From the monthly archives:

March 2013

Barack Obama Attends Dapper Day

by John Holbo on March 31, 2013

I think they really buried the main story at Boing Boing, linking to this LA Times article about Dapper Day at Disneyland.


The two white guys are obviously enormous secret service agents – easily 7 feet tall – and the two white women (just wait until the right wing blogs find out about this!) are pretty big, too.

Socialism Without a Map

by Henry Farrell on March 28, 2013

There is much to admire in Erik Olin Wright’s _Envisioning Real Utopias._ It’s an intelligent and thoughtful exploration of our current situation (capitalism, and the injustices thereof), the aporias of old-style radicalism (standard issue Marxism-Leninism – maybe not so useful in explaining the early 21st century), and various small-bore examples of what a better world might be that could perhaps be expanded into something bigger. The examples of little quasi-utopias that Wright discusses are familiar ones – but in the case of popular budgeting in Porto Allegre, Wright can hardly be blamed, since his work with Archon Fung did a lot to highlight this case for English-speakers such as myself. And, of course, I’m biased. I start from a position that is in strong sympathy with Wright – I’ve been influenced both by his work, and the work of people who he’s engaged with in both friendly and argumentative ways over the last couple of decades (the various tendencies within the _Politics and Society_ crowd). If I aspire to a political tradition, it’s Wright’s tradition of an interest in radical change, combined with a strong respect for empirically guided analysis. [click to continue…]

Another Pro Same-Sex Marriage Argument

by John Holbo on March 28, 2013

Not that we need another one. The old ones still work fine. But it seems to me there is one that hasn’t been offered, and isn’t half bad.

Defenders of ‘traditional marriage’ insist 1) that their position is, well … traditional; wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the history of Western Civilization, etc. etc.; 2) they are not bigots. They are tolerant of homosexuality, and the rights of homosexuals, etc. etc. Maybe they watch the occasional episode of “Will and Grace”, in syndication (even if they didn’t watch it back when it started.) They are careful to distance themselves from those Westboro Baptist Church lunatics, for example.

It’s gotten to the point where one of the main, mainstream arguments against same-sex marriage is that legalizing it would amount to implying that those opposing it are bigots. Since they are not just bigots (see above), anything that would make them seem like bigots must be wrong. Ergo, approving same-sex marriage would be a mistake. Certainly striking down opposition to it as ‘lacking a rational basis’ would be a gross moral insult to non-bigoted opponents of same-same marriage.

This ‘anything that implies we are bigots must be wrong’ argument has problems. But that’s old news. Here’s the new argument. Grant, for argument’s sake, that contemporary arguments against same-sex marriage have been scrubbed free of bigotry. Doesn’t it follow that these arguments must not be traditional but, somehow, quite new? [click to continue…]

The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

by Henry Farrell on March 27, 2013

Tomorrow, as a belated contribution to the Real Utopias seminar, I’ll be posting a piece which talks about manipulation of the Wikipedia process. As soon as I’d finished writing, I turned to Twitter, to read this “interesting story”: by Benjamin Mako Hill about his experiences with the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (an organization that I only know of because they relentlessly spam me with unsolicited emails about tedious-sounding events – apparently it is “effectively impossible”: to get off their mailing list). In any event, it appears that some mysterious individual called icd_berlin created a Wikipedia page on the Berlin based Institute, which was then built up by a series of anonymous contributors with Berlin IP addresses. Critical comments about their intern policy were removed (again by an individual with a Berlin IP address). And then things get worse …

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Mainstreaming utopia (updated)

by John Q on March 26, 2013

The final post in our seminar on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is by Marc Fleurbaey, with the collaboration of his seminar students Inka Busack, Joaquin Garcia, Jacob Girard, Kathryn Long, Anthony Sibley, Jiemin Wei.

There are many details of the book which could be commented upon and praised or criticized, but this short text will focus on three questions which appear central in the Real Utopias project.

* Why focus on capitalism versus socialism?
* What role for market transactions?
* What is the status of utopian research?

A final version of the response is now available here

One of the examples of real utopia put forward by Wright is the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). In its simplest, and arguably most utopian form, the idea is that every member of the community would receive a payment sufficient to sustain a decent standard of living. Implementing a UBI in this fashion would pose a huge, arguably insuperable, financing challenge in the context of a market economy. The same isn’t obviously true of a closely related idea, a guaranteed minimum income (GMI)
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A new party to the left of Labour?

by Chris Bertram on March 25, 2013

Ken Loach, Kate Hudson and Gilbert Achcar are calling for a new party to the left of Labour in the UK.

Labour is not alone in its shift rightwards and its embrace of neoliberal economic policies. Its sister parties across Europe have taken the same path over the past two decades. Yet elsewhere in Europe, new parties and coalitions – such as Syriza in Greece or Die Linke in Germany – have begun to fill the left space, offering an alternative political, social and economic vision. The anomaly which leaves Britain without a left political alternative – one defending the welfare state, investing for jobs, homes and education, transforming our economy – has to end.

Well there’s lots to agree with in their statement: we need to resist austerity, and Labour isn’t going to do that effectively. The Labour leadership’s current strategy seems to be a combination of keeping quiet, appearing “responsible” by not seriously challenging the austerity narrative, and pandering to the right on immigration. Last week’s shameful abstention on workfare was the latest manifestation of Miliband’s pusillanimity.

But there’s a lot missing too. Loach et al focus on domestic bread-and-butter issues and don’t seem to have anything to say about Europe, let alone the wider world. And there’s nothing at all on climate and the environment, a silence that is all too common on the left, as Bill Barnes’s contribution to the Real Utopias symposium underlines.

There’s also the key fact about British politics which means that talk of a British left “anomaly” compared to Syriza and Die Linke misses the mark. The UK just had a referendum on the alternative vote, and that referendum was lost. With first-past-the-post and no prospect of electoral reform, voters will reliably back the party that promises to end the ConDem coalition. That party is Labour, however hopeless it has been in the past and however useless it will be in the future. I can’t see a way round this, and that leaves me deeply pessimistic. I wish Loach et al success, but I can’t see it happening.

Why Did Liberals Support the Iraq War?

by Corey Robin on March 25, 2013

In September 2005, on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, The Nation ran a long piece I did on liberal support for the Iraq War and for US imperialism more generally.  By way of Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, and Peter Beinart—as well as Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty—it addressed what I thought and still think are some of the deeper political and intellectual roots of the liberals’ support for the Iraq War. On the tenth anniversary of the War, I thought I might reprint that essay here. Some things I got wrong (Beinart, for example, went onto have something of a turnabout on these issues; it wasn’t Oscar Wilde but Jonathan Swift who made that jibe). Other issues I over-emphasized or neglected. But still, it’s got some useful stuff there. Without further ado…

• • • • •

It’s the fourth anniversary of September 11, and Americans are getting restless about the war in Iraq. Republicans are challenging the President, activists and bloggers are pressing the Democrats and liberal hawks are reconsidering their support for the war. Everyone, it seems, is asking questions.

Two questions, however, have not been asked, perhaps because they might actually help us move beyond where we are and where we’ve been. First, how is it that few liberals and no leftists in 1968 believed that Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most progressive President in American history, would or could airlift democracy to Vietnam, while many liberals and not a few leftists in 2003 believed that the most reactionary President since William McKinley could and would export democracy to Iraq? [click to continue…]

I can’t say that Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias provided me with any particular, brilliant insight, and I suppose someone better read in social theory or analytical Marxism than I might have found parts of the book belabored. Even I would agree that it was often repetitious, though I think I think Russell Jacoby was simply talking nonsense when he called the book a
“morass.” Overall though, nearly three years since I first read it, I still consider it a masterful work. Wright’s case for separating the socialist project from the conceptual apparatus of traditional Marxism–from its theory of history to its necessarily revolutionary implications–in favor of a “compass” which orients us as we move down numerous different, possibly hybrid routes, towards a greater level of social power and democratic egalitarianism, was entirely persuasive to me. Of all those routes, the one which most intrigues me is one which invites reflections that are rarely identified as “socialist,” but more usually localist, communitarian, even Burkean (hence my title of this review). But let me come around to that conclusion the long way.

Full piece is here

I’m going to talk about Wright’s complete failure to say anything about the herd of elephants in the room that completely blocks our way toward any of the desirable futures that the book envisions – climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and their epidemiological, social, economic and political consequences. That Wright did not recognize this in the course of his five years of work on, and world-wide presentation and discussion of, the book’s arguments, mid 2004 to mid 2009 (pp. xi-xv– “I felt that I was part of a global conversation on the dilemmas of our time,” xv) – that in all those presentations and discussions no one ever raised the climate change/environmental degradation issues with sufficient force as to leave a footprint in the 2010 text – despite the scientific evidence and argument that was accumulating during those same years – that is very telling – a sign of our historic failure in meeting our responsibilities as intellectuals – one mark of the current world-historical failure of the social and policy sciences in general, of intellectuals at large, and of the modern state.
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By page 3 of Envisioning Real Utopias I was already disappointed. The Introduction starts with some examples of real utopias – they are participatory city budgets (ok, promising – new to me); Wikipedia (never, ever trust it on living people, or anything controversial); and Mondragon (always Mondragon – is this really still the best example of co-operative production? It was always cited when I was a student in the late 1970s).

So are there better examples of ‘real utopias’, or rather idealism put into practice? Yes. From the anti-globalisation movement, Slow Food and Fair Trade. A bit of a revival of local currency schemes, the Bristol pound being one of the most recent and biggest. The campaign for a Living Wage, backed by anti-poverty bodies like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
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The end of gold

by Eric on March 21, 2013

I would have said “gradually,” rather than “secretly,” but over on Bloomberg I have a little piece on how FDR ended the US gold standard.

There’s widespread disagreement over when the US went off gold – was it with the end of domestic convertibility, which happened on March 6, though it wasn’t made clearly permanent until later? was it with the end of exports, on April 19? Scott Sumner just claimed the US didn’t permanently leave the gold standard at all in 1933, “just temporarily suspended it,” which is an answer Friedman and Schwartz sort of give, though they fudge it – “the gold standard to which the US returned was very different, both domestically and international, from the one it had left”. I myself like the answer given in one article, that the US went off gold “about crocus-daffodil time, 1933.”

Actually, I think the word “disagreement” isn’t quite right – it’s more lack of agreement; I’ve never seen anyone bother to pick apart who prefers which date and why. Obviously it depends on what you mean by “the gold standard,” and what it means to be on or off.

As the Bloomberg post indicates, I’ve been looking into Roosevelt’s intentions and expressed policies, and I’ve become persuaded that he knew pretty clearly what he was doing.

Two weeks before Roosevelt’s inauguration, Keynes wrote,

can it be possible today to forecast a respectable future for [gold], when in the meantime it has betrayed all the hopes of its friends? Yet it does not follow that the monetary system of the future will find no place for gold. A barbarous relic, to which a vast body of tradition and prestige attaches, may have a symbolic or conventional value if it can be fitted into the framework of a managed system of the new pattern. Such transformations are a regular feature of those constitutional changes which are effected without a revolution.

I predict, therefore, that central banks will continue in the future, as in the past, to keep gold reserves for the protection of their exchanges and as an emergency means of settling an adverse international balance.

That’s, in outline, the policy Roosevelt pursued – probably without having read Keynes, but who knows? – beginning with his inauguration. He wanted a managed currency, so he could influence commodity prices, but he also wanted enough gold in US vaults so he could fend off speculative attacks on his managed currency. That’s why he ended convertibility, but didn’t quite announce it. If he said convertibility was done for good and all, it would have been much harder to get hoarders to return their gold to the vaults.

It’s also, of course, the basis for the dollar that became the anchor of the Bretton Woods system, in which, Keynes would later say, reprising his language of 1933, gold had become a “‘constitutional monarch’, so to speak, which would be subject to the constitution of the people and not able to exercise a tyrannical power over the nations of the world.”

FDR’s intentions matter because if he meant to do what he did, if he was carefully managing expectations, then the history of his monetary policy becomes a useful text applicable to modern affairs.

Meanwhile, in modern affairs, it’s not a good season to be a gold enthusiast. As usual, the answer to a headline that ends in a question mark is “no.”

A Little Bit Utopian?

by John Q on March 20, 2013

Continuing in our seminar on Envisioning Real Utopias, a contribution from David Estlund. Like several of the contributions, it’s a bit long for a blog post, so I’m posting the opening paras, and posting it as a PDF. Read, enjoy and comment.

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Edmund Burke on the Free Market

by Corey Robin on March 20, 2013

In the Huffington Post, Alex Zakaras, a political theorist at the University of Vermont, levels a familiar charge at today’s GOP: they’re not real conservatives.

Over the last several decades, the party has abandoned political conservatism and embraced its opposite: an agenda of radical, experimental reform.

I’ve addressed this argument many times, including in a book now out in paperback that’s selling for $16, so there is no need for me to rehearse my position here.

What drew my attention to Zakaras’s piece is this claim: [click to continue…]

Economists and the theory of politics

by Henry Farrell on March 19, 2013

It’s been interesting to follow the progress of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson over the last few years, from what I suspect (but don’t know – happy to be corrected) was a right-leaning centrism to a set of vigorous arguments about the pernicious consequences of inequality. This is perhaps comparable to Keynes, who was never a full-on lefty, but instead a liberal interested in saving capitalism from itself. Now, via JW Mason on Twitter, I see they have a “new paper”: arguing that economists need what “some of us would call”: a theory of politics, and that if they developed one, they’d see why unions were often well worth any deadweight cost.

bq. In this essay, we argue not only that economic advice will ignore politics at its peril but also that there are systematic forces that sometimes turn good economics into bad
politics, with the latter unfortunately often trumping the economic good. Of course, we are not claiming that economic advice should shy away from identifying market failures
and creative solutions to them, nor are we suggesting a blanket bias away from good economic policy. Rather, our argument is that economic analysis needs to identify, theoretically and empirically, conditions under which politics and economics run into conflict, and then evaluate policy proposals taking this conflict and the potential backlashes it creates into account.

bq. Our basic argument is simple: the extant political equilibrium may not be independent of the market failure; indeed it may critically rest upon it. Faced with a trade union exercising monopoly power and raising the wages of its members, most economists would advocate removing or limiting the union’s ability to exercise this monopoly power, and this is certainly the right policy in some circumstances. But unions do not just influence the way the labor market functions; they also have important implications for the political system. Historically, unions have played a key role in the creation of democracy in many parts of the world, particularly in Western Europe; they have founded, funded and supported political parties, such as the Labour Party in Britain or the Social Democratic parties of Scandinavia, which have had large impacts on public policy and on the extent of taxation and income redistribution, often balancing the political power of established business interests and political elites.

bq. Because the higher wages that unions generate for their members are one of the main reasons why people join unions, reducing their market power is likely to foster de-unionization. But this may, by further strengthening groups and interests that were already dominant in society, also change the political equilibrium in a direction involving greater efficiency losses. This case illustrates a more general conclusion, which is the heart of our argument: even when it is possible, removing a market failure need not improve the allocation of resources because of its impact on future political equilibria. To understand whether it is likely to do so, one must look at the political consequences of a policy: it is not sufficient to just focus on the economic costs and benefits.

It would be nice to see more economists starting to think about the world in this way. It would be even nicer to see this paper having some influence on the numerous technocratic pundits who have unconsciously absorbed economists’ way of thinking about policy problems.