From the monthly archives:

December 2015

Happy Almost New Year, Timberteers

by Maria on December 30, 2015

Nothing welcomes you back to London after a soggy spell in the west of Ireland like a gold-plated (surely not real?) Lambourghini, vanity plate; F1 IRAK, whizzing past you on the Chelsea Embankment. Ah, world’s super-wealthy, with your love of obscene and ill-gotten goods and your disdain for pettifogging traffic rules, I have missed you.

Fear not. Plenty of riches are to be had here on CT. Having failed to post a timely Christmas picture of the Crooked Timber dog, and having also failed to post any recommended reads from 2015, I still have it in mind to share some wealth in the form of our own middle class intellectual status indicators. Here are some non-book gems I enjoyed this year. Maybe you have some of your own?

Milo and Fury, Christmas Day 2015

Milo and Fury, Christmas Day 2015

Philosophy Bites, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, comprises well over 300 20-minute interviews with philosophers on everything from Stoicisim to inequality to Foucault and power. CT’s own Chris Bertram does a particularly good session on Rousseau, ranging over the life and works and making me wish – not for the first time – that I’d paid more attention in college. Philosophy Bites makes philosophers sound surprisingly chatty, collegial and willing to tackle questions we all puzzle over and never get very far with.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ with Melvyn Bragg is fantastic, if you are in the UK or have a VPN to vouch for you. The format is that the slightly irritable and impossibly well-read host asks questions of three experts on a topic from history, literature, philosophy or science. Bragg is a national treasure on a level with Alan Bennett but has a more pleasing sympathy for the under-dog. The podcasts that include a few bonus minutes ‘with the cameras off’ are terrific, and show how much more interesting radio is when it can be less didactic and improving.

Entitled Opinions from Stanford Radio’s Robert Harrison can be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes the cultural theory gets a bit circular and obtuse – but that’s mostly when there are guest presenters. Each programme lasts an hour and the pace is expansive rather than quick. It’s what I love most about a good podcast – instead of me going ‘yeah yeah, I get it’ and skipping ahead to the end of the paragraph or the chapter, I have to stick with it and take in the ideas at the pace the presenter is willing to give them out. The bliss of being entirely in someone else’s power. Harrison’s interview with Colm Tóibín about The Master is wonderful, (also, I never knew James’ house in Rye was later lived in by the man who wrote Mapp and Lucia and used it as their respective fictional homes) though Harrison joins the rest of the anglo-sphere in being unable to pronounce Tóibín’s name.

The Royal Literary Fund’s ‘Writers Aloud’ series can be uneven but is often utterly brilliant, especially when Carole Angier is doing the interviewing. (Yes, the same Carole Angier who wrote the magnificent Primo Levi biography.) The stand-out interviews from the last year or so are with the poet Julia Copus and CT’s own favourite, Francis Spufford, who gives an inside track on the writing of Red Plenty.

OK, fair cop, my 2015 Youtube consumption has been driven by watching repeats of Graham Norton’s chat show (the one where Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Hugh Bonneville corpse laughing and go to pelt pineapples at the audience is a classic, though it actually happened in 2014) and also interviews with My Boyfriend Tom Hiddleston. The ideal is an interview of Tom Hiddleston by Graham Norton, which actually happened a couple of months ago. Hiddleston did an above average impression of Robert de Niro who was sitting nearby (celebrities’ lives are weird). For several minutes afterwards you can see Hiddleston going pinker and pinker and clearly regretting it, and I had an urge to jump into the screen and tell him what was obvious to anyone watching; ‘Don’t worry about it. You were great and are lovely. De Niro is clearly an arse.’

So, obviously I’m not proud of my Hiddleston crush, but it really is completely chaste. A few weeks ago, Ed and I were walking to a cafe for a weekend treat and, apparently, I was going along just smiling vacantly to myself. Ed asked what I was thinking about – at this stage he didn’t know about my little pash – and I said ‘I was just explaining the Tuisil Ginideach to Tom and saying how funny it is that it is both universal and nearly always irregular.’ Not everyone knows, I said to Ed, that the Irish language has a genitive case for nouns. It’s the Latin influence. (I personally hadn’t a clue that’s what it was until fifth year when a teacher mentioned it in passing.) And so then Ed had to ask who Tom was etc. etc. and why would he be interested in the grammatical structure of the Irish language. To which the answer could only be ‘Oh, Tom? He’s interested in everything I’m interested in.’ And then we ran into a neighbour in the cafe so that was the end of the (external) conversation. Tom. He’s dreamy.


Crooked Timber people, and I’m especially looking at you, Kieran, you MUST watch Martin’s Life. (if you don’t know it already, which you probably do as it’s based in a small town near Cork city) Martin’s Life is a series of 2-3 minute animations about a young hipster and returned immigrant living with his parents in rural Ireland. It completely takes the piss out of the cultural cluelessness of the parents, but it’s really affectionate about them, too. One of my younger sisters played it for the extended family over the summer, and we were falling about in tears of laughter, parents included. If you do one thing today, watch Martin’s Life. Especially, for the season that’s in it, the one about Skype. Or the Christmas one. Or the old ESB ad one. This is literally every Irish expat’s life. Aithbhlian faoi mhaise duit, a Mháirtín.

OK, last orders. Have you no homes to go to?

The winner of Christmas was a Youtube video Henry put on on Stephen’s Day when we were all full of blueberry pancakes and sausages from Kilcullen (best in the world), and perhaps a little regret. The intro was unremarkable but when the singer began, the whole room changed. It was one of those moments when conversation fades away (rare in our house) and people drifted from the table towards the screen to listen and see. When this song finished, and amongst atheists, believers and fence-sitters alike, there was surreptitious nose-blowing, studied non-eye-catching and sudden impulses to be alone, outside, looking out over the bog and out to sea. Here, amongst all the seasonal oddities is the strangest wonder of all; Patti Smith singing Oh Holy Night to Pope Francis.

Silver Machine

by Harry on December 29, 2015

Lemmy is no longer with us.

But he’ll never really go away.

Monday photoblogging: Anfield taxi

by Chris Bertram on December 28, 2015

With the time of year, it is hard to remember which day of the week it is. So here, one day late, is a shot in our cab on a rainy night after watching Liverpool beat Leicester 1-0.

Anfield taxi

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, where I teach political science. His book, “This Muslim American Life,” came out in September. It’s a fascinating collection of pieces—sometimes hilarious, often unsettling, always probing and provocative—about, well, Muslim life in America, past and present.

There’s a mini-memoir about the time Moustafa worked as a Middle Eastern extra on “Sex and the City 2″; a Philip-Roth-like story about his discovery of a terrorist named Mustafa Bayoumi in a detective novel (that really did happen); a loving deconstruction of the Islamic undertones and overtones of John Coltrane’s music (“A Love Supreme” becomes “Allah Supreme”); a harrowing essay on how the American military uses music to terrorize and torture its victims (the phrase “Disco Inferno” takes on a whole new meaning); a long and learned history of the relationship between Muslim Americans and African Americans.

The book ranges widely, but it’s held together by a single premonition: that the wrenching changes of the War on Terror have been not only legal and political but also cultural. They are not confined to foreign policy or domestic policing; they extend to the most intimate and personal spaces of social life. They have created among all of us—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—a new set of experiences and sensibilities, a new sense of community and collectivity. At the same time, Moustafa’s book is a long, sustained insistence that we understand all the ways in which people—particularly Muslim people—live their lives outside the War on Terror. “This Muslim American Life” documents the oozing influence of the state, but with its sense of humor and history, shows just how much of the Muslim American experience lies beyond that influence.

A literary critic and gifted essayist, Moustafa brings his formidable skills as a reader of texts to his analysis of contemporary political culture. He’s got that eye—and ear—for the way our most incidental phrases, those stray bits of language, betray our deepest feelings. Where other books on the War on Terror focus on high acts of state, Moustafa finds his materials in the most unexpected places: yes, in the fine print of a legal statute, but also in standup comedy, in the parables of Kafka, in the penultimate paragraph of newspaper article. His archive is everywhere.

Moustafa and I have been friends for years, and we’ve often talked over drinks or dinner, on campus and in cafés, about the topics he addresses in his book. But it wasn’t till I sat down with “This Muslim American Life” that I truly saw the unity of his vision. So I decided to do what we always do when either of us has a book or an idea we’re excited about: sit down with him and talk about it.

Salon ran the interview this morning.


A Christmas post from 2004

by John Q on December 26, 2015

Here’s a Christmas post from my blog in 2004. The theme is that nothing about Christmas ever changes, so it’s a repost of the same post from 2003. Looking back from 2015, the only change I can see is that the complaints about inclusive language to which I referred as “old stuff by now” have now become codified, as the “War on Christmas”.

I’ll add one new thought that the use of “War on Christmas” rhetoric reflects a larger problem for Christianists: should they be asserting their privileges as a majority (as in the demand that their particular holiday be recognised as primary) or demanding their rights as a minority (as in their unwillingness to accept equal marriage). The two strategies undermine each other.

In anticipation of at least a short break, let me wish a merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

Read on for my unchanged Christmas message

[click to continue…]

Merry Christmas!

by John Holbo on December 25, 2015


A placeholder for Piketty

by Henry Farrell on December 23, 2015

A quick announcement – we’ll be publishing Thomas Piketty’s response to the seminar in early January, it being the time of year when many readers are likely to be spending time with their family or being otherwise engaged. In the meantime, readers may be interested in the Foreign Affairs debate on economic inequality (which evidently owes a ton to Piketty) and Dan Hirschman’s paper on why Piketty’s work seemed so surprising when it first came out. And to all who celebrate it, happy Christmas, and to those who don’t, happy holidays! Myself, I’ll be spending it with my extended family in the West of Ireland (including Milo, the Crooked Timber Christmas dog

Piketty and the Australian exception

by John Q on December 22, 2015

Note I wrote two pieces in response to Piketty’s Capital and managed to get confused as to which one was meant for this seminar. Here’s the piece I sent in originally, and which is referred to in Piketty’s forthcoming response. The crucial point is that, thanks to a combination of strong employment growth and redistributive taxation and welfare policies Australia has, to a substantial extent, avoided the sharp increase in inequality seen in other English-speaking countries. The conclusion

Australia’s experience belies the claim that any attempt to offset the growth of inequality must cripple economic growth. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that there is plenty of scope for progressive changes to tax policy that would partly or wholly offset the trends towards greater inequality documented by Piketty.

[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: cinema in Pirenópolis, Brazil

by Chris Bertram on December 20, 2015

Cinema: Pirenopolis, Brazil

One of the more depressing features of Capital in the 21st Century is the air of inevitability attached to the much-discussed r > g inequality. This is exacerbated, on the whole, by the fact that Piketty’s proposed policy response, a progressive global tax on wealth, seems obviously utopian.

What about a much simpler alternative: increasing the rate of income tax applied to the very rich, and removing preferential treatment of capital income? Piketty’s own work with Saez yields the conclusion that the socially optimal top marginal rate of taxation, after taking account of incentive effects, would be 70 per cent or more. Such rates prevailed, at least nominally, in the mid-20th century, without obvious ill effects. Again, Piketty provides the relevant evidence.

So, is there something about a globalised world economy that renders a return to high marginal rates of taxation impossible?

[click to continue…]

Which inequalities matter and which taxes are appropriate?

by Kenneth Arrow on December 17, 2015

Professor Piketty and his colleagues at the Top Income Distribution
Study have put us all in great debt for the great increase in our
knowledge of historical development of inequalities in income and in
wealth in a number of leading countries.

Notice I have already mentioned two inequalities, income and wealth.
There is one more leading inequality which does not receive much
attention in Piketty’s work: consumption. Papers and books have already
appeared which try to measure this inequality. Many more inequalities,
e.g. health, educational achievement, race, and gender differences have
been the subject of study, but these are more specialized and less
central to economic analysis.

There is a strong argument for emphasizing consumption. Why, after all,
do we consider inequality in wealth, income, or consumption to be
undesirable? If we consider only economic arguments, it is because the
poor are being deprived of goods that are valuable to their lives,
exactly because they are more basic than the desires of the rich.

This has important implications for how we evaluate Piketty’s arguments
about inequality. It suggests an alternative metric of inequality, one
under which some of the problems that Piketty identifies are not, in
fact, problematic.

Consider a world, like that envisioned by Piketty, in which the rich
consume relatively little (compared with their property income). They
accumulate wealth by investing in industry, thereby increasing output in
the future. If they do not consume more in the future, but instead,
simply continue to accumulate, then the additional future output is
available for the consumption of the poor.

If, instead of being available to the poor, the additional output were
somehow reinvested in the productive sector, we would find a world in
which the ratio of investment to consumption is steadily rising. This is
not the world we live in, and would produce visible results contrary to
even casual observation.

In the neoclassical picture, consumption is the ultimate end of the
economy. The rich accumulate for ultimate consumption, perhaps of
generations in the far future, or, in some significant part, for
philanthropy. Piketty seems instead to have a picture of the economy as
a process of automatic accumulation, without regard to planned
consumption. Estates grow at the market rate of return (100% saving out
of property income). This is not a realistic account of how rich people
– or indeed anybody – treats their income. It also leads us to ignore
the politics of how this wealth is actually consumed.

Taking consumption seriously has important implications for measurement.
If we are truly concerned with inequality, we should be most concerned
with the distribution of consumption. The measurements we should look to
are measurements of inequality in consumption, since it is differences
in consumption that we really ought to care about.

This also has implications for policy: for example, if what we care
about is differences in consumption, we might consider a progressive tax
on total consumption of an individual. This would have to be done on an
annual basis, like the current income tax, not at point of sale. Such a
tax was long ago proposed by John Stuart Mill and later by Irving Fisher
and Nicholas Kaldor. Piketty refers to Kaldor’s work but does little to
refute it, saying only that no such tax exists. This is true, but of
course the progressive wealth tax favored by Piketty is equally untried
in practice.

We might be especially moved to consider a consumption tax if we
consider that Piketty’s proposed wealth tax seems in any case to be much
higher than it sounds. If we are to assume, say a 5% return on property,
then a 2% per annum tax on wealth would amount to about 40% of property
income. If investment is financed by property income, this implies a
very considerable reduction in investment. Is this desirable? One might
doubt it, especially since the effects on investment would be
substantial, even apart from incentive effects, which might also be
quite considerable.

Piketty, Meade and Predistribution

by Martin O'Neill on December 17, 2015

Thomas Piketty’s *Capital in the Twenty-First Century* presents a
troubling puzzle for social democrats and for parties of the
centre-left, as well as for academics interested in developing a more
egalitarian public policy agenda. Supported by a previously unimagined
wealth of statistical detail, gained through the archival labour over
many years of a large team of researchers, Piketty’s book confirms
profound concerns about the long-range dynamics of capitalism. Wealth
does not naturally disperse down to the many, but sticks to the few, and
especially to those who carry the arbitrary advantages of patrimonial
inheritance. The facts of inequality are devastating, and come with an
accompanying sense of deflation at the level of policy and political
action. We may have come to see the grim facts of capitalism’s internal
dynamics more clearly than ever before, but it is much less clear that
we have the tools to cure capitalism’s disfiguring disease of
accelerating inequality. Hence we see that a common reaction to
Piketty’s work on the left is one of resignation or even despair. The
sardonic good humour and cautious optimism displayed by Piketty himself
can seem oddly out of place against the background picture that has been
created by his years of ground-breaking research. [click to continue…]

A brief conversation with 2 students crystallized for me why two things I have been doing in my classes for a while work well, and I want to recommend them to other teachers; and also make a recommendation for students.

Background to the conversation. The class is very small, just 14 people (this is unusually small — my normal class sizes are around 25, 80-100, 150-170). R&M live together; G, who is also in the class, lives with them. They have a 4th roommate, MA. Class was once a week on Wednesday nights.

R: “MA might come to class on Wednesday. I mean, it’s like she’s in the class, so she might as well just come along”
Me: “What do you mean?”
M: “Well, we all just argue about class in our apartment for half the week, and she can’t really avoid it”
R: “Yes, as soon as the memos start coming in on Sunday, we start reading them to see what everyone says”
M: “We always look to see what S [a very poised, provocative, freshman] says, because at least one of us will disagree with her”
R: “And even if M and I agree, G always disagrees with us. Our apartment is just full of argument from Sunday through Wednesday”

So what are the two things I do?

[click to continue…]

Safe Harbor and the NSA

by Henry Farrell on December 16, 2015

Abraham Newman and I have a piece in the new Foreign Affairs, discussing the Safe Harbor decision, and arguing that it’s really an example of the US finding some of its own preferred extraterritorial rules being used against it. Since Foreign Affairs allows me to put the whole piece up for a few months, here’s the full text for anyone who’s interested …

[click to continue…]

*Capital in the Twenty-First Century* was a classic as soon
as it was published.[^21] It deserves a place on bookshelves beside its
illustrious namesake of the 19th century. Capital, in
*Capital*, is the wealth of nations. It extends beyond
firms’ traditional productive capital to encompass the entire public and
private patrimony that can be sold on a market (thus excluding
non-transferable forms of capital such as human, cultural and social
capital). The book is the culmination of fifteen years of individual and
collective research on the evolution of income and wealth inequalities.
Thanks to data based on the collection of income tax, Thomas Piketty and
his colleagues had already widely explored income inequality in France,
the United-States, India, China, and more generally in the world by the
early 2000s, fuelling a unique and remarkable dataset: the *World
Top Incomes Database.* However, this work focused on income
rather than wealth, and hence provided an incomplete account of economic
inequality. This new book fills in this gap in a very timely fashion. [click to continue…]