From the monthly archives:

September 2014

Sunday photoblogging: Boat, Bristol floating harbour

by Chris Bertram on September 28, 2014

Occupy Central: Civil disobedience in Hong Kong

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 27, 2014

Important developments in Hong Kong, where students and citizens are protesting to get more democratic reforms. According to various internet reports (various posts at the BBC-website, Hufftington, Bloomberg), college and university students went on strike last Monday to protest Beijing’s decision to not allow open nominations for candidates for the 2017 elections in which the leader of Hong Kong would get elected. Protesters are worried that the closed nominations will mainly draw candidates who follow the Beijing line. From the perspective of an outsider, this seems like a textbook case of elections which will not be democratic if nominations themselves are not democratic.

The civil disobedience movement demanding more democracy is known as Occupy Central: the BBC has a short piece on the movement that helpfully explains their demands and gives some background information. Occupy Central is planning a multiple-day sit-in at Hong-Kong’s financial district starting October 1st.

According to the BBC, “most of China’s state-run media outlets have not commented directly on the student-led protests.” Which makes it all the more urgent and important that people-controled media, such as independent blogs like ours, share the news and talk about it. Consider this an open thread, for sharing views, information, insights and updates.

Copyrights and Property Wrongs

by Corey Robin on September 27, 2014

Jeffrey Toobin has a fascinating piece in this week’s New Yorker on the effort of individuals to get information about themselves or their loved ones deleted from the internet.

Toobin’s set piece is a chilling story of the family of Nikki Catsouras, who was decapitated in a car accident in California. The images of the accident were so ghastly that the coroner wouldn’t allow Catsouras’s parents to see the body.

Two employees of the California Highway Patrol, however, circulated photographs of the body to friends. Like oil from a spill, the photos spread across the internet. Aided by Google’s powerful search engine—ghoulish voyeurs could type in terms like “decapitated girl,” and up would pop the links—the ooze could not be contained.

Celebrities who take naked selfies, ex-cons hoping to make a clean start, victims of unfounded accusations, the parents of a woman killed in a gruesome accident: all of us have an interest in not having certain information or images about us or our loved ones shared on the internet. Because it provides such a powerful sluice for the spread of that information or those images, Google has become the natural target of those who wish to protect their privacy from the prying or prurient eyes of the public.

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On Monday, 13 October 2014, at 11.45 am, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics will be announced (yes, we know it is officially the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel but that’s not the focus of this post). Some have said that the prize should go to Thomas Piketty, for his best-selling, important and highly influential book Capital in the twenty-first century. I, too, think this is a great book, for a variety of reasons.

But there is another inequality economist who is at least equally, and arguably much more deserving of the Nobel prize, and that is Anthony B. (Tony) Atkinson. For close readers of Piketty’s work, this claim shouldn’t be surprising, since Piketty credits Atkinson with “being a model for me during my graduate school days, [and Atkinson] was the first reader of my historical work on inequality in France and immediately took up the British case as well as a number of other countries” (Capital, vii). In a recent interview with Nick Pearce and Martin O’Neill which was published in Juncture, Thomas Piketty calls Tony Atkinson “the Godfather of historical studies on income and wealth” (p. 8). So my hunch is that Piketty would endorse the claim that if the Nobel Prize were awarded to welfare economics/inequality measurement, that Atkinson should get the Nobel Prize.
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George Steiner writes somewhere that the deepest source of anti-Semitism may lie in three Jews: Moses, Jesus, and Marx. Three Jews who formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, an almost unforgiving and humanly unbearable ethics/politics, that the rest of the world, whatever their formal embrace of institutionalized Christianity or communism, has repeatedly bridled at and hated. And never forgiven the Jews for. Setting aside the bit of self-congratulation that lies at the heart of that formulation—ah, we Jews, we’re so ethical and righteous—I wonder if some part of what Steiner says may not lie at the heart of the rage and reaction that Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem has elicited over the years. I mean, regardless of what you think of Eichmann‘s arguments, you have to admit: the book does get under people’s skin. And not just for a moment, but for more than a half-century now, with no signs of abating. And that may be, taking my cues from Steiner, that there is something unforgiving at the heart of that book. It is a relentless indictment—not just, pace what Arendt herself said later of the book, of one man, but of many men, and women—an indictment, despite Arendt’s best and professed intentions, in which ordinary readers (ordinary men) can’t help but see themselves. And an indictment in the name of (or at least implicitly and distantly in the name of) a difficult and demanding ethics and politics. An indictment that seems to stir the same kind of reaction to Arendt that historically was stirred up against the Jews. Oh, that Hannah Arendt: she sets herself apart; she thinks she’s smarter than the rest of us; she belongs to no one, not even the Jews. Only this time it’s not the reaction of just non-Jews to Jews, but also of Jews to a Jew. Shana Tova.

Milgram and Kitty Genovese

by Harry on September 24, 2014

In my class today someone made reference to the Kitty Genovese case (it was relevant) and I commented, casually, that I thought that the claim that 30 something people had looked on while Genovese had been discredited. Another student said “oh no, I am revising for a test later today about this” and proceeded to give us the standard account of the case. Here’s Nick Lemann’s New Yorker review of the books that seemingly discredit it.

I sent the students the link, and a different student wrote back that she had thought I was joking in class (they know I do that sometimes) and that as a psychology major she hears about the case in every class she takes. That got me to thinking about the Milgram experiment (which philosophers make much more of than they do of the Genovese case) which, again, seems to me (I say “seems” because I read part of Gina Perry’s book, and have heard her interviewed in depth) also discredited. And made me wonder i) whether anyone has a refutation of Perry’s book but, more, ii) how quickly professors adjust their teaching when findings they have taught as gospel are thoroughly discredited. I was a bit shocked, frankly, that the Genovese case is still being taught as something to be regurgitated in a test, but I am also quite struck by the number of times I have heard philosopher’s call on the Milgram experiment as evidence for some philosophical view, and wondered how long it will take before it is removed from the philosopher’s armoury (and the psychologist’s lectures)

… an Alinskyite!

Unless I’m missing something, Kurtz’ actual argument that Hillary has consistently remained an Alinskyite radical is that, for decades, she has consistently done absolutely nothing whatsoever to suggest this is true – as one would expect! She is, to all appearances, moderate, incrementalist and pragmatic. Just like Barack Obama, who is such a model Alinskyite radical that he is on track to govern for eight years and retire to private life without once doing anything to suggest he’s got a radical bone in his body.

How much more sinister would The Manchurian Candidate have been if the trigger word were never spoken. The sleeper never wakes! (A lone hero tries to warn the world but, because there is literally nothing to warn people about, he is ignored.)

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From derp to denial

by John Quiggin on September 23, 2014

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen four major reports (details over the fold) from very different sources, all making the same point: decarbonizing the world economy will involve economic costs that are
(a) small; and
(b) far outweighed by the benefits
And, the empirical evidence so far is strong. The EU and US have both reduced CO2 emissions significantly, at negligible or even negative economic cost. The measures announced by Obama, including vehicle emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power stations appear set to achieve further substantial reductions, again while yielding net economic benefits.

Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries. Again, the costs have been trivially small: in Australia’s case, made up almost entirely of the reduction in asset value imposed on existing generators.

There is as far as I am aware, no credible analysis to support the opposite claim (call it the economic armageddon hypothesis) that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world. (Again, more detailed argument over the fold.

Nevertheless, past experience suggests that lots of people are sufficiently wedded to the economic armageddon hypothesis that neither this, nor any other evidence will change their minds. I have previously analyzed this unwillingness to respond to evidence in terms of Noah Smith’s Bayesian definition of “derp“: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”.

But I no longer think this is sufficient. A central concept of Bayesian decision theory is the separation of preferences from beliefs. That is, your subjective belief about the probability that a proposition is true should be independent of whether (because you have bet on it, or for some other reason) you want it to be true. This is the opposite of what is often called “motivated reasoning” or, less politely, “wishful thinking”.

This, I think, is the central distinction between “derp” and “denial”. Both involve the rejection of factual evidence that would (to a person without strong preconceptions) be overwhelmingly strong. This must involve strong prior beliefs. Denial differs from derp in that these factual beliefs derive from preferences, and are unlikely to undergo any updating. If anything, denial may be strengthened by evidence of the proposition being denied.

This in turn suggests different possible cures. Derp may eventually, if very slowly, be overcome by an accumulation of evidence. By contrast, denial can only be addressed by changing the source of wishful thinking; for example, by convincing rightwingers to stop being rightwingers.

That brings us to the question of why, if the case is so overwhelming, the political resistance to action on climate change has been so strong, and whether it can be overcome. I have a go at this in another post on my blog, where this one was already posted. It might be worth reading the comments threads to these posts before jumping in here.

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Every single IT guy, every single manager …

by Daniel on September 23, 2014

I’m sure that this point has been made somewhere or other in the general debate on email spying and the NSA/Snowden revelations, but in my opinion not often enough or forcefully enough. People who want to dismiss the whole thing as “no big deal” are, in my view, totally underestimating the scale of the blind trust that’s required of them. In other words, even opponents of ubiquitous surveillance (like Kieran in this worked example) tend to assume that the institution which has access to your information is the institution which collected it. But that’s not necessarily the case at all.

The Leveson Inquiry in the UK demonstrated that the Police National Computer could be accessed by more or less any tabloid journalist with a phone and an account with a crooked detective agency (which served as the conduit to crooked insiders). The Manning and Snowden revelations, whatever else they’ve shown us about the world, have made it clear that mid-level employees can get access to huge amounts of top secret data as long as they’ve got the wit to smuggle it out on a thumb drive.

So the question is not so much “do you trust the CIA/NSA/MI6/etc?”. It’s “Do you trust every single sysadmin working for these organisations? Every single analyst? Every single middle manager?”. The CIA might not be interested at all in my dull mobile phone conversation metadata, but someone else might – the Leveson inquiry was told how the UK’s PNC was used by one copper to check out his daughter’s new boyfriend. In terms of our personal data, the kind of uses which the agencies want to be allowed to make, while worrying enough in themselves, are the tip of the iceberg. And all the policies which might prevent it from being accessed by blackmailers, tabloid journalists, nosey neighbours and basically anyone else, are themselves top secret and not subject to any sort of legal oversight.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory, as you can see; it’s based on the fact that big and complicated systems are set up to malfunction, particularly if they are able to declare themselves above any regulation at all. And the way in which this particular system is set up to malfunction is easily predictable and potentially very damaging to innocent people. I am personally not at the stage where I trust every single person who might be hired for a low level IT job in a security agency, and I’m not sure that I trust an entirely opaque set of safeguards with no accountability either.

You have got to see this

by Maria on September 23, 2014

Feminism, social activism, eye-catching stunt made eye-catching because it’s not a stunt.

About a dozen single mothers kicked out of their hostel in east London have occupied a ‘show-flat’ in the former Olympics estate that Newham Council is trying to flog while it has 24,000 households on its waiting list.
Instead of doing what they were told and being socially cleansed 200 miles away from family, friends, children’s schools and job prospects, these incredible women subverted one of London’s great middle class pleasures, the architectural Open House (I put my hand up, I go on it every year to gawk at other people’s houses), and occupied one of hundreds of empty, new-build flats. They set the place up as a community centre and are campaigning for the council to house the actual people it’s responsible for, showing they are real, articulate people with needs and rights, not a worthless blob of social problems.

Increasingly, I just can’t justify the amount of volunteer time I spend on Internet rights. Yes, we are handing over control of every aspect of our lives to insidiously corrupt and obviously ineffective states, and that is a terrible, terrible thing. But I live in a city of dirty billionaires and hungry children. This made me cry. Something has got to give.

@FocusE15 #occupiedE15

Thomas Piketty has power that heterodox economists never had

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 22, 2014

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am an apostate of the economics discipline. When I was 17, I wanted to study something that would be useful to help make the world a better place. I thought that economics would meet that requirement, and it also seemed natural since I always had a strong interest in politics, in particular the question how to organize society. For reasons explained here, I eventually gave up the hope that economics (as I studied it in the 1990s) could give me that knowledge, and diverted to political theory/philosophy and later also ethics, where I’ve been happy ever since.

But for the first time since many years, I felt a shiver of regret for having left economics – and that was when in April this year I started reading Capital in the Twenty-first Century, the best-selling book by Thomas Piketty. Reading Capital was a great intellectual adventure, while at the same time enjoyable to read (many have said the translator, Arthur Goldhammer, deserves part of the latter credits). It is hard for academic economics to evoke positive feelings in its readers, but Capital did so with me for at least two reasons.
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Workplace Freedom: A Primer for Alan Dershowitz

by Henry on September 22, 2014

Alan Dershowitz “expresses his opinion”: on academic freedom, the Salaita case, and why UIUC natural scientists appear to have been less likely than social scientists and humanities people to support him.

bq. Some, including Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who backed Summers and opposed the tenure bid of Norman Finkelstein, the controversial former political scientist at DePaul University, have a more cynical take. Dershowitz said that in his experience, academics working in STEM tend, “in general, to be more objective and principled, and those in the humanities tend to be ideologues and results-oriented, and believe it’s the appropriate role of the scholar to use his or her podium to propagandize students.” Dershowitz said he believed personal opinion had influenced how those human sciences viewed both the Salaita and Summers cases, and that scientists were likelier to examine the evidence impartially. “I would bet anything that 99 percent of the people who are demanding that [Salaita] be restored tenure would be on the exact opposite side of this if he’d been making pro-Israel but equally uncivil statements,” he said.

There is a very strong case to be made against “results oriented” ideologues in the academy but I think that it isn’t quite the case that Dershowitz is making.
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Jim Henley needs your help

by Henry on September 21, 2014

People who’ve been reading this blog for a long time won’t need to be told who Jim Henley is. He’s been blogging longer than we have (if we’re a product of the mid-Cretaceous, he’s been doing it since the early Jurassic). He’s also a wonderful guy. And he’s been dealing with a recurrence of his cancer, the loss of his job when his employer went under, the need to pay medical and transport bills and keep his equally wonderful family going. In short, he could use your help. If you would like to provide it, please go here.

Expand your perspective

by Eszter Hargittai on September 21, 2014

The very insightful Ethan Zuckerman recently gave a convocation speech at his alma mater, Williams College. While his specific angle was not about this, I read it as a nice call for the importance of international students on campus, and of studying abroad (among other things).

One of the things I’ve learned in my research is that it’s much easier to pay attention to people than to places. If there’s someone you care about who’s from Haiti, if you’ve had the chance to travel there and meet people from Haiti, you’ll watch the news differently. You’ll have a connection to that place, a context for a story you hear. The events will be more real to you because Haiti is more real to you through the people you know there.

It is important though that international student recruitment not be restricted to international students who can pay full tuition. Personally, I remain extremely grateful to Smith College for its generous support of international student financial aid. When I was applying to US colleges from Hungary in the early 90s, it was the only school that came even close to offering enough aid to allow me to study in the US.

By the way, if you haven’t read Ethan’s book Rewire, you should. It’s a quick and very pleasant read with lots of interesting material and important insights on just how not connected we are in meaningful ways despite infrastructural connections.

Sunday Photoblogging: On The Water

by Belle Waring on September 21, 2014

Sailboat and biplane!