banjo players died within a couple of weeks of each other recently.

One is Barney McKenna, last surviving member of The Dubliners, whose quirky turns of phrase were almost as famous as his tenor banjo playing, the instrument which he introduced into Irish traditional music.

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The other is Earl Scruggs, champion of the three-finger banjo playing style in bluegrass music (born in North Carolina as it happens, not far from where I am at present).

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These two musical traditions are brought together every year in a festival in Ireland. And not coincidentally, for as Irish musician and broadcaster Philip King has documented in his TV series Bringing It All Back Home, they share common roots.

Levon Helm has died

by Chris Bertram on April 19, 2012


by Brian on April 18, 2012

I’m very pleased that my employer, the University of Michigan, has joined “Coursera”: The aim of Coursera is to provide free, online courses of something approaching university quality, to everyone. Right now it hosts courses from Penn, Stanford, Princeton, and UM-Ann Arbor, with possibly more schools to be added soon.
[click to continue…]

Skeletons in the imperial attic

by Chris Bertram on April 18, 2012

Today’s Guardian has a series of articles today concerning Britain’s colonial past and evidence of the “widespread destruction of documents”: with evidence of crimes against humanity by British forces. Other pieces include material on “planned poison gas tests in Botswana”: , on the “coverup of the deportation of the Chagos islanders from Diego Garcia”: (now used by the United States to bomb various countries), and of “serious war crimes during the Malayan emergency”: . And then there are “eighteen striking photographs”: of the British at work in Kenya, Malaya and Aden . The Aden photographs in particular call to mind similar later ones of British troops in Northern Ireland, where of course, torture was also employed: the techniques used on colonial populations being brought to bear against Irish republicans. And, of course, the look on the faces of the soldiers as they manhandle and abuse “natives” is really no different from what we see in pictures of the French in Algeria, of American troops in Iraq and, indeed, in footage of the Israeli Defense Force in the occupied territories. A timely reminder of the evils of imperialism and colonialism.

Jolly Frolics And Labor Disputes

by John Holbo on April 17, 2012

Oh joy! “Gerald McBoing Boing”! “Rooty Toot Toot”! And thirtyplus other titles, many of which I’ve never seen! All these lovely old UPA cartoons are finally available on DVD – UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection [amazon]. And, while I wait for my copy to arrive, I am reading When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA, by Adam Abraham. Obviously you’ve got to be a bit of a fanatic to want to read a whole book about UPA (but at least the Kindle edition is inexpensive, I see.)

You can read a short version of the UPA history on Wikipedia. Really short version: UPA was founded by disgruntled former employees of Uncle Walt who pioneered some simplified techniques while working for Uncle Sam, which – admixed with artistic ambition and modernist design sensibilities – led to some great animation. Then there was the Red Scare and they got into the Godzilla business and … well, more of a whimper than a bang. Ah, well. [click to continue…]

Academic Blogs Wiki

by Henry on April 16, 2012

A public service announcement – the Academic Blogs wiki that I used to run under “”: is now up again, under new management at the “Center for History and New Media”: Many thanks to Dan Cohen and Ammon Shepherd for taking it on. I had been running it on a version of Mediawiki which was not (to put it mildly) optimized for anti-spam, with the result that I had to spend a few hours each week cleaning out the garbage. The transition to a new, more robust system has taken a little bit of time, but it is now up and running again. XKCD has a cartoon this morning on the relative decline of the blogosphere. However, as best as I can tell from personal browsing, academic blogs appear to be relatively robust. It’s a lot harder than it was nine years ago to create an academic blog that can attract substantial public attention, but if you’re primarily interested in talking to other academics and a few interested bystanders, it’s still relatively easy. Academic blogs, unlike e.g. tech blogs or some political opinion blogs, don’t usually have sufficient potential audience to become commercially viable. But most academics are used to talking to smaller audiences, and as long as blogging technology is cheap or free, there will be some people at least who’ll be interested in doing it.


Remembering Jerry Cohen

by Chris Bertram on April 16, 2012

Via Martin O’Neill on FB, I see that reminiscences of Jerry Cohen by Philippe Van Parijs, John Roemer, Myles Burnyeat, Gideon Cohen and Tim Scanlon are now online (pdf). Enjoy.