From the monthly archives:

April 2015

What Did Pippin Tell Denethor?

by John Holbo on April 18, 2015

I’m reading The Lord of the Rings to our daughters. (Famous trilogy of fantasy novels, in case you’ve been in a coma since 1953 and are just checking Crooked Timber to see what’s new.) Last night we began The Return of the King. One thing that happens at a couple points is our heroes narrate the tale of their travels to someone they meet, without fully revealing the true nature/purpose of the Fellowship (Merry and Pippin when they first meet Treebeard; Frodo to Faramir; Pippin to Denethor). Obviously Tolkien summarizes his way past these points, since the reader doesn’t need to hear it all again. But it’s impossible to imagine what Pippin actually said. He couldn’t tell Denethor 1) they’ve got the ring; 2) the goal of the fellowship; 3) the existence/identity of Aragorn; 4) the meaning of ‘Isildur’s Bane’.

‘Now tell me your tale, my liege,’ said Denethor, half kindly, half mockingly. ‘For the words of one whom my son so befriended will be welcome indeed.’

Pippin never forgot that hour in the great hall under the piercing eye of the Lord of Gondor, stabbed ever and anon by his shrewd questions, and all the while conscious of Gandalf at his side, watching and listening, and (so Pippin felt) holding in check a rising wrath and impatience. When the hour was over and Denethor again rang the gong, Pippin felt worn out. ‘It cannot be more than nine o’clock,’ he thought. ‘I could now eat three breakfasts on end.’

So here’s your challenge. What did Pippin tell to the shrewd Denethor for an hour? Narrate the tale of how and why Pippin and three other hobbits left the Shire in haste, traveled to Rivendell, Lothlorien, etc., without mentioning any of the things he has promised Galdalf he won’t. Here’s my best shot. Pippin tells Denethor ‘Isuldur’s Bane’ is some sort of exotic brand-name pipeweed Elrond is looking to score. He knows hobbits are into pipeweed, so he sent for them from the Shire. But they didn’t have any. So he sent them out to score it for him, and someone heard maybe there was a dealer in the Mines of Moria. But that didn’t work out. Meanwhile, Saruman and Sauron have this wrong idea that the hobbits are themselves pipeweed dealers, since orcs overheard them asking around after ‘Isuldur’s Bane’, and so …

If you’ve got a more plausible, false explanation for the Fellowship, I’d like to hear it. Pippin must be one hell of a liar.

For quite a few years now, I’ve been working on a response to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, a defence of free-market economics first published in 1946, but still in print and popular among libertarians. Hazlitt, as he says, is essentially just reworking Bastiat’s analysis of opportunity cost, represented by the broken window parable. What I’m trying to do is take the idea of opportunity cost seriously, and apply it across the board, including to issues of income distribution and property rights. It’s obvious (to me, at any rate) that any allocation of property rights to one or more people has an opportunity cost, namely the benefits that could be realised if the property rights were allocated to someone else. This is a live issue when property rights are being created explicitly right now, as they are with various kinds of intellectual property. But it is just as relevant when we come to consider the historical origins of property. I’ve spent a fair bit of time debating the question of whether property rights have a basis (say, in natural law) for existence independent of the states or governments that typically define and enforce them. I don’t want to talk about that issue right now, but it explains why I’m taking an interest in (I think) the most prominent proponent of natural law in relation to property, John Locke.

It’s a long time since I read Locke and, at the time, I was mostly concerned with Hume’s objection that

there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice.

That’s true of course. But rereading Locke[^1] I now conclude that he is not offering a theory of original acquisition, but rather one of expropriation, designed specifically to justify the “fraud and injustice” to which Hume refers.

(Update: Read to the end of comments, around 90, for references to the current literature, showing that the link between Locke and the need to justify expropriation in the context of American colonisation was even more direct than suggested in this post)
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The Pace Picante Sauce Defense

by Belle Waring on April 16, 2015

Oh God, I don’t even think this is funny enough to have a vaguely humorous headline. Let’s just say it’s black humour goddammmit mordant. You may have lost track of which black man got gunned down by which police just lately, but historically famed home of racial harmony Tulsa, OK, has seen one of the worst shootings in a while. (I say this and then I don’t even know because there are so many that are so bad. This is bad in a special way, though.). 73-year-old reserve Deputy Robert C. Bates shot and killed Eric Harris during an undercover, illegal gun-buy sting operation.

Well, more like Eric Harris ran from the for-real county deputies when they tried to arrest him, then two of them got on top of him while he was face-down on the ground, then Barney Fife shouts “taser, taser!” and shoots the man. “Oh! I shot him, I’m sorry!” he says. He’s apologising to the other cops, you understand. Not the guy he just shot. To be over-generously fair, he owes them an apology too because his dumb ass might have shot them as easy as anything, but it hardly seems like the main problem. (You can watch the video here. I can’t handle these usually, but there’s a description too if you don’t want to watch an actual human be mortally wounded and then treated worse than an injured dog.) The Tulsa County Sheriff’s spokesman has explained that the two deputies “did not hear” the shot. [Um. I have uh… Guns are loud, is what I’m saying.] They did hear Eric Harris say he had been shot, because they heard him say “he shot me” eight times before saying “I’m losing my breath,” to which the cop replies, “fuck your breath.” They were kneeling on the man’s head and his lung was filling up with blood and that was the last he ever heard from another human being. My daughter and I have asthma and that makes this particularly vivid and awful to imagine, just like with Eric Garner, struggling just to get one good intake of breath. They didn’t try to render first aid to him. When the EMTs/firemen came they had to uncuff him and set him upright to try to help him but it was too late. What? Even if you thought you were justified in shooting someone, why would you be indifferent as to whether he lived or died? And if there were any question in your mind…wouldn’t you want the person to live?
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Whosoever Diggeth a Pit Shall Fall in It

by Belle Waring on April 15, 2015

People often complain that they can never listen to Bob Marley because the over-popularity of the compilation “Legend,” and its subsequent over-play in every randos college dorm room, every frat party, and every back-packer hostel, everywhere in the world. It is incongruous to sit on a big bamboo platform in Cambodia and listen to “Buffalo Soldier.” I’m sure this is no longer true and today’s college kids can have a happy experience in which they just find the song “No Woman, No Cry” all on their own. I hope. I am somewhat permanently inoculated because I listened to those songs when I was a kid. And for god’s sake, “No Woman, No Cry” is a beautiful song. But anyway, if all this bothers you for some reason, you don’t have to say “lively up your own self, Bob Marley. I’m listening to Desmond Dekker!” Just listen to different, other Bob Marley songs. I actually had this first one cued up for a post about how to not comment like a sexist dillweed, but I’m sure I’ll find something else. Small Axe, baby, coming to cut you down!

Mr. Brown!

Mr. Brown is some kind of ghost/duppy/magic user creepo getting chauffered around in a three-wheeled coffin, with crows that can talk. The sampling style is all spooky to reflect that it’s a ghost story.

High Tide or Low Tide is my favorite Bob Marley song. At my dad’s the difference between high tide and low tide is almost eight feet. So the high twice a day and low twice a day is vividly present as part of the day. Day by day it cycles one hour later, with cool high tide covering all but the tips of the marsh grass at 3pm sometimes, and then, not so many days later, the smell of vegetable rot and death-still calm of low tide at the hottest of the day. The leaves of the palmetto hang down against one another, creaking leatherly but not moving, and a great wide greasy stain of unmoving water shows at the center of the river and centipede-like sending legs up every marsh. When I was young my god-father’s black labs were named high tide and low tide. This is also the song my brother put on a mix for me when I was really bummed out, so it reminds me that he loves me.

Take that, frat-boys!

Sunday photoblogging: rent protest!

by Chris Bertram on April 12, 2015

Yesterday morning there was a protest near my house in Bristol against a letting agent who has been pushing for rent increases, the story made the national press. Here’s my photo:

Codes of conduct and the trade-offs of copyleft

by Sumana Harihareswara on April 10, 2015

A lot of [open stuff]( — such as the Wikimedia/Wikipedia and Linux projects — are discussing or adopting codes of conduct, or expanding their existing policies. I’ll reveal my biases at the start and say I think this is a good thing; for more, read my speech [“Hospitality, Jerks, and What I Learned”](,_Jerks,_and_What_I_Learned). But in this piece, I want to talk about the similarities and differences between codes of conduct and a set of agreements that some of these communities are more used to: “copyleft” or other restrictive software licenses. And I’d like to draw out some ways that the kinds of acts and artifacts that these policies cover reveal different attitudes towards contracts and governance.
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Ritchie Benaud is dead

by Harry on April 10, 2015

Guardian obit here.
Great leg spinner, truly great captain, but for my generation known, with Arlott, as one of the two greatest commentators.
Can you imagine an English commentator, even Arlott, criticizing the England team like this:

His final moments of Ashes test commentary:

National-weighted consequentialism?

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2015

I’ve been looking again at a [two-year-old discussion on immigration policy between Jonathan Portes and Martin Wolf](, and particularly on Wolf’s take on the reasons that ought to inform policy. As far as I can tell, Wolf’s position is a kind of national-weighted consequentialism. Immigration policy is to be viewed as an aspect of economic policy, and the relevant considerations are simply whether a policy is beneficial to existing members of society, with no weight to be given to the interests of immigrants. Portes raises the interesting objection that, once we factor time into our national felicific calculus, then the well-being of future members who have yet to be naturalized ought to count, but this is a mere wrinkle in the argument. Wolf’s view is that

> countries are like clubs. They can decide who members are. Once you are a member, you matter to the club. If you are not a member, you don’t.

I hope that Wolf doesn’t mean what he says. The disanology between clubs and countries is pretty stark, since countries are compulsory associations which most people don’t have a choice about, whereas clubs are not. Moreover, most people think that countries do not have an unlimited discretion to decide on who their members are, that Nazi laws to remove citizenship from Jews were unjust, that policies that are blatantly discriminatory on racial or gender lines have no moral standing, whatever the insider electors think. We also, I hope, think that laws that condemn generations of minority permanent residents to non-membership — until recently a feature of German citizenship law — are unjust. So at best Wolf must mean that countries have a discretion to admit as members outsiders with no other moral claim to admission or membership.

The interesting question, then, when we have got the discretionary membership issue out of the way is what could justify national-weighted consequentialism? Whilst there might be all kinds of deontological reasons for states to favour insiders over outsiders (the global justice literature is about little else), in my experience, economists don’t think in those terms. Rather, they think of themselves as being consequentialists all the way down, and of rights, powers, permissions etc as being ultimately justified by outcomes. If I’m right that this is the picture, then the claim would have to be that a global system of nationally-weighted consequentialisms, perhaps by assigning the promotion of individual interests to particular states, gives rise to the best consequences overall. That’s an empirical claim, but one that is very very unlikely to be true since it locks so many people away from opportunities they would otherwise have to be productive and makes the world a poorer place as a result. So I’m still puzzled. What do *economists* think justifies national-weighted consequentialism?

Rank Delusions

by John Quiggin on April 9, 2015

That’s the title of a piece I had in the Chronicle of Higher Education in February. CHE is paywalled, but they kindly agree to let me republish here, after a suitable interval. The article (or at least a near final version) is over the fold.

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An Official Language from a Foreign Land

by Juliet Sorensen on April 9, 2015

What are the merits of an official language that is no one’s mother tongue?

I asked myself that question on a recent trip to Mali, where French is the one and only official language of the country. French is the language of instruction from elementary through graduate school, the language of court proceedings and official documents. But according to linguists, Mali has no less than 66 languages spoken across its vast plain.

The result is that in addition to one’s native language, whether that be Bambara, Fulani or otherwise, French is spoken by any Malian with any significant level of education. Unfortunately, that is not an overwhelming percentage of the population: as projected by UNESCO, 62 percent of Malians are illiterate, and only 39.5 percent have enrolled in school beyond primary education. The official language of the homeland is thus incomprehensible and inaccessible to these many people.

Many Malians have assured me that there is an upside to their official language: it is predictable and uniform, without favoring one native language or local group over another. To be sure, French is the language of Mali’s colonial past: France governed Mali as a colony from 1892 to 1960, when Mali and France agreed peacefully to Mali’s independence. While one might assume that this translates into present-day resentment, in Mali, yesterday’s colonizer is today’s ally: in January 2013, the French led a military campaign called Operation Serval to stop Islamist rebels aiming to take over the country. According to a poll conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in February 2013, 97 percent of Malians approved of the French intervention.

So perhaps an official non-native language is a useful thing. Nonetheless, the problem of illiteracy and inaccessibility remains. For these reasons, the role of local news organizations broadcasting in local languages is vital. In Douentza, where we work, the local public radio station broadcasts the day’s news in Fulani- the most widely spoken language in the area- daily at 6 p.m. Founded in 1993, Rural Radio Daande Douentza was originally founded to provide local residents with information about politics, democracy, and rights. In addition, the station offers programming on health, agricultural work, the environment, social issues, local and international news, local announcements and plenty of local and national music.

One official language and lots of Radio Daandes? Seems like a workable arrangement.RuralRadioDouentza

Religious liberty and the Romance of Orthodoxy

by John Holbo on April 9, 2015

“This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.” – G.K. Chesterton

Long post, hastily hammered. I’m hammering, specifically, a Rod Dreher post, since (I admit) I have become quite addicted to watching him chew the theological scenery re: the Indiana stuff. But, in criticizing, I’m not just piling on with more pizza parlor people snark, I hope. I think he’s confused, but what he says does raise interesting issues. I will attempt to be only mildly sarcastic around the edges, in the hopes of good conversation all round.

Dreher writes: [click to continue…]

The inevitability of red tape

by John Quiggin on April 7, 2015

Following up on Eric’s response to the Paul Campos piece blaming administrative bloat for rising tuition, I thought I would repost this piece from my own blog (feel free to ignore, or respond to, the opening allusion to Oz politics).

I have a piece in The Guardian pointing out that the Abbott government’s Red Tape Reduction program is basically cover for a couple of big measures benefit the mining and gambling industries.

A bigger question raised by the piece: why does bureaucracy and red tape seem to grow without limits? Anyone who has ever worked as an academic, faced with a proliferation of pro-vice-chancellors, executive deans and multiple layers of hierarchy has certainly asked this question, and there’s nothing unusual about academics. The uselessness of administrators is the central theme of the comic strip Dilbert, popular in offices around the world.

The obvious explanations are
(a) stupidity; and
(b) administrative bloat benefits administrators and they are the ones who make the decisions

I don’t think either of these works adequately. Stupidity is certainly common, but the phenomenon is too pervasive to be explained in this way. As regards administrative self-interest, the problem is that senior executives could potentially gain a lot by cutting mid-level bureaucracy, and many have tried (remember ‘flatter organizations’ and ‘lean and mean’).

My own hypothesis is that every big mistake (for example, an undetected embezzlement or a mishandled episode of harassment) produces a permanent bureaucratic response designed to prevent a recurrence. This is very costly to reverse (who wants to deal with the first big embezzlement just after they downsized the accounting department) even if it would, in some sense, be less costly to put up with occasional failures. Moreover, for both good and bad reasons, I think we are, as a society, becoming less tolerant of institutional failures across a wide range of activities (systematic wrongdoing by financial institutions is a major counterexample but, I think, exceptional). So, we have more checks and balances, and more bureaucrats to enforce them.

Paul Campos writes in the New York Times about what he claims is the “real reason” for higher college tuition in the USA:

far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education.… a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration

And he singles out the California State University (CSU) system as an example:

while the total number of full-time faculty members in the C.S.U. system grew from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183 — a 221 percent increase

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by Eszter Hargittai on April 6, 2015

There is no shortage of stories about how uncomfortable things can be for women in tech, how hard it is for women to be taken as seriously as men, etc. Well, here is the nth installment of that saga. I attended GOR, the General Online Research conference, a couple of weeks ago hosted at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences. When I walked in, I was greeted by several women wearing the following T-shirt:


I found this rather curious. Why would the T-shirt for the staff/volunteers of a research conference on Internet use measurement and behavior have this word on it? I’m not so dense as to not get the GOR part, but it seemed completely out of place. Soon I started looking around the room for a male staff member, because I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would be wearing the same shirt. What do you think, dear reader? After the jump, I show you what the male volunteers were wearing.

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Ow, a bee stung me!

by John Holbo on April 5, 2015

We have a saying in the Holbo-Waring household. “Ow, a bee stung me!”


You say it if you have just utterly failed to foresee a wildly foreseeable but minor injury.

I nominate Mike Pence for the role of the guy who got stung by a bee, in the Indiana RFRA controversy. [click to continue…]