From the monthly archives:

October 2012

Insider Knowledge

by Henry Farrell on October 30, 2012

“Paul Krugman”: writes about journalists’ obsession with the quest for insider knowledge.

bq. A lot of political journalism, and even reporting on policy issues, is dominated by the search for the “secret sauce”, as Martin puts it: the insider who knows What’s Really Going On. Background interviews with top officials are regarded as gold, and the desire to get those interviews often induces reporters to spin on demand. But such inside scoops are rarely — I won’t say never, but rarely — worth a thing. My experience has been that careful analysis of publicly available information almost always trumps the insider approach.

I’ve meant to blog for ages about a similar illusion – the remarkably widespread belief that policy forums in DC (think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations) provide insiders with a lot of information that is unavailable to outsiders. As a political science professor here, it’s not hard to get to go to all sorts of off-the-record discussions on foreign policy questions; indeed, the more vexing problem is refusing invitations so that you can get your work done, without annoying people. However, I’ve almost never learned any _new_ information about questions that interest me from these kinds of events. Sometimes, people are slightly less discreet than they are in public. But only sometimes, and usually not very much. Likely, there are more important events and workshops that I’m not invited to (after all, from the point of view of the organizers of such events, I’m usually a warm body with vaguely relevant sounding professional qualifications; good to swell a progress, but not much else), but I suspect that there aren’t very many of them that aren’t mostly vaguely disappointing in this sense.

This actually isn’t surprising, when you think about it. Most of the people who work on foreign affairs in Washington DC and who make up the potential audience for such events, are generalists, because they have a variety of briefs. They’re not necessarily looking for exciting new information – they’re looking for digestible summaries of issues that they vaguely know are important, but don’t have time to form educated opinions on themselves. And, even more importantly, they’re looking for opportunities to stay in the loop by talking to other people in the same world about who has gotten which new job, who is on the way up, and who is on the way down. This is the insider information that actually _counts_ for the people going to these events – and it’s at best of anthropological interest to the rest of us. These meetings and briefings serve much the same professional role as do the annual meetings of academic associations, where most of the people attending are sort-of-interested in going to a few panels, but definitely-very-interested in catching up on the latest disciplinary gossip. Going to the former serves as a necessary justification for finding out about the latter.

Which is a longwinded way of agreeing with Krugman – most of the time, you can learn as much or more from intelligently consuming publicly available information as you can from attending purportedly insider briefings. And, as a secondary matter, if you graze free-range from a variety of sources, rather than re-masticating a pre-chewed monocrop diet of selected facts and opinion, you are likely to end up with a _less biased_ understanding. Communities of generalists relying on a very limited set of information sources are peculiarly vulnerable to self-reinforcing illusion. I wasn’t in DC during the run-up to the Iraq war, but from what I’ve been able to piece together in the aftermath, the reasons for the apparent near-unanimity among foreign policy specialists that going into Iraq was a good idea was a combination of bad sources (reliance on people like Ken Pollack, who had a patina of apparent credibility), careerism (the general sense that you would do your career no favors by publicly dissenting from senior Republicans and Democrats), and substantial dollops of intellectual (and indeed non-intellectual, more or less flat-out) dishonesty.

Remember when I posted about my friend Susi, the 90-year old former New York gag cartoonist refugee from Nazi Germany? Good! I’m glad you remember. Because I’ve got a long follow up at Sort of an interview, sort of a jumble of pictures and the sorts of facts I find interesting. A little window on history, I hope. Plus comics. (And if you’re in Eugene, OR, you can go see her gallery show. It’s open until Friday.)

An unpublished letter to the New York Times

by John Q on October 27, 2012

Gary E. MacDougal (The Wrong Way to Help the Poor, 10/10/12) claims that the Federal government currently spends an average of $87000 a year on the typical family of four living in poverty. MacDougall’s calculation is out by a factor of at least four and probably more.

MacDougal’s source, Michael Tanner of Cato, treats all means-tested programs as anti-poverty programs. This includes the Earned Income Tax Credit, Family Tax credit and other programs for the middle and working classes. As Tanner admits, these programs have at least 100 million recipients, and probably many more. So, the average payment is less than $10 000, not the $20, 610 Tanner estimates.

It gets worse. The number of recipients doesn’t include children or adult dependents, but MacDougal’s calculation does. His family of four would include at most two benefit recipients, and would therefore receive less than the poverty line income of $23 050.


by John Holbo on October 27, 2012

You can download the first issue for free here. You can buy the rest somewhere like Comixology (I’m going to!) or get it from Amazon (although they appear to be out of stock). [click to continue…]

On the Bretton Woods transcripts

by Eric on October 26, 2012

In the New York Times today you can read about the newly available transcripts from the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, as edited by Kurt Schuler and Andrew Rosenberg. I have a few things to say about them in the NYT – and why not a few more here?

Historians of Bretton Woods might well have said, eh, a transcript – no big deal; what happened at the conference was largely theater, and the real business was done before and afterward. There is some truth in this – and the transcript amusingly shows that – but it also shows some of the ways in which it is not true. [click to continue…]

Max Weber’s Newcomb problem

by Chris Bertram on October 25, 2012

I was reading a postgraduate dissertation on decision theory today (a field where I’m very far from expert) and it suddenly occurred to me that Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic has exactly the structure of a Newcomb problem.

Consider: in the classic Newcomb problem a being, which always guesses right, offers you a choice involving either taking a box (A) containing $1,000,000 or nothing OR taking that box plus another one (B) which certainly contains $1000. The being guesses what you will do and, if you are disposed to take both boxes (A+B) always puts nothing in A, but if you are disposed to leave B alone and just open A, puts the million dollars in A. But by the time you make the choice, the money is there or it is not.

One apparently compelling argument says you should open both boxes (since A+B > A), another persuasive argument says that you want to be in a state of the world such that the being has put the million in box A. A sign that you are in that state of the world is that you are disposed to open just the one box, so this is what you should in fact do. You thereby maximize the expected payoff.
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My first post got some good comments and some angry responses that seem to me somewhat to miss the point, but that is probably the fault of my questionable Club Med analogy, and also the fact that I wasn’t upfront enough about how I am thinking very much in second best terms, on the assumption that first best isn’t in the table. Let me try to clarify. [click to continue…]

The Cost of Higher Education

by John Holbo on October 24, 2012

This one is always good for an argument.

Suppose you wanted to go live at a luxury resort for four years. You’d expect that to cost, wouldn’t you? (No one is going to write an editorial raging about how if you wanted to live at Club Med it would cost you at least $50,000 a year – probably more.) So why are people surprised that it costs a lot – really a lot – to send a kid to college for four years? College is the sort of thing that seems like it should cost a lot: beautiful buildings on nice land, nice gym, nice green spaces, expensive equipment, large staff that have to be well-paid because they provide expert services. If you want to be puzzled about something, figure out how and why it was ever cheap, not why it costs now.

But this thought that colleges and universities are like luxury resorts, so of course it costs, is not very comforting to apologists for the cost of higher ed. Four years of resort living does not sound like a model that can, in fact, be available to everyone. If the democratic dream is that every kid can go to college, and if the dream of college is that every college kid can live for four years in the equivalent of an expensive resort, then the dream dies.

[UPDATE: It seems my Club Med analogy has been misunderstand, and that is understandable. I’m not suggesting that colleges are literally like Club Med any more than I am suggesting that Club Med has a university library, just because it costs as much as college. I am just suggesting that we should see it as normal and to be expected that if you go and live somewhere that provides you with a lot of stuff, much of which you would expect to be costly, you should expect it to cost you.] [click to continue…]

Mutter incoherently, and carry a big stick

by John Q on October 21, 2012

Undeterred by the ferocity of recent naval warfare, I had something to say about US Middle East policy in The National Interest recently. It’s essentially an elaboration of this post, in which I presented a comprehensive policy program which will, at least, never be beaten for succinctness.

Given that I was publishing in The National Interest, I didn’t raise any questions about the assumptions implicit in the term “national interest”. But, for the CT audience, I’ll spell out that nothing in my argument changes if you replace it with “US ruling class interest” or similar. The Middle East policy views and objectives of the US ruling class (however defined) are just as incoherent and unachievable as those of the US polity as a whole.

Opening para gives the flavor

The foreign-policy debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is expected to spend a lot of time on the attacks on embassies in Libya and Egypt, which were either sparked by an absurdly bigoted anti-Islamic film or used this film as cover for a pre-planned terror attack. Whatever its value as a debating point, this episode has laid bare the bipartisan incoherence of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

The Great Train Ticket Scandal of 1948

by Henry Farrell on October 19, 2012

The George Osborne micro-scandal (apparently, he doesn’t like mixing with the plebs “on the train”:, but doesn’t like paying the first class fare either) is reminiscent of the C.E.M. Joad train ticket scandal of 1948. Joad was the “Julian Baggini of his day”:

bq. best remembered for his appearances on “The Brains Trust”, a B.B.C programme in which a panel of well-known people were invited to give unprepared answers to questions from the audience. He appeared on almost every edition of this from the very first programme, on New Year’s Day 1941, until April 1948

His career as a public ethicist ended abruptly, when he was caught in the first class railway carriage with a third class ticket.

bq. Joad pleaded guilty at Tower Bridge Magistrates Court to fare evasion on the railways, and was fined two pounds plus costs of 25 guineas. It emerged that … Joad had an obsession about trying to defraud the railways, and he used to carry pocketfuls of penny tickets, lie about which station he had boarded the train, and even scramble over hedges and fields to avoid ticket collectors. He was replaced on the next edition of the programme and never appeared on it again. Possibly as a result of this, in his last years he changed from atheism to religion, as detailed in his final book, “Recovery of Belief” (1952).

I doubt that Osborne travels with pocketfuls of cheap tickets, and while the image of him and his entourage scrambling over hedges with enraged ticket collectors in hot pursuit is delightful, it’s also rather improbable. Even so, it appears as if Osborne, like Joad, is a “repeat offender”: It’ll be interesting to see what happens next (the pleb-belaboring “Chief Whip”:,0,285047.story has just done the sacrificial-lamb thing and resigned, but I suspect this will whet the public appetite rather than damping it down).

On the forgetting of Franklin Roosevelt

by Eric on October 18, 2012

Greetings all, and thanks for welcoming me back on a longer-term basis.

Recently a few high-profile commenters have rediscovered Franklin Roosevelt’s relevance. First The Daily Show and then The New Yorker marveled at the aptness of Roosevelt’s cheerful scorn for those who say they will preserve Social Security (and Medicare, one might now add) while simultaneously promising to cut taxes.

It was a position Roosevelt was accustomed to ridiculing, as in this 1944 campaign film (directed by Chuck Jones!) depicting the Republican provision for Social Security:

Screen Shot 2012 10 17 at 9 07 29 AM [click to continue…]

Welcome Eric Rauchway

by Henry Farrell on October 18, 2012

“Eric Rauchway”:, historian at UC Davis, and co-founder of _The Edge of the American West_ is joining Crooked Timber as a blogger. He’s been a guest blogger for us in the past, and is, I suspect, pretty well known to most CT readers. We’re very happy to have him as part of the group.

Forced to Choose: Capitalism as Existentialism

by Corey Robin on October 18, 2012

I’ve been reading and writing all morning about Hayek, Mises, and Menger. And it occurs to me: the moral secret of capitalism, its existential fundament, is not that we are free to choose but that we are forced to choose. Only when we are confronted with the reality of scarcity, says the Austrian economist, only when we have to reckon with the finite resources at our disposal, are we brought face to face with ourselves.

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Not Doing It Right

by John Holbo on October 18, 2012

I’m increasingly concerned that a critical concern troll gap is opening up between liberals and conservatives. Liberals, due to our honorable tradition of not being able to take our own side in an argument, have a healthy aptitude for it. We love to talk up, in a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ sort of way, the good sort of conservatism we’d like to have, if only we could. But conservatives don’t really have a go-to fantasy of the ‘good’ liberal who needs to be rescued from the ‘bad’ liberal. This may be because conservative rhetoric – the rhetoric of reaction – is so dominated by slippery slope arguments. The bad thing about liberalism is its bad spirit, causing it to be the case that apparently moderate policies are, in effect, creeping Jacobinism, due to soul-destroying nihilism or resentment, what have you, that lurks behind. If the spirit of liberalism – as opposed to its letter – is the essential problem, per the slippery slope style, you can’t switch gears smoothly, suddenly coming over all concerned that the spirit of liberalism is in danger of slipping. After all, how much worse could it get than communism and fascism? Where is there for liberalism to slip to but up? [click to continue…]

Age of Fracture or Age of Counterrevolution?

by Corey Robin on October 17, 2012

Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture hasn’t received a lot—really, any—attention around here. That’s a pity because it’s a terrific book. Easily the most comprehensive account of social thought in postwar America, it narrates how our notion of the “social” got steadily broken down across a wide array of disciplines. It’s also a flawed book. My review of it has finally appeared in the London Review of Books. Unfortunately, it’s behind the paywall, but I’ve liberated some of it for your consideration here. Some people might feel uncomfortable commenting on the review without having read all of it—here’s my pitch for you to subscribe to the LRB—but I doubt that’ll ultimately prove to be much of an impediment.

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