From the monthly archives:

July 2012

A family friend, Susi, just turned 90. Since I’m home in Oregon, I attended the B-Day party. Her Jewish family got out of Germany in ’39 and she found herself a teenager in the US. Got an education, got married, raised a family. She was – is – an artist, and she ended up teaching. But she worked as a gag strip cartoonist in New York, from ’46 to ’50. I’m interested in the history of comics, so she loaned me a rather large file box (which I am being very careful with!) Lots of old clippings, old battered bristol board with typed captions taped on. Neat! [click to continue…]

Olympics Trolling

by Kieran Healy on July 29, 2012

It’s that happy time when I whine about American television coverage of the Olympics. This year’s whining has a new twist—beyond the usual complaints about sentimental crap and tape-delay—given the lack of decent streaming options absent a pre-existing subscription to some cable channels. But it’s also the time when I’m reminded of my existing personal prejudices about sports, when I may discover new ones (as new events are added), and when I try to figure out whether there’s any defensible rationale to my preferences. Reflecting on my sports bigotry, I think the simplest model is a two-dimensional space that, I think you will agree, is both easy to understand and wholly objective.

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The revolving door

by John Q on July 28, 2012

While working on a piece about a possible bailout for the Spanish government, I discovered a couple of things that were news to me

* The Economics Minister in the (pro-austerity) Spanish government is a former executive of Lehman Brothers

* Axel Weber, formerly the ultra-hawkish head of the Bundesbank went straight from that job to the chairmanship of UBS, of which the NYT recently wrote “The bank’s recidivism seems rivaled only by its ability to escape prosecution”

Comment seems superfluous to me, but I hope readers will prove me wrong on this.


Following up Henry’s post, my Dark Knight Rises take is this. The Nolan brothers are determined to make some kind of serious, dark, brooding, non-fascistic moral sense of Batman, and that’s just flat-out impossible. Can’t tell it that way without the basic story logic boxing you into a place you don’t want to be (as Henry says, there’s too much baked in the cake). If what the world needs is masked vigilantes behaving in this crazy way, then fascism needs a serious look-in as a political philosophy. But what we should really conclude is not that the moral sense of the film is fascist – or even aristocratic. Rather, we should conclude that the film makes no moral sense whatsoever. It conveys no moral message. It’s morally illegible. Lots of explosions and fighting. That’s it. [click to continue…]

A short note on labour and business power

by Henry Farrell on July 25, 2012

A short note on something I’d like to have time to write about at further length someday. There’s a common perception among US lefties that Northern European states like Germany are (or at least were, until recently) the land of milk, honey, and organized capitalism. But actual European social democrats have more complicated feelings about organized capitalism than most of their American counterparts. “Helen Callaghan and Martin Höpner”: have an interesting recent paper on this topic. As they point out, German social democrats used once upon a time to be in favor of organized capitalism, comfortable monopolies and so on. But then – Hitler!

bq. Organized capitalism appears conducive to leftist aims as long as the focus is on its contribution to economic coordination, and this explains the supportive attitudes of the German left up to the early 1930s. However, besides economic coordination, organized capitalism also affects political organization, as German labor leaders learnt painfully during the Nazi period. The radical reversal of attitudes after World War 2 reflects updated beliefs regarding the political consequences of organized capitalism, and the greater weight assigned to political over economic considerations. … Far from being a fleeting phenomenon, Leftist support for competition policy and market-enhancing corporate governance reforms has characterized German party politics throughout the post-war period. … During the “seven-year cartel battle” that led to the toothless competition law of 1957, the SPD supported the liberal ideas of chancellor Ludwig Erhard (CDU), unlike the majority of CDU/CSU representatives. … The joint-stock law reform of 1965, which ended up smaller than intended, featured a similar constellation. … Passage of a company network dissolution act that would have limited bank shareholdering in industrial companies was only prevented by the SPD’s removal from office in 1982. In 1998, during debates over the Control and Transparency Act introduced by Helmut Kohl’s CDU/CSU/FDP coalition, Social Democrats emerged as more favorable to radical corporate governance reforms than the Christian Democrats …. In 2001, during negotiations on the Takeover Act, the SPD turned down CDU demands to strengthen managerial defenses against hostile takeovers.

The logic here is pretty straightforward. Social democrats would like an organized economy in the best of all possible worlds. However, the more organized the economy is in actually existing capitalism, the more _political power_ accrues to big industrialists, and the more likely it is that they will use that power in the political realm in ways that disadvantage labour. Hence, the question of whether or not to favor an organized economy is an empirical one, and under many circumstances, leftists can be vehemently, and entirely consistently, in favor of market competition (albeit for political as well as/instead of economic efficiency reasons).

While I don’t have time to write much on this today, it’s relevant in the US as well as the EU context. “Karl Bode”: has an interesting piece in _Ars Technica_ on Verizon’s cable strategy.

bq. Back in April, you may recall that Verizon stopped selling standalone DSL, taking us back to the stone age of broadband when users were forced to bundle a costly landline they might no longer want. … Verizon has numerous reasons for wanting its DSL services to die off, including the fact that newer LTE technology is cheaper to deploy in rural areas and easier to keep upgraded. But one of the driving forces is that Verizon is eager to eliminate unions from the equation, given that Verizon Wireless is non-union. None of this is theory; in fact, it has been made very clear by Verizon executives. … It’s all an ingenious play by Verizon, though it will have a massive competitive and connectivity impact on the US broadband market that will be studied for decades. What’s most amazing is that nobody (analysts, regulators, or the press) seems to have really noticed what Verizon is up to: turning a massive swath of the country from a marginally competitive duopoly with union labor into an even less competitive and more expensive cable and telco non-unionized cooperative monopoly.

I’m not an expert on telcos, so can’t speak to the accuracy of this analysis. But if it’s right, it suggests a roughly similar logic. Labour unions prefer, _ceteris paribus_, to deal with large well-established incumbents than a congeries of smaller firms. The organizing costs are lower, and incumbents are more likely to have profits that they are prepared to share in order to guarantee predictability. However, once firms start getting _too_ big, they may be too powerful, in terms both of political and economic clout, for unions to bring to the negotiating table. They can furthermore redefine the market (as Verizon is plausibly doing) in ways that weaken unions and make it harder to organize. This makes me think that there’s more scope for a genuinely left-wing anti-monopoly movement (especially in sectors such as telecommunications, which are vulnerable to regulatory capture) than common perceptions would suggest. I’d really want to re-read JK Galbraith’s work to think this through properly. But since I’m crashing on a couple of deadlines, I’ll leave it for commenters to thresh out …

Attention conservation notice: contains spoilers and copious idle speculation about the Deep Political Meaning of popular cultural artifacts of the kind that is barely tolerable at blogpost-length, and surely intolerable beyond it.

I saw _Batman: The Dark Knight Rises_ on Saturday (I was a little nervous about copycat shootings). It has some excellent set-pieces, but is not a great movie. If the standard is ‘better than _The Godfather Part III_,’ it passes muster, but by a rather narrower margin than one would like. It wants to be an _oeuvre_, saying serious things about politics and inequality, but doesn’t ever really get there. This “Jacobin piece”: by Gavin Mueller argues that it’s not a pro-capitalist movie, but a pro-monarchist one. I think that’s wrong. It’s a _pro-aristocratic_ movie, which isn’t really the same thing. Mueller’s observation that:

bq. There is barely any evidence of “the people” at all – it’s all cops and mercenaries battling it out. So instead of a real insurrection, the takeover of Gotham functions via Baroque conspiracies among elites struggling for status and power.

is exactly right – but a movie about “elites struggling for status and power” without some master-figure, however capricious, who can grant or deny them recognition isn’t actually about monarchy. It’s about the struggle between the elites themselves.

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Guantanamo verdict rejected

by John Q on July 24, 2012

After nearly 10 years, military trials at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp have produced a total of six convictions. One of those was Australian David Hicks, who agreed to a plea bargain under which he would be sent back to Australia to serve out his sentence. On his release, he wrote a book about his experiences. Under Australian “proceeds of crime” laws, the earnings from books about a criminal career are liable to confiscation, and the Australian government accordingly froze the proceeds and took action to have them forfeited.

The news today is that the Director of Public Prosecutions has abandoned the actions and paid Hicks’ legal costs[1]. Although no rationale was given, the general presumption is that the US conviction would not stand up in an Australian court, either because (as Hicks alleged) Hicks’ guilty plea was extracted by torture, or because the whole system failed to meet basic standards of due process. Most simple of all is the fact that, unlike the usual case of plea bargaining, the options aren’t pleading guilty or going to trial. Rather those who plead guilty get a definite (and usually relatively short) sentence on top of their detention, while those who do not are held indefinitely without trial.

All of this is relevant now that the Obama Administration is trying to “normalise” the plea bargaining process, by getting those who have pleaded guilty to testify against others accused of more serious crimes. The idea that the state can torture someone, imprison them indefinitely, and then use their “voluntary” testimony (given in the hope of release) against another, then claim that this is an improvement on using confessions extracted by torture of the accused is more reminiscent of the legalisms of a totalitarian state than of anything that could be described as the rule of law.

fn1. The only other Australian detainee, Mamdouh Habib, was threatened with similar action, but this did not proceed. He eventually received a substantial (but secret) settlement in return for dropping claims against the Australian government for its alleged involvement in his torture.

They walk among us

by Maria on July 23, 2012

Some time in 2009, I was sitting on a bar stool in Dulles Airport, killing an hour or two before a delayed flight back to the west coast. It was one of those horse shoe bars, and I was the only woman. The half a dozen or so suited men were being conspicuously polite about not imposing themselves, but I was feeling quite open to some company for the wait. I raised my glass to the two nearest guys and we got chatting. I was on white wine, and they were on whiskey. After a drink, one of them left to get his flight. The remaining guy stuck around. He was an ex-marine and very good company. He was itching to tell a story, but also kind of averse, so I sat back and let him come to it in his own time.

His old job at the Pentagon had been to sit in a single office and man two phones. One phone was for receiving calls through the public phone system. The other one, he simply picked up and it automatically went through to a blocked internal number. Every so often, the receiving call would ring. It would be a member of the public who wanted to report extra-terrestrial activity; strange lights, crop circles, abductions, whatever. Usually, though, just the strange lights. The guy would write down all the details verbatim, thank the caller for their information, and hang up. Then, he’d pick up the other phone, pass the details along to an unnamed individual, and hang up. And that was it. For two years, he recorded alien-sightings from the public and passed them to someone or other in the military chain of command.

The story tickled me. Not least, because it’s so inconclusive. You can see why the US military would want to keep tabs on sightings of odd-looking aircraft. (I still remember seeing the Stealth bomber parked in Dublin airport a while back and finding it hard to believe it was human tech.) But also, it’s kind of delicious to think the Pentagon is paying a little attention to stuff randomers see and report, just in case it turns out to be aliens.

Of course, the US is not the only country in the world trying, discreetly, to keep an open mind on intelligent, extra-terrestrial life. Recently, the UK’s National Archive opened some files about UFO sightings in Britain. The BBC news story says that between “1950 and 2009, a special Ministry of Defence unit investigated more than 10,000 UFO “sightings” – a rate of one every two days.” The unit followed the same model as my bar-buddy’s; a public hotline and a single staffer whose job was to record and refer. The more you look at the types of things recorded, the more it seems that it’s simply a way to keep track of all-too-terrestrial unexplained happenings in the sky.

All the same, I’m with Stephen Hawking on this; if more intelligent and inter-galactically mobile life exists out there, I very much hope they neither discover nor take any notice of us.

Assault Deaths within the United States

by Kieran Healy on July 22, 2012

The chart in “America is a Violent Country” has been getting a lot of circulation. Time to follow up with some more data. As several commentators at CT noted, the death rate from assault in the U.S. is not uniform within the country. Unfortunately, state-level and county-level mortality data are not easily available for the time period covered by the previous post—though they do exist, going back to the 1940s. What I have to hand is a decade’s worth of US mortality data courtesy of CDC WONDER covering 1999 to 2009. I extracted the assault deaths according to the same criteria the OECD uses (for the time period in question, ICD-10 codes X85-Y09 and Y87.1). The estimates are adjusted to the 2000 U.S. population, which isn’t identical to the standard OECD adjustment. But the basic comparability should be OK, for our purposes.

First, it’s well-known that there are strong regional differences in the assault death rate in the U.S. by state and region. Here’s what the patterns look like by state from 1999 to 2009.

Assault death rates by State

Trends in the Death Rate from Assault, 1999–2009, by State. Click for a larger PNG or PDF.
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Language On Holiday

by John Holbo on July 21, 2012

I’m on holiday, so here’s some. ‘Language’ in the sense of ‘YouTube video of old Beyond The Fringe sketch’, that is. “There’s too much Tuesday in my beetroot salad.” How has this failed to become a classic example, or at least a ‘classic example’? Why do people think it’s appropriate to go on chomping on Chomsky’s colorless greens when you have an alternative like that? Back to the roughage grounds! “I don’t think you’re saying, I don’t think you’re saying – I don’t say you’re thinking.” Now just ‘go on in the same way,’ as they say.


Is Alan Bennett supposed to be Austin? Whose mannerisms are being spoofed?

America is a Violent Country

by Kieran Healy on July 20, 2012

The terrible events in Colorado this morning prompted me to update an old post about comparative death rates from assault across different societies. The following figures are from the OECD for deaths due to assault per 100,000 population from 1960 to the present. As before, the most striking features of the data are (1) how much more violent the U.S. is than other OECD countries (except possibly Estonia and Mexico, not shown here), and (2) the degree of change—and recently, decline—there has been in the U.S. time series considered by itself. Note that “assault” as a cause of death does not distinguish the mechanism of death (gunshot, stabbing, etc). If anyone knows of a similar time series for homicides specifically, let me know.

Click for a larger version.

Here are the individual time series.

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Music that survived

by Henry Farrell on July 19, 2012

Like some other CT bloggers, I’m long past the age where I could plausibly claim to be in touch with modern popular music, and rapidly approaching the ‘there’s nothing new that sounds at all interesting’ stage of advanced cultural decrepitude. I mostly listen to the stuff that I was listening to in my late teens and early 20’s. But not all of it. Some music that I thought was wonderful then, I still think is wonderful. Some … not so much. Some music that I didn’t listen to then that I ought to have. Some music that I liked and still like has gone on to be pretty influential, while other music seems to be completely forgotten. So – consider this an open thread on music (for those of us who have reached early middle age or later) from your generation that survives for you, or that ought to be revived, or (alternatively, for less senescent readers) on music from earlier decades that you like, or music from this decade that you think/hope will survive. To start things off:

Music that has (at least sort of) survived, and that deserved to: My Bloody Valentine (obviously), The Smiths (I used not like them, preferring the Cure, whose music I now find insufferable), Pulp, Primal Scream. Music that hasn’t survived, and that ought to have – The Boo Radleys (Giant Steps), The Blue Aeroplanes (Swagger, Beatsongs), the House of Love (Babe Rainbow, their masterpiece, received startlingly bad reviews at the time). Dance music I have less to say about, because the genre I liked the most – drum’n’bass – appears to have disappeared almost in its entirety, while the other people I liked (Amon Tobin; the various incarnations of Kieran Hebden; Bonobo) are still around more or less doing what they always did.

Disagreements? Alternative suggestions? Comments are open …

Open Data Seminar

by Henry Farrell on July 17, 2012

For those who wanted a more print-friendly version of the open data seminar that we’ve been running, here’s a “PDF”: (bog-standard memoir class document I’m afraid – I don’t have John H.’s design skills). It’s available under a Creative Commons non-commercial license – those who want to do their own remixes may want the underlying LaTeX file, which is available “here”: Below, links to the various posts, in order of publication:

“Tom Slee”: draws connections between James Scott and the awkward relationship between open data and actual empowerment.

“Victoria Stodden”: suggests that people interested in the political aspects of open data should learn from the efforts of computational scientists to preserve the step-by-step process through which final results were produced.

“Steven Berlin Johnson”: argues that open data platforms can attract, empower and even create people interested in solving complex problems.

“Matthew Yglesias”: makes the case that open data is crucial to journalism, and that there is often a case for government to produce it.

“Clay Shirky”: argues that there are two different strands of open data advocacy, one devoted to improving services, the other to actually tackling corruption, and that the former works rather better than the latter.

“Aaron Swartz”: finds that open data and transparency don’t address _either_ structural problems of corruption, or help make life more efficient.

“Henry Farrell”: argues that open data will not change politics, but would have advantages under a different political configuration than the one we have.

“Beth Noveck”: sees open data as a foundation for complex democracy and a wellspring of innovation in government.

“Tom Lee”: worries that open data advocates tend towards a blithe over-optimism, but maintains that it still has democratic benefits.

Hayek v. Polanyi in the European Union

by Henry Farrell on July 16, 2012

A somewhat different take on matters Hayekian – Martin Höpner and Armin Schäfer’s “article on Hayek and the EU”: has just come out in _International Organization._ It’s been in gestation for a while (an earlier working paper version can be found “here”:, but the argument is pretty straightforward – if you look at it right, the European Union looks rather more Hayekian than Polanyian-social-democratic.

bq. Instead of re-embedding markets, the EU is beginning to resemble Hayek’s blueprint of “interstate federalism,” where individual (economic and social) rights are located at the central level while the capacity for taxation and interpersonal redistribution remains entirely decentralized. What appears to be the nucleus of supranational social policy might turn out to be a recipe for less social protection and redistribution at the national level. … by granting non-nationals access to social transfers while being unable to oblige them to contribute financially puts pressure on the generosity given to all entitled persons. As economic liberals have aptly observed, divorcing rights from obligations limits the capacity for redistribution. … political initiatives to re-embed markets have become extremely difficult as EU members have grown ever more economically diverse. At the same time, integration through law (as opposed to political integration) continues apace and limits national governments’ ability to correct markets.

This article stems from a broader left-skepticism about the EU associated with people like Fritz Scharpf and Wolfgang Streeck (uncoincidentally the former director and director of the Max-Planck Institut where Höpner and Schäfer are based). Its argument is open to challenge but is also, at the least, highly plausible. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of argument that gets very little attention in the US, where, broadly speaking, leftists are in favor of the EU, and rightists (especially Hayekians and libertarians) against it. Much of this surely has to do with the tribalism that John Q. was talking about last week – a lot of US intellectual politics is based on affect. But it also suggests that the EU is a different kind of experiment than most Americans believe. If the EU manages to weather the tempest that still threatens to swamp it, and comes out the other end with a currency union, a banking union, and some kind of bond system, it will still look, as Höpner and Schäfer suggest, very Hayekian. Will it be politically sustainable over the longer term? I suspect not – increasing misery at the national level as a result of increased exposure to international exposure, combined with a withering of social protections will create the kind of political upheavals that Polanyi described (whether with happy, or unhappy consequences). Polanyi’s ideas suggest that Hayekian federal constitutionalism is almost necessarily self-undermining. But of course, Polanyi could be wrong …


by Kieran Healy on July 16, 2012

Or, Greedo shot first