From the monthly archives:

April 2013

Heads, you lose

by Maria on April 30, 2013

One of the days, I’ll get around to reading the copy of Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy; The Moral Limits of Markets’. It’s even made the exquisitely painful cut of being one of only two dozen books brought on our three-month sojourn on the south coast of England. When I do read Sandel, I hope to acquire a greater appreciation for exactly how market thinking has permeated and corrupted so many aspects of human life.

One surprising place a weirdly attenuated and manically zealous form of market thinking has popped up is in the Minnesota tax office. (via BoingBoing) They’re running a quite unhinged vendetta against Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus DeMars, a married couple who make music, art, poetry and teach English. The taxman running their audit says Reini-Grandell and DeMars’ creative activities don’t make enough money, and haven’t for years, thus proving the artists are mere hobbyists who shouldn’t get a tax break. Either they should turn a consistent profit by now, or have given up already and gone back to being good little consumers.

“The tone of all these proceedings have been completely anti-art. There has been an emphasis on creating a product, advertising it for sale, and then selling it. …
Writers do not write a few lines and then advertise they have a poem for sale, making sure that the poem sells at a break-even point of what it cost monetarily to produce it. But this is what the Minnesota Department of Revenue insists I should be doing. It sickens me to have to participate in this because I know it is deeply wrong.”
[click to continue…]

Benn Steil seems upset.

by Eric on April 29, 2013

The Council on Foreign Relations has a response to my critique of Benn Steil’s Bretton Woods book, in a post by Steil and Dinah Walker. The tenor of the response is conspicuous; Ed Conway notes I “seem to have touched a raw nerve.” Steil himself writes that my criticism is “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”

I’ll set that issue aside for now and just address the substantial areas of dispute here; that is, the gold standard and Pearl Harbor.

The Gold Standard

Of the gold standard, Steil and Walker write,

Rauchway takes specific issue with Benn’s claim that under the classical gold standard “when gold flowed in [the authorities] loosened credit, and when it flowed out they tightened credit,” arguing that this is “at odds with historical evidence.”


And then they insert a graphic showing “that long interest rates did indeed tend to rise when gold was flowing out of the United States and fall when gold was flowing in”, adding, “Economics lesson finished.”

I would extend the economics lesson, or anyway the economic history lesson, further. The US was not the only gold standard country. [click to continue…]

Ricky Locke has written the [lead essay]( for a new [forum]( at the _Boston Review_ which is very much worth reading as an analytic follow-up to Corey’s post last week. Locke takes a decade worth of research (soon to come out as a [book]( on how these problems are endemic to international supply chains, and not fixed at all well by gestures towards corporate social responsibility. It’s particularly interesting that Locke came to this question as someone who hoped and expected to find a different answer

>have these private efforts improved labor standards? Not by much. Despite many good faith efforts over the past fifteen years, private regulation has had limited impact. Child labor, hazardous working conditions, excessive hours, and poor wages continue to plague many workplaces in the developing world, creating scandal and embarrassment for the global companies that source from these factories and farms. That is my reluctant conclusion after a decade studying this issue. Before I turned my attention to global labor standards, I was a student of labor and politics in Western Europe and the United States. I came to the idea of private regulation with the hope that it might be a new, suppler way of ensuring workers fair compensation, healthy and safe conditions, and rights of association.

What is useful about Locke’s analysis (and the analysis of nearly all the participants in this forum) is that it highlights how this is _not_ a problem of national governments making responsible and democratically-legitimated trade-offs between worker rights and economic growth in some imaginary perfectly competitive world marketplace. Instead, it’s about the more self-centered trade-offs that profit-seeking businesses make in complex global supply chains where responsibility for nasty outcomes often (though not always) tends to evaporate away into games of mutual blame and recrimination. As per [Lindsay Beyerstein](, ‘No, Matt Yglesias, Bangladeshi Workers Didn’t Choose To Be Crushed To Death.’ The workers weren’t ever really consulted in the first place, and the organizations through which they might have tried to find some collective voice are weak and prone to corruption.

You can arrive at all sorts of different conclusions about how best to solve these problems. But if you start from some combination of Marty Feldstein and Pangloss 101, you’re never going to recognize them as problems in the first place. More generally, it’s simply unacceptable to fob off calamities as a consequence of the political choices that people have made, without troubling yourself to investigate whether they have actually made the relevant choices in the first place. The attraction of simple comparative advantage analysis, as Matt Yglesias and multitudes of other economic pundits before him have discovered, is that it allows you to form rapid opinions on a topic without actually knowing very much about it.[^fn] The disadvantage is that it allows you to form rapid opinions on a topic without actually knowing very much about it. It’s obviously difficult to have the one without the other.

[^fn]: Other modes of analysis, both on left and right, share this attractive quality.

Pakistan Calling

by Maria on April 29, 2013

As a child of the Cold War, I’m a bit skeptical about how much good comes out of cultural exchanges between countries with either little in common or mutually opposed interests. At the gentlest stroke of the trigger, realpolitik blasts all the carefully cultivated good will and cultural understanding away.

Case in point; after decades of hard work downing vodka and Guinness and agreeing how we all love Tolstoy and Shostakovich, Ireland’s tentative steps towards Magnitsky type measures unleashed an immediate and horribly spiteful threat from the Russian state to bar Irish people from adopting children the Russians don’t want. (Guy Verhofstadt – now leading the European Parliament’s Liberal grouping – has kindly called on other EU member states to unite and stop one of their number being blackmailed and bullied. I appreciate the gesture, though I expect EU solidarity for us will be as forthcoming as it has been for the UK after its recent Chinese blackballing.)

But a project by Anwar Akhtar with the RSA, linking up Pakistan civil society and the UK Pakistan diaspora, looks both worthwhile on its own terms and interesting for the rest of us. Instead of the tired old model of getting elites to talk books and ballet and hoping better relations ensue, Pakistan Calling takes a more targeted and effective approach to cultural exchange.

Pakistan Calling starts from the premise that there’s more to Pakistan than religious extremism, corruption, show trials and assassinations, drone warfare and anaemic responses to natural disaster, and all the other dismal accoutrements of a failed state. It is a platform for film-makers in Karachi and Lahore to show short movies about social enterprises and notable individuals. The films highlight social and economic problems and also the good work being done to tackle them.

A couple of the videos are simple pieces to camera about how the country’s education system or city-planning are simply not good enough. There are also of celebratory films about cities, individuals or projects. One film stands out. In seven minutes of quite beautiful footage, it suggests how the perpetual noise, dirt, itching, bad smells, hunger, loneliness and contempt of being horribly poor can make life seem so cheap it’s almost not worth living. ‘I am Agha’ is about a street child who wishes he could exchange his rubbish-collecting sack for a schoolbag; “I don’t like anything, anyone. This starvation… I only like food and to sleep peacefully at night.”

This project is far meatier and less comforting than your average cultural exchange. The people it’s connecting are community and project leaders in Pakistan and the Pakistan-British diaspora. They already have much in common, culturally, and should have many insights and connections to share with each other to mutual gain and long-term, reciprocal relationships.

If the Pakistan Calling goes into a further stage, it will look at crowd-funding mechanisms for the diaspora and others to invest in emerging social enterprises in Pakistan. I hope they don’t try to reinvent the wheel on crowd-funding, and rather look at how to turn the relationships they are cultivating towards using existing mechanisms.

Pakistan Calling is a good source of curated video from a country most of us know surprisingly little about. At the very least, it’s a timely reminder that Pakistan is more than just America’s No. 1 Public Frenemy.

Strumpet City

by niamh on April 29, 2013

I was reminded the other day how good a book Strumpet City is: it’s being serialized on RTE radio. It seems everyone in Dublin is reading it at the moment. John posted about centenaries and the need to remember, ‘lest we forget’, and there are several important dates coming up in Ireland soon.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 17.05.02The Irish government has set up an advisory group of historians to consider appropriate ways of marking a decade of centenaries from 2012 to 2022. 1916 will be a particularly sensitive one, if they’re to do justice to the Somme as well as the Easter Rising. But it’s 1913, the year of the Great Lock-Out, Ireland’s most dramatic labour dispute, about unions’ right to organize, that’s very much on people’s minds at the moment. The impact of the Lock-Out on the lives of the working people living in Dublin’s appalling tenements forms a central strand of Strumpet City. (I read it not long after it came out and was particularly enthralled by labour organizer Jim Larkin, a real historical figure, pictured left).

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 17.04.18

It’s a novel that ranges right across the social spectrum, bringing characters from widely different backgrounds to life most vividly. Dublin had the most appalling tenements in Europe at that time – 30% of the population lived in the slums – with very little industry to speak of, and a lot of casual employment in transportation industries.There’s terrific anger behind the novel, and you’re never in doubt over the culpability of the slum landlords, the hard-heartedness of the key employers, or the smugness of some of the clergy. But the book is considerably more subtle than this might suggest, and there are counterbalancing characters in every context, with differences in interests and outlook as well as in temperament and character. The 1980 TV adaptation is slower-paced than we’re used to now, but it had a whole cast of excellent actors and was marvellously realized. And yet it was the written word – or in this case, the spoken word, beautifully read by Irish actor Barry McGovern – that proved most evocative for me that night, as I dropped what I was doing to follow once again the fate of the most destitute of all the characters, a man of spirit and dignity named Rashers Tierney (pictured here as played by David Kelly, holding his dog Rusty, with Brendan Cauldwell as ‘Toucher’ Hennessy).

The world has been transformed in 100 years and Ireland is now of course a far wealthier country. But the stories about the struggle to make a living and the hardships of life on the edge still have resonance. And although the role and function of trade unions has changed hugely, the importance of being able to organize to defend basic rights is something no-one should ever forget. 

Look Who’s Teaching at CUNY

In case you were wondering about this…

David H. Petraeus, who resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency last November after having an extramarital affair with his biographer, will serve as a visiting professor at the City University of New York next academic year, the university announced on Tuesday. [click to continue…]

Upcoming Felix Gilman Seminar

by Henry Farrell on April 27, 2013

A reminder to CT readers that we hope to start our seminar on Felix Gilman’s _The Half-Made World_ (Powells, Amazon) and _The Rise of Ransom City_ (Powells, “Amazon”: soon – so if you want to be able to participate fully, buy or borrow the books and read ’em. It should be a good seminar – and for once we should have a decent gender balance among the respondents. More soon …

The Reinhart-Rogoff Two-Step

by Henry Farrell on April 26, 2013

“Paul Krugman”: on the “latest Reinhart-Rogoff self-defense”:

bq. OK, Reinhart and Rogoff have said their piece. I’d say that they’re still trying to have it both ways, on two fronts. They deny asserting that the debt-growth relationship is causal, but keep making statements that insinuate that it is. And they deny having been strong austerity advocates – but they were happy to bask in the celebrity that came with their adoption as austerian mascots, and never to my knowledge spoke out to condemn all the “eek! 90 percent!” rhetoric that was used to justify sharp austerity right now.

Maybe worth noting that this is a variant of John Holbo’s “Two-Step of Terrific Triviality”:

bq. To put it another way, Goldberg is making a standard rhetorical move which has no accepted name, but which really needs one. I call it ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’. Say something that is ambiguous between something so strong it is absurd and so weak that it would be absurd even to mention it. When attacked, hop from foot to foot as necessary, keeping a serious expression on your face. With luck, you will be able to generate the mistaken impression that you haven’t been knocked flat, by rights. As a result, the thing that you said which was absurdly strong will appear to have some obscure grain of truth in it. Even though you have provided no reason to think so.

Gallipoli and Crimea

by John Q on April 26, 2013

Yesterday was Anzac Day, the 98th anniversary of the beginning of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, in which Australian, New Zealand and British troops assaulted Gallipoli in Turkey. Here’s what I posted on my blog.

Thinking about Anzac Day, with the inevitable mixed emotions, I was struck by tihe resemblance of the Anzac legend to that of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War – the same incredible bravery of ordinary men commanded by bungling leaders to undertake a doomed and futile mission.

There’s another, even more tragic, echo here. Both the Crimean War and the Gallipoli campaign arose from the same cause – the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the struggle over its partition. But in the Crimean War, the British and French were on the side of the Turks against the Russians. In the Great War, the imperial alliances had shifted, and the Russians formed part of the Triple Entente, while the Turks were on the side of the Germans.

Whatever the justice of the Allied cause in the Great War as a whole, the war with Turkey was nothing more than a struggle between rival imperialisms. The British and French governments signed secret treaties with each other, and with the Russian Czar, promising to divide the spoils of victory. At the same time, they made incompatible promises of independence for the Arabs and of a homeland in Palestine for the Jews.

There are no consolations to be had here. The Great War did not protect our freedom, or that of the world. Rather, it gave rise to the horrors of Nazism and Bolshevism, and, within Turkey, to the Armenian genocide. The carve-up of the Ottoman empire created the modern Middle East, haunted even a century later by bloodshed and misery.

As we reflect on the sacrifices made by those who went to war nearly 100 years ago, we should also remember, and condemn, the crimes of those, on all sides, who made and carried on that war.

Lest we forget.

Yesterday, after a building housing garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh, killing almost 200 more than 250 workers nearly 350 workers at least 377 workers, Matt Yglesias wrote:

Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum….

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans….The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine.

Today, after Matt Yglesias wrote these words, Agence France-Presse wrote these: [click to continue…]

Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe

by Henry Farrell on April 25, 2013

I have a “gloomy article”: on the parlous state of social democracy in Italy and elsewhere in Europe up at Aeon. The draft was completed two weeks ago; if anything the events in the interim have given even more cause for depression. The Italian Democratic Party looks on the verge of entering into a coalition with Berlusconi’s people that is neither appetizing nor particularly convincing – it has also led to a very bad three way split between (1) the party’s old guard, (2) a quasi-Blairite wing lead by Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and (3) the left (who would have liked to see Renzi win, if only because whoever ends up as prime minister under current circumstances is likely to be badly damaged). The Movimento 5 Stelle is still dithering, while trying to attract defectors from the Democratic Party’s left (a few weeks ago, the Democratic Party hoped that all the movement would be in the other direction). It has done poorly in a recent regional election, and is likely less enthusiastic about immediate elections than it was a few days ago. Even by the impressive standards of its international peers, the Italian left and center left have a prodigious capacity for screwing stuff up due to factionalism. It would be fair to say that it’s not withering away through disuse.

bq. Last September, Il Partito Democratico, the Italian Democratic Party, asked me to talk about politics and the internet at its summer school in Cortona. Political summer schools are usually pleasant — Cortona is a medieval Tuscan hill town with excellent restaurants — and unexciting. Academics and public intellectuals give talks organised loosely around a theme; in this case, the challenges of ‘communication and democracy’. Young party activists politely listen to our speeches while they wait to do the real business of politics, between sessions and at the evening meals.

Squid & Owl!

by John Holbo on April 24, 2013

Remember a couple years back? I made some sort of a kind of a graphical fiction, Squid & Owl?


I made it into a book. Mom liked it a lot! A few other people did, too. Fast forward a couple years: Comixology comes along, and it’s a great platform for digital comics. And, finally, they started allowing independent submissions. And, long story short, they accepted Squid & Owl and now it’s sitting proudly in the Staff Picks section. Only 99 cents! 106 pages. Such a bargain! You should buy it. You should give it a lot of stars. Help me achieve the fame I so richly deserve.

(Speaking of which: it’s getting harder and harder to impress my 11-year old daughter, but this time I did it. Because Atomic Robo is on Comixology, and she really, really likes Atomic Robo. So I must be cool.)

Greece’s trap

by niamh on April 24, 2013

Greece is at the hard end of another European policy problem, related to austerity, but this time to do with immigration, and it’s turning into a serious human rights and humanitarian crisis. According to Europe’s border control agency Frontex, 93% of migrants to Europe came through eastern and central Mediterranean routes in 2011.With the tightening of the patrolling of Spanish and Italian access routes, most of these arrived first in Greece, with legal rights under the European Convention of Human Rights to seek asylum status there. Greece doesn’t have the resources to provide adequate social services, and the justice system is grossly inadequate to deal with the demands put on it. This means that large numbers of people are cast adrift in Greece in a legal limbo and with no resources. They are then at the mercy not only of highly repressive policing but of the fascist organization Golden Dawn, whose growing influence is now also starting to contaminate the political discourse of other political parties. A new internet crowd-released film, Into the Fire, documents the human face on what’s going on.

This is not just a story about Greece, but about European policy more generally. Under what is known as the Dublin regulation, people can only claim asylum in the EU country in which they first arrive. It means that if anyone manages to move on to another country, their claim to asylum need not be heard in that country, but they can be summarily deported back to the country in which they first arrived. This was supposed to be a burden-sharing measure to cut out parallel asylum claims in multiple jurisdictions. But in effect, because of the way people arrive in Europe, it corrals the EU’s asylum-seekers into the southern European countries, and increasingly concentrates it in Greece. A 2011 decision by the European Court of Human Rights found that, unlike other EU member states, Greece was not able to vindicate people’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, and that deportations back there are not defensible. But as shown in the documentary Dublin’s Trap: another side of the Greek crisis, these rights are hard to access and the implications extend to very few people. And securing ‘Fortress Europe’ is taking an even greater toll on human lives:

…at least 18,567 people have died since 1988 along the european borders. Among them 8,695 were reported to be missing in the sea. The majority of them, 13,733 people, lost their life trying to cross the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic Ocean towards Europe. And 2011 was the worst year ever, considering that during the year at least 2,352 people have died at the gates of Europe.

There are lots of questions about other European countries’ ways of dealing with asylum seekers and refugees. Ireland’s citizenship laws were changed in 2004 to deter possible claimants; people are left for unconscionably long periods living in ‘direct provision’ accommodation; and the rate of successful application is very low indeed. But the scale of the humanitarian and human rights issues building up in Greece is something else again. And while many northern European policy-makers may well be silently grateful that the issue of rising refugee pressures (most recently from Syria) is kept out of their country, the fillip it gives to Golden Dawn, the third-largest political grouping in Greece in recent polls, should be a cause for deep alarm right across Europe.

Running v walking

by John Q on April 24, 2013

With the exception of an unnameable region bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean, posts on diet and exercise seem to promote more bitter disputes than any others. So, in the spirit of adventure, I’m going to step away from my usual program of soft and fluffy topics like the bubbliness of bitcoins, the uselessness of navies and the agnotology of climate denial, and tackle the thorny question of running vs walking.

Happily, and unlike, say climate science, this is a question on which you can find a reputable scientific study to support just about any position you care to name, and even some that appear to support both sides, so I’m just going to pick the ones I like, draw the conclusions I want, and invite you all to have it out in the comments thread. I’m also going to attempt the classic move of representing the opposing positions as extremes, relative to which I occupy the sensible centre.

[click to continue…]


by John Holbo on April 23, 2013

A couple weeks back the Mercatus Freedom In The 50 States Index came out and there was much bemusement to be had by most. Matthew Yglesias may be wrong on dragons but he was right, I think, that the exercise holds promise chiefly as a solution to a coalition-building problem: how to “simultaneously preserve libertarianism as a distinct brand and also preserve libertarianism’s strong alliance with social conservatism.” Regular old freedom-loving folk, by contrast, will tend to be left cold.

I thought I would add a footnote to this, and give the CT commentariat an opportunity to weigh in. It might seem that the footnote to add is one of the woolly ones, from Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”: [click to continue…]