From the monthly archives:

August 2012

We’re Going to Tax Their Ass Off!

by Corey Robin on August 30, 2012

This past Sunday, I appeared on Up With Chris Hayes, where I spoke briefly about the rise of austerity politics in the Democratic Party (begin video at 2:13). My comments were sparked by Bruce Bartlett’s terrific piece “‘Starve the Beast’: Origins and Development of a Budgetary Metaphor” in the Summer 2007 issue of The Independent Review. Barlett is a longtime observer of the Republican Party, from without and within. He was a staffer for Ron Paul and Jack Kemp, as well as a policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a Treasury official under George HW Bush.  Now he’s a critic of the GOP, writing sharp commentary at the New York Times and the Financial Times. He and I have argued about conservatism before. When it comes to fiscal policy, however, he’s one of the savviest analysts of the GOP out there. What follows is an extended summary/riff on Bartlett’s piece and what I said on Hayes’s show: to understand how austerity works in (and for) the Democratic Party, you have to understand how it once worked for the Republicans. Long story short: not so well.

[click to continue…]

Welcome Corey Robin!

by Chris Bertram on August 30, 2012

We’re very pleased to announced that Corey Robin is joining the crew at Crooked Timber. I suspect that Corey is already well-known to many of our regular readers through his books such as _Fear: The History of a Political Idea_ (2004) and recently _The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin_ , and through his writings on his own site and at places like Jacobin and the LRB. Corey also has an activist past, through his involvement with the TA union at Yale and led the grad strike of 1995, which helped put the whole issue of casual academic labor on the national map. In professional life, Corey is a political theorist at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Centre. Welcome Corey!

New Structures and Public Intellectuals

by Henry Farrell on August 29, 2012

I was on holiday in Ireland over the last couple of weeks without regular Internet access; one of the things I missed was the Niall Ferguson debate. I liked how “these”: “posts”: from Dan Drezner and Justin Fox identified Ferguson’s behavior as symptomatic of a broader structural change.


bq. Credentialed thinkers like Zakaria and Ferguson, once they’ve reached the top, become brands that can multiply their earning potential far more than was the case fifty years ago. The ways in which the Internet concentrates attention on a Few Big Things means that if you are good and lucky enough to become one of those Big Things, money will rain down on your door. … I’ve heard from a few sources that Ferguson resigned his professorship at Harvard Business School (but not Harvard University) because he calculated that if he gave four or five extra talks a year, he could earn his HBS salary without all the tedious teaching obligations.


bq. The path to lucrative thought-leaderdom blazed over the past couple of decades was to establish yourself with dense, serious work (or a big, important job) and then move on to catch-phrase manufacturing (I spent a few weeks following Tom Friedman around in 2005, and learned that he had made this transition very deliberately). Nowadays ambitious young people looking to break into the circuit often just aim straight for the catch-phrases. Speakers bureaus need pithy sales pitches, not complex erudition — and while speaking fees might be spare change for Mitt Romney, for journalists and academics they often represent their only real shot at a top-tax-bracket income. The result is an intellectual environment that seems to increasingly reward the superficial, and keeps rewarding those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don’t have anything new or interesting to say. Or at least: a part of the intellectual environment is like that.

[click to continue…]

Debt: The First Five Hundred Pages

by Henry Farrell on August 29, 2012

Given past history, I’m probably not the best person to write disinterestedly about David Graeber’s _Debt_. Still, I think that both critics and fans of his work ought to read this “comprehensive critique”: by Mike Beggs in the new issue of _Jacobin._ Begg admires the energy and ambition of the book, but is also blunt.

bq. _Debt,_ then, does not need any more kind words from me. It’s enough to say that there is a lot of fantastic material in there. The breadth of Graeber’s reading is impressive, and he draws from it a wealth of insightful fragments of history. The prospect of a grand social history of debt from a thinker of the radical left is exciting. The appeal is no mystery. I wanted to love it.

bq. Unfortunately, I found the main arguments wholly unconvincing.

bq. The very unconvincingness poses the question: What do we need from our grand social theory? The success of the book shows there is an appetite for work that promises to set our present moment against the sweep of history so as to explain our predicament and help us find footholds for changing it. What is wrong with Graeber’s approach, and how could we do better?

My last post about migration focused on the predictions of economists about the effects of open borders. Commenter Oliver made the point, surely correctly, that, given social, cultural, economic, and political feedback effects, it is simply impossible to know. But there are other ways of thinking about the issues other than looking at the aggregate consequences. For example, we can focus on the rights of individuals to seek new lives, associates and opportunities and on the rights of groups, peoples, states and nations to exclude outsiders. The unilateral right to exclude is well-represented in the literature, especially be the work of Christopher Heath Wellman (see his contribution to the excellent Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? (with Phillip Cole arguing the opposite cases)).

Such works, though, typically address the issues at a somewhat idealized level, asking what rights (properly constituted legitimate democratic) polities do or don’t have. That doesn’t necessarily provide adequate guidance in the actual world; nor does it tell voters who think their state has the right to exclude whether or not to support exclusionary policies. Those strike me as very pertinent questions. Proponents of highly liberalized migration policies are often chastised for being insufficiently alive to the political realities. But a fair response to the self-styled realists is to ask, given the way things are, what they are actually prepared to countenance.
[click to continue…]

Chicks Dig the Uniform

by Maria on August 26, 2012

My husband, E, has been deployed to Afghanistan for six months. He’s in Helmand province and spends most of his time working with the Afghanistan National Army, near Camp Bastion. He should be home by the end of September. Before he came back on R&R last month, I hadn’t seen any image or recent picture of him since March. That felt particularly strange, in this age of Skype and camera-phones. But even odder are the approximately dozen people who’ve asked me during E’s tour if I’m going out there to visit him. Overall, it’s astonishing the number of people, from acquaintances to call centre staff, who think the level of contact and risk of an infantry officer deployed to a war zone is about the same as someone making a business trip to Barcelona.

So here – more by way of personal expression than public education – are some observations about being the wife of a deployed British soldier.*
[click to continue…]


Prog rock epiphany

by John Q on August 25, 2012

Over at Slate, Dave Weigel has a series on progressive rock for which he admits a fondness, while quoting a description of it as the “single most deplored genre of postwar pop music.”. Thanks to the playing of GaryMike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells at the Olympics opening ceremony, there’s even talk of a revival. As it happens, this album played a significant role in my life – in fact, it was something of an epiphany, which changed my views on all kinds of things, though not in the same way as for Weigel.

[click to continue…]

Bottom Feeders

by Kieran Healy on August 23, 2012

Honestly, this sort of thing is best ignored:

Christ, what a bottom-feeder.

But I like $100 as much as the next guy, so here is my video.

Open borders, wages, and economists

by Chris Bertram on August 22, 2012

How would open borders affect the well-being of the world’s population? I’ve spent much of today reading what some economists have to say about this and there seems to be something of a consensus that if people were able to move freely across borders, to live and work where they chose, then the people who moved from poor countries to rich ones would enjoy massive benefits. One author, Michael Clemens, “raises the possibility of a doubling of global income”: (PDF); another, John Kennan, “envisages a doubling of the incomes of the migrants”: . Either way, the gains are huge: put those poor people into the institutional and capital contexts of wealth countries and they would do much much better.
[click to continue…]

Abnormative Ethics

by John Holbo on August 22, 2012

I see that the Philosophy and Popular Culture series has reached, as it must, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living through Chemistry [amazon].

I haven’t watched the show. I’m sure I will love it when I get around to it. Everyone does, apparently. (One has to ration one’s commitments to spend dozens of hours on any one thing.) But I really think they should have included, as a stand-alone piece in the book, a few lines from G. A. Cohen’s “Rescuing Conservatism” (which we’ve discussed before around here and is still available online in pdf draft form – click link for a link – but which was also published last year in an unfortunately overpriced form.)

When people say: “If you had cancer …,” one can sometimes reply: “Yes, of course, that might unbalance my judgment.” Making people imagine that they are in dire straits in order to cause them to agree with something is an attractive resort for those whose arguments are not (otherwise) strong.

A couple weeks ago I was asking my colleague, Neil – you know who you are, Neil! – what he was teaching, and he said ‘normative ethics’. And I said I was teaching ‘abnormative ethics’, namely, Wittgenstein. I tell my students: when Wittgenstein says ‘here one wants to say …’ and other things like that, it’s important to keep in mind that the ‘one’ in question was once a one who thought that ethics demanded that he do logic, in a trench, while being shelled by the Russians. He’s valuable to study, yes, but not because he was normal. (Yes, I realize that ‘normative ethics’ is not, officially, the study of ‘normal’ ethics. But, insofar as it is intuition-driven, there is some tension. Also: can’t you take a joke?)

You could separate works of ethics in two piles: those that say what Cohen says. You want balance. Those that say ethics is a matter of induced imbalance. Having unusual experiences that induce very abnormative intuitions about Life. Philosophy of crisis. There’s a lot of that, of course. I think most of it is philosophy of extreme experiences. Obviously you could just say: good old rationalism vs. irrationalism. But that’s not quite it. Who are the normative ethicists, and who the abnormative ethicists? Nietzsche, obviously.

What do you think of ‘if you had cancer …’? Is it just an invitation not to think straight? As Cohen says “There are all kinds of awful things that I would not otherwise dream of doing that I might do if …” Or is ethics properly all about all those things that you would not dream of doing unless [insert dire strait that induces odd intuition]?

Singularity review repost

by John Q on August 22, 2012

The discussion of my repost on the silliness of generational tropes produced a surprising amount of agreement on the main point, then a lot of disagreement on the question of technological progress. So, I thought I’d continue reprising my greatest hits with this review of Kurzweil’s singularity post, which I put up in draft from at Crooked Timber and my own blog, producing lots of interesting discussion.  Again, seven years old, but I don’t see the need to change much – YMMV


[click to continue…]


by John Holbo on August 21, 2012

Ah, it had to happen. Mark Steyn is saying that, done right, the Afghan intervention could have gone as well as it did in the first Flashman novel, with all the insight Flashy brought to the project. I don’t have a copy handy. Perhaps I am misremembering …

Am I being uncharitable? I suppose he might be saying that, in the novel, everything would have gone right if only they’d listened to Flashman about how to do it? Some sort of heighten the contradictions wossname?

UPDATE: As some have pointed out, this post has a certain ‘we’re here in this exotic locale, hunting the wild, elusive barrelfish’ quality. But in my defense, in comments I courageously articulate a positive conception of the philosophy of Flashman’s author and the Flashman novels. That might be worth arguing about. Come on in! The water in the barrel is fine, and the fish are biting!

Home, Schooling

by Tedra Osell on August 19, 2012

So. On the advice of multiple therapists and after failing to get a transfer to the one in-district school that I thought might work for Pseudonymous Kid, and likewise failing to find a private school within reasonable distance that looked like it would work for him, I am becoming a Homeschooling Mom this academic year.

I know I said I was homeschooling PK before, but I wasn’t, officially; he was on what our state calls “home hospital,” which means that a teacher was coming in for a few hours a week to make sure he “kept up.” He and I were doing some stuff on the side, but he was still enrolled in the public system. This week, though, I am going to call and “unenroll” him.

The up side, from the purely selfish point of view: I’ve had about nine months of research time, and have found some awesome resources. Whether or not I can get PK–who is currently spending as much of his summer as I will allow him (which is more time than I care to admit) playing Half Life and Minecraft and Portal–to get interested in them is a separate issue, but they are there. If one wants to be optimistic and positive, one can easily see home schooling as keeping alive the flame of progressive education until the public system rediscovers it in a decade or two.
[click to continue…]

Maintenance and champerty

by John Q on August 17, 2012

Those are the marvellous names for the old common law offences/torts involved in persuading others to engage in a lawsuit for your own benefit (feel free to state more precisely, IANAL).  They’ve mostly been abolished now, which is probably a good thing in terms of alllowing class actions and similar, and they’ve never applied (AFAIK) in international law.

Nevertheless, a reminder of the reason such laws existed has come with the announcement of a WTO complaint by Ukraine against Australia’s plain packaging laws for cigarettes.

[click to continue…]

The generation game

by John Q on August 17, 2012

The issue of generational politics came up in the discussion of my grandfather clause post, so I thought I would republish what I immodestly regard as the definitive refutation of the entire genre of “generation game” writing. I wrote it in 2000, so it’s now the better part of a generation old, but as far as I can see, nothing I’ve written needs to be changed[1]. But, doubtless, the CT commentary team will find much that needs to be changed, or should never have been written, so have at it.

[click to continue…]