From the monthly archives:

October 2013

Economics as a moral science

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2013

For a while I have been working on a paper on democracy, expert knowledge, and economics as a moral science. [The financial crisis plays a role in the motivation of the paper, but the arguments I’m advancing turn out to be only contingently related to the crisis]. One thing I argue is that, given its direct and indirect influence on policy making and for reasons of democratic accountability, economics should become much more aware of the values it (implicitly or explicitly) endorses. Those values are embedded in some of the basis concepts used but also in some of the assumptions in the theory-building.

The textbook example in the philosophy of economics literature to illustrate the insufficiently acknowledged value-ladenness of economics is the notion of Pareto efficiency, also known as ‘the Pareto criterion’. Yet time and time again (for me most recently two days ago at a seminar in Oxford) I encounter economists (scholars or students) who fail to see why endorsing Pareto efficiency is not value-neutral, or why there are good reasons why one would not endorse the Pareto-criterion. Here’s an example in print of a very influential economist: Gregory Mankiw.
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Surprising support for the Post-Crash Economics Society

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2013

Economics students from the University of Manchester have set up the Post-Crash Economics Society. The subtitle of their website summarizes their mission:

The world has changed, the syllabus hasn’t – is it time to do something about it?

I am probably getting old but in any case can’t suppress a déjà-vu feeling.

Paris June 2000.
Cambridge University June 2001.
The Kansas City Proposal August 2001.
Harvard University November 2011.

and there surely were more that I don’t recall.

Yet what’s interesting is that the Post-Crash group get strong support from a surprising corner. Is there someone out here/there who can tell us what an ‘early day motion’ in British Parliament precisely means, politically?

There is no crisis in crisis-mongering

by Eric on October 31, 2013

The New York Times tells us today that undergraduate interest in the humanities is fading. The basis for the claim is the reduction in interest at Stanford, where the humanities claim 45 percent of the faculty but only 15 percent of the students, and Harvard, which has seen a 20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last ten years.

But Stanford and Harvard are both special cases, and Stanford is especially special.

And as my co-blogger Ari Kelman points out, the overall numbers for the humanities don’t look like they’re in quite a crisis. As Ari says, “in 1970-1971, 17.1% of students who received BAs in the United States majored in a humanities discipline. Three decades later, in the midst of the crisis in the humanities we hear so much about, that number had plummeted to 17%.”

Ari’s numbers come from the National Center for Education Statistics, which shows something more genuinely resembling a crisis in the social sciences, which over the same period have gone from 23% of bachelor’s degrees to 16.4% of bachelor’s degrees.

But the NYT article is right about one thing – some administrators and faculty sure want there to be a crisis in the humanities, because that means they can cut the humanities.

A graph of the NCES data appears below the fold. Clearly the big growth area is undergraduate business and “other” majors. [click to continue…]

Compliments Shall Pass

by Henry Farrell on October 30, 2013

I don’t usually link to the bits and pieces of media that I do – it’s for a different audience than the CT audience. But I’ll be doing the “Warren Olney show”: tomorrow, and it promises to be … lively – the other guests are Stewart Baker, Josef Joffe and Joseph Wippl (a former CIA security professor, who I don’t know). Wish me luck.

Web of Fear 2.0

by Harry on October 30, 2013

The Web of Fear: Episode 4, at 1.13, you get the first, known, extant, moving image of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. At 8.13, he establishes why he will be with the Doctor for the rest of his life.

What are you doing on November 23rd (assuming you are not in the UK)? I’m considering buying basic cable for a single month. The eldest daughter is pushing hard, and time is ebbing away.

Can you get students to read your comments?

by Harry on October 30, 2013

I’m in the middle of grading papers. I started, a while ago, grading the electronic files using Word’s reviewing capacity (track changes and comments). This results in i) it taking much longer, because I make many more comments and ii) my comments and editing being potentially useful because they are actually legible (which they never were before). So, this is potentially very good for the students. But: I have no idea whether they actually read the comments (especially because I make it fairly clear that I am not interested in what their grades are, only in whether they learn a lot, so very rarely get to listen to students who challenge their grades). I just had an idea: I could withhold their grades until they return the paper to me, with a response to every single comment I made. The comment could just be: “ok”. I simply want a mechanism for making them read the comments. Has anyone else done this? Or does anyone have some reliable mechanism for making them read comments?

When Richard Nixon Met Karl Polanyi

by Corey Robin on October 30, 2013

In 1969, while he was working on Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, which would have guaranteed an income of $1600 plus $800 in food stamps to every family of four, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was deputized by Nixon to investigate the historical accuracy of one of Karl Polanyi’s claims in The Great Transformation.

Polanyi had famously argued that Britain’s Speenhamland system—like Nixon’s plan, it would have guaranteed an annual income to poor families, regardless of whether they worked or not—had the perverse effect of making the poor poorer. Reiterating claims made by Marx and Engels, Polanyi wrote that Speenhamland allowed, even encouraged, employers to hire workers at below-subsistence wages (the poor were guaranteed an income regardless of whether they worked). Because workers would start losing their income  supports once they earned more than a subsistence wage, and because employers were more than happy to have local parishes supplement or subsidize wages, Speenhamland effectively put a cap on wages. Productivity went down, and with it, poor rates and income supports.  The long-term result, said Polanyi, was increased immiseration among the poor.

Few people have attended to Polanyi’s caveat that had the working poor not been prohibited by the Anti-Combination Laws of 1799-1800 from organizing themselves they might have been able to reverse these effects. (Admittedly, that point only gets a passing mention in Polanyi’s chapters on Speenhamland.) Instead, his argument has been taken as Exhibit A of Albert Hirschman’s perversity thesis: policies designed to achieve positive ends, particularly when those ends relate to the poor, often produce the opposite of their aims. (Hirschman himself made a nod to these linkages.)

When Nixon began mooting his version of Speenhamland in the early part of 1969, talk of perversity (in all senses) was very much in the air. In mid-April, the economist Martin Anderson—then a White House staffer, but previously a devotee of Ayn Rand; Anderson has also been credited with bringing Alan Greenspan, another Randian, into government—prepared a report on the history of poor assistance, which was essentially little more than a series of extracts about Speenhamland from The Great Transformation.

So troubled was Nixon by this history that he had Moynihan personally undertake an assessment of Polanyi’s findings. Moynihan set his staff right to it, resulting in a team of bureaucrats surveying all the most up-to-date historical literature on Speenhamland.

As Fred Block and Margaret Somers—from whose wonderfully informative 2003 article in Politics & Society, “In the Shadow of Speenhamland: Social Policy and the Old Poor Law,” I have cribbed this story—concluded:

The Family Assistance Plan was ultimately defeated in the U.S. Senate but only after Richard Nixon had a conversation about the work of Karl Polanyi.

Academics for hire

by Henry Farrell on October 29, 2013

The Nation “ran a story about academics for hire”: a few days ago. Its opening paragraphs:

Professor Todd Zywicki is vying to be the toughest critic of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the new agency set up by the landmark Dodd-Frank financial reform law to monitor predatory lending practices. In research papers and speeches, Zywicki not only routinely slams the CFPB’s attempts to regulate bank overdraft fees and payday lenders; he depicts the agency as a “parochial” bureaucracy that is “guaranteed to run off the rails.” He has also become one of the leading detractors of the CFPB’s primary architect, Elizabeth Warren, questioning her seminal research on medical bankruptcies and slamming her for once claiming Native American heritage to gain “an edge in hiring.” …

What isn’t contained in Zywicki’s university profile, CV, byline or congressional testimony is the law professor’s other job: he is a director of the Global Economics Group, a consulting business that boasts in a brochure that its experts have been hired by industry to influence the CFPB and other regulatory agencies. Nor does Zywicki advertise Global’s client list, which includes some of the biggest names in the financial industry, among them Visa, Bank of America and Citigroup.

Last summer, Zywicki’s firm was retained for $500 an hour on behalf of Morgan Drexen, a debt-relief company accused by the CFPB of deceiving consumers and charging illegal upfront fees. None of these potential conflicts of interest, however, have been disclosed during the course of Zywicki’s anti-CFPB advocacy in the media or in government. … While sponsored research groups are something of a mainstay of Beltway lobbying campaigns, Dodd-Frank has created unique incentives for companies to hire professors to represent their point of view.

Many CT readers will be familiar with Professor Zywicki’s blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy. Which leads to a question that I would be interested to see Professor Zywicki answer (perhaps in the context of a more general response to the Nation article, which I had expected him to have written already – hence my delay in putting up this post). Has Professor Zywicki ever billed any clients of the Global Economics Group, or anyone else with whom he has a financial relationship, for blogposts on the Volokh Conspiracy or for other and/or more general forms of blogging activity?

While it’s hardly dispositive, if one “searches the VC on relevant terms”:, Zywicki blogs actively and enthusiastically on topics directly connected to the paid advocacy agenda that Fang discusses in his article. Very likely, this is simply because he has strong beliefs about these topics. Yet it would be good to know the one way or the other. As an occasional reader of the Volokh Conspiracy, I’d read his blogging differently if it were being directly underwritten by clients of the expertise-and-advocacy-for-hire group that he works with, and I imagine that other readers would too. If he hasn’t in fact billed anyone in this way, I’ll be happy to publish any statement as an addendum to this post.

As an aside, if one wants to read more on academia-for-hire, Zywicki’s bete-noire, Elizabeth Warren “wrote a very good piece”: before she went into politics.

Update: At this stage, I think it’s reasonable to surmise that Professor Zywicki, for whatever reason, prefers to leave people draw their own conclusions than to clarify whether he has, or has not, blogged for hire without disclosing it. So it goes.

The Reason I Jump

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 27, 2013

Recently I read the book The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism. This is a very unusual book, for both its content and its format. The writer, Naoki Higashida, wrote this book when he was 13. It consists of 58 questions and answers that give a picture of autism from the inside – and this time not from one of the few people with autism who are also verbally strong (often people with Asperger’s), but written by a boy who has sever communication problems. He wrote the book using an alphabet grid; a helper can then transcribe what he wants to tell us.

Naoki gives answers to questions such as “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” or “Why do you take ages to answer questions?” or “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” – and the question that gave the book it’s title “What’s the reason you jump?”. The answers are highly interesting and revelatory of the autistic mind – at least, of one autistic mind. It takes ages to answer a question because “by the time it’s our turn to speak, the reply we wanted to make has often upped and vanished from our heads … and all the while, we’re being bombarded by yet more questions. I end up thinking, this is just hopeless. It’s as if I’m drowning in a flood of words.” [his italics]. And the reason he jumps? “When something happens that affects me emotionally, my body seizes up as if struck by lightening. … it means I am not free to move the way I want.” [click to continue…]

You shall know their names

by Eric on October 25, 2013

California just hit up the Koch brothers for a million bucks. The Koch brothers haven’t admitted hiding behind shell outfits while throwing scads of dollars at initiatives meant to break unions and block tax increases in the Golden State, but the fine is part of a settlement in a case launched to find out if they did so hide and throw.

The California group opposed to public goods wanted big money, so they went to the Kochs on the ground that “nobody in California would want to do this[.]” They appear to have viewed the Kochs as a right-wing money milch cow: “dealing with the Koch network … availability of funds never crossed our mind.”

I love with an unseemly passion the – hastily? purposely? sleepily? – inept redaction that allows the Sacramento Bee to make informed guesses about the other donors to the cause of destroying the state parks and public schools as well as killing labor. These guesses include the family that owns the Gap and “Ventura County businessman Gene Haas, who.… served 16 months in a halfway house in 2008 and 2009 after pleading to conspiracy to commit tax evasion.”

The tax increase that passed is the one that led to the state’s celebrated balanced budget. The million dollar fine might help balance the budget a little, too. Maybe we should hope for some more feckless and shady out of state donations, followed by more fines – then perhaps we could restore California’s public services, including her great universities, to the people who live here instead of eroding them to please ideologues from elsewhere.

The macro foundations of microeconomics

by John Q on October 25, 2013

Twitter alerted me to an amusing exchange between Chris Auld, posting a list of “18 signs you’re reading bad criticism of economics and Unlearning Economics, responding with 18 Signs Economists Haven’t the Foggiest. UL suggests that Stephen Williamson manages an impressive 9 out of 18 in his review of Zombie Economics (my response here with more from Noah Smith.

Scoring myself against Chris Auld’s list, I’d say I’m in the clear. But quite a few commenters on Zombie Economics have made complaints along the lines of his point 1, that I focus too much on macroeconomics (and finance). The implication is that, even if macro is totally wrong, only a minority of economists do it, and microeconomists are in the clear.

This defense doesn’t work, at least not in general.

[click to continue…]

Edmund Burke, Welfare King

by Corey Robin on October 24, 2013

Some day someone should write an essay on the struggles of Edmund Burke in his final years to overcome his considerable debts—some £30,000—by securing a peerage and a pension from the Crown.

Throughout his career, Burke’s financial state had been precarious. Much to his embarrassment, he was periodically forced to rely upon well timed gifts and loans from his wealthier friends and patrons.

So terrified was he of dying in a debtor’s prison that he struggled in his retirement to learn Italian. His hope, claimed one of the many visitors at his estate, was to flee England and “end his days with tollerable Ease in Italy.” (He also floated, apparently, the possibility of fleeing to Portugal or America.) “I cannot quite reconcile my mind to a prison,” he  told a friend.

Thanks to the interventions of his well connected friends, in August 1795 Burke secured from Pitt two annuities that would wipe out his debts and a pension that, along with an additional pension and the income from his estate, would enable him and his wife to live in comfort into their old age.

Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.”

(Thanks to David Kaib for this post’s title.)

The Moderate and the McCarthyite

by Corey Robin on October 23, 2013

In the New York Times today, John G. Taft, who is the grandson of Robert Taft, makes his contribution to the growing “Oh, conservatives used to be so moderate, now they’re just radicals and crazies” literature that The Reactionary Mind was supposed to consign to the dustbin of history. (You can see how successful I’ve been.)

Having written about and against this thesis of conservatism’s Golden Age so many times, I don’t think it’s useful for me to rehearse my critique here. Instead, I’ll focus on one important tidbit of Taft’s argument, in the hope that a little micro-history about his grandfather might serve to correct our macro-history of conservatism.

Here’s what Taft says: [click to continue…]

The state of Georgia will move the statue of populist hero and white supremacist demagogue Tom Watson from its prominent spot near the state capitol. Beautifully, the state claims it’s nothing to do with politics.

“This is just part of an ongoing project to renovate the steps around the State Capitol,” said Paul Melvin, a Georgia Building Authority spokesman. “We’re moving the statue because of the construction. To move it back would be a prohibitive cost that’s not in the budget.”

Republican state representative Tommy Benton sees it differently and blames, well, “them.”

“They’re attempting to whitewash history so that only the things that are pertinent to them are remembered,” Mr. Benton said. “I’m not a big fan of William Sherman’s, but I’m not out there protesting his statues in other states because he did $100 million worth of damage in Georgia.”

The New York Times does its readers a disservice by failing to mention that at the time the vandal William Sherman did this terrible property damage to Georgia, the state was treasonably waging war on the United States of America in defense of slavery. (Tom Watson, who merely supported an unconstitutional form of racial segregation with viciously bigoted rhetoric, was a piker compared to supporters of the rebellion.) Whatever his many failings, Sherman did defend the republic of the United States against the acts of traitors. It is a pity an elected official of the Republican party cannot describe himself as a fan.

The Politics of Hypocrisy

by Henry Farrell on October 23, 2013

Two responses, following up on what other people have been saying about hypocrisy.

First, Dan Drezner on France’s decision to haul in the US ambassador to complain about US spying.

The touchstone for hypocrisy in popular culture is this scene from Casablanca, in which Claude Rains’ character, Captain Reynaud, closes Rick’s bar on the flimsiest of pretenses. I bring this up because of Glenn Greenwald’s revelations in Le Monde that the NSA has been spying, like, a lot, on France. Here at FP, Shane Harris and John Hudson have noted that the French are shocked about these revelations. The question is whether they’re genuinely shocked… or Claude Rains shocked. In the New York Times, Alissa Rubin’s reportage suggest the latter

This seems to me to miss the important aspects of the story. What is interesting is not whether France (or Mexico, or Brazil, or Germany) is being hypocritical in pretending to be shocked at what the US is doing. It’s whether their response (hypocritical as it may be) has real political consequences. And it surely does. The decision of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to cancel a state visit to the US (and start to disentangle Brazil from what had been an increasingly cooperative relationship) is one example. I have few doubts that if Rousseff had had the option, she would have preferred to have ignored US spying, and gone on with the visit and the burgeoning relationship. But she didn’t have that choice (or at least, it would have been domestically very costly). Similarly, the EU Parliament’s decision on Monday to reinstate rules restricting personal data transfer to the US are a direct response to the Snowden revelations. It is going to be tough for European governments to push back on these rules, even though they would probably like to, because they’re going to face a public outcry if they do. France can’t summon the US ambassador to ream him out about NSA surveillance one day, and effectively accede to NSA surveillance the next. However hypocritical this behavior is, it has consequences.

Second, Joshua Foust interprets our piece as evidence that Snowden is indeed intent on damaging America, rather than securing civil liberties.

Seen this way, you could envision all of these disclosures from Snowden not to be a defense of civil liberties — the documents moved past that a while ago. And it is important to remember: the NSA is legally obligated to surveil foreign communications — that is its explicit purpose as constructed by U.S. law. Rather, they are an attack on the very existence and behavior of the U.S. intelligence community. That may be something some of the most ardent anti-NSA activists, such as Glenn Greenwald, are comfortable doing. But it should raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions among those who merely want reform. Putting the U.S. at a stark disadvantage compared to its most active rivals and competitors — neither Russia nor China face nearly as much scrutiny in their intelligence activities, for example — is difficult to see as anything other than an attack on the U.S., not a defense of anyone’s rights.

This seems to me to be basically mistaken. If Snowden, or Greenwald, were looking simply to ‘attack’ the US, they would be behaving in very different ways. It is pretty clear that they are (or, in Snowden’s case, were) sitting on a hoard of material, some of which is potentially far more damaging to US intelligence (by revealing methodologies etc) than anything they have revealed. What they have chosen to reveal is embarrassing, and revelatory of US hypocrisy, rather than striking at the heart of NSA methodologies. You may like this, or dislike this, depending on your political druthers. But it is far closer to the kinds of actions that human rights NGOs engage in than the kinds of action that spies do. NGOs are under few illusions about governments’ profound commitment to human rights, civil liberties and so on – most governments, much of the time, are prepared to water these commitments down where it is expedient, when they do not abandon them altogether. So what NGOs do is to play the politics of hypocrisy against states, strategically revealing hypocritical behavior so as to embarrass governments into behaving better. Snowden’s and Greenwald’s actions seem to fit very well into this framework. Arguing that China and Russia don’t face “nearly as much scrutiny” is belaboring the obvious fact that it’s tougher to use the politics of embarrassment and hypocrisy against non-democracies than democracies.