From the monthly archives:

May 2017

The Color of Law

by Harry on May 31, 2017

I just finished Richard Rothstein’s brilliant — and far from uplifting — book The Color of Law. It’s been getting a lot of favorable press, and rightly so.

The book accepts (for the sake of argument, maybe — Rothstein is always parsimonious in his arguments) the principle that Chief Justice Roberts puts forward when he says that if residential segregation ‘is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications’. It is devoted to showing that, contrary to the prevailing myth that residential segregation (between whites and African Americans) is a product of a private choices it is, in fact, a product of government policies, all the way from the Federal level to the most local level, and this is true in the North as well as the South. Housing segregation in the US is de jure, not de facto. And… it shows just that. He makes his case in careful, meticulous detail, but in unfussy and inviting prose, packed with illuminating stories that illustrate the central claims.

Here are some of the basic mechanisms through which government in some cases reinforced and in other created housing segregation:

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I’ve been thinking about this Gideon Rachman piece over the last 24 hours:

despite her cautious phrasing, Ms Merkel has also behaved irresponsibly — making a statement that threatens to widen a dangerous rift in the Atlantic alliance into a permanent breach. … it is a mistake to allow four months of the Trump presidency to throw into doubt a Transatlantic alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years …Ms Merkel was unwise and unfair to bracket the UK with Trump’s America. In the climate change discussions, Britain sided with the EU — not the US. … if Ms Merkel’s government pursues the Brexit negotiations in the current confrontational spirit — demanding that the UK commit to vast upfront payments, before even discussing a trade deal — she risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and a lasting antagonism between Britain and the EU. It is hard to see how the UK can be expected to see the same countries as adversaries in the Brexit negotiations and allies in the Nato context. So a really hard Brexit could indeed raise questions about Britain’s commitment to Nato — particularly if the US is also pulling back from the western alliance.

Not so much the broader argument (which I disagree with, but in obvious ways) than what the specifics say about the current state of Financial Times liberalism. [click to continue…]

Is The Living Easy Yet?

by Belle Waring on May 30, 2017

Summer is stipulated to begin on Memorial Day in the US. I’m pretty sure everyone else just starts it on June 1 like normal people. At any rate it’s almost summer in the northern hemisphere. Here in Singapore the days are lengthening by…seconds and headed for the solstice when the day will be 3 minutes longer than the night–which is totally imperceptible. Why not listen to Hot Hot Summer Day, an underappreciated but very awesome song from the Sugarhill Gang.

The more obvious classic is DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s Summertime, which has the advantage of having a great video.

Is it hot where y’all are? Are your kids about to get out of school and be on your hands the whole summer? Do you have screentime limits for them so people don’t just play video games and dork around on the loserweb all day? We are struggling to implement this. (Perhaps because this may be one of those ‘do as I say not as I do’ situations.) International school here ends on the 16th and John needs to be back in early August, so on the 20th we begin our dizzying yearly trek across all of fracking America, including stops in Arizona, D.C., West Virginia, and South Carolina, flying via Japan and Los Angeles. Kind of a drag but got to see that beloved family. Tell me of your plans Plain People of Crooked Timber (I am aware that they may be ‘work all summer you idiot; not everyone is an academic or has children to entertain’).

Sunday photoblogging: Redcliffe flats

by Chris Bertram on May 28, 2017

Redcliffe Flats

Less is more

by John Quiggin on May 28, 2017

Reading the news, I find a lot of items demonstrating a scale of values that makes no sense to me. Some are important in the grand scheme of things, some are less so, but perhaps more relevant to me. I think about writing posts but don’t find the time. So here are a few examples, which you are welcome to chew over.

* Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve (unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil). The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there. In this case, there was some pushback, which is a sign of hope, I guess.

* The significance of art and artists is determined by the whims of billionaires. Referring to the sale of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat for over $100 million the New York Times says

most agree that the Basquiat sale has cemented his place in the revenue pantheon with Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon; confirming that he is not some passing trend; and forcing major museums to acknowledge that, by not having the artist in their collections, they passed over a crucial figure in art history.

[1]

* As far as economic research is concerned, less is more. More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets. I can vouch for that, though it’s less of a problem in Australia than in less peripheral locations. I have the impression that the same is true in other fields, but would be interested in comments.

[fn1] To be fair, this is preceded by a brief acknowledgement that “auction prices don’t necessarily translate into intrinsic value”, but there’s no suggestion that any other measure of intrinsic value is worth considering.

I stayed up on election night to watch the results come in (can’t wait till June 8th, that’s going to be a thriller!). I had a bad feeling about the whole thing starting the moment I walked on campus that morning, and I had pretty much resigned myself to the result by about 7.30 pm (Central). But I stayed up anyway, partly because I that’s just what I do, and partly because the first test match between England and India started at 10 pm, and I couldn’t wait to see Haseeb Hameed, whom everyone was talking about. And, indeed, you could see why they were talking about him (as Aggers said, in frustration at the England camp trying to dampen down pressure: “Are we supposed to pretend we’re not seeing what we are seeing?”; or, imagine being 19 and hearing Geoffrey describe you as “a proper opening bat”).

But the player who really shone that night was Moeen Ali, who, fortunately, was still in when I awoke the next morning. And that seemed particularly fitting to me, because he seems to be the embodiment of everything Donald Trump isn’t.

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Drug Wars

by John Quiggin on May 25, 2017

I got a preview of Drug Wars by
Robin Feldman and Evan Frondorf
. It’s not about the War on Drugs, but about the devices used by Big Pharma to maintain the profits they earn from their intellectual property (ownership of drug patents, brand names and so on) and to stave off competition from generics. Feldman and Frondorf propose a number of reforms to the operation of the patenting system to enhance the role of generics. I’m more interested in a fundamental shift away from using intellectual property (patents and brand names) to finance pharmaceutical research.
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A couple months ago I made fun of an ‘inspired by Steely Dan’ Apple Music playlist that seemed to be basically a random assortment of tracks by bands, all of which had covered one Steely Dan song at some point. As I put it at the time: “Also, the Mountain Goats?”

How wrong I was! Their new album, Goths, is out. It’s a glorious, slick, lounge jazz-tinged demonstration that Danliness is next to godliness, albeit not gothliness. It also sounds like Prefab Sprout circa Steve McQueen, yet another good thing. YouTube has not hoovered up the tracks yet, but here’s a nice acoustic cover of “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds” (an early release from the album that didn’t quite do it for me; but the acoustic version sounds great. John Darnielle does the deceptively-simple-counter-rhythm strumming thing, which keeps life interesting, and his voice is sweet and clear. No guitar on the album itself.) From the album, I recommend “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement”; also, “Wear Black”; also, get all your Gene Loves Jezebel nostalgia out with “Abandoned Flesh”.

Prickly questions

by Henry on May 22, 2017

Many CT readers will already be familiar with the recent effort by two scholars to repeat the Sokal hoax, as they understood it, by getting a bottom-feeder journal to publish a piece on imagined penises and global warming. Steven Pinker declared a smashing victory

albeit maybe slightly prematurely. James Taylor at Bleeding Hearts Libertarians

The first journal that Bognossian and Lindsay submitted their hoax paper to, and that rejected it, was NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. This journal doesn’t even hit the top 115 journals in Gender Studies. So, what happened here was that they submitted a hoax paper to an unranked journal, which summarily rejected it. They then received an auto-generated response directing them to a pay-to-publish vanity journal. They submitted the paper there, and it was published. From this chain of events they conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is “crippled academically”. This tells us very little about Gender Studies, but an awful lot about the perpetrators of this “hoax”…. and those who tout it as a take down of an entire field.

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The fidget spinning fad and disability discrimination

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 21, 2017

Here’s an important article by Aiyana Bailin, who argues that the recent fidget spinning fad shows something disturbingly:

Something that was considered entirely pathological and in dire need of correction when done by disabled people is now perfectly acceptable because it is being done by non-disabled people

So here we see disability discrimination at work. For some neuro-atypical and disabled people, stimming is a way to reduce stress, and indeed also to concentrate better. But often they are told not to do this. The same holds for other forms of behaviour that neurotypicals consider ‘abnormal’. The fidget spinning just shows how much of a social convention, and hence form of domination, those social norms regarding ‘normal behaviour’ are, and that at least some of those conventions are biased against the needs of some groups of disabled people and neuro-atypicals.

Earlier this week, I came across another example. A therapist told me that social skills training for autistics entails, among other things, that they learn to look at the eyes of another person when talking to them. But why would that be a desirable good? What, except for some social convention, would make it that it is considered inappropriate not to look at the person you’re talking to? Why can’t we just accept it to be as it is – that for some people, it’s easier to have a conversation if they do not have to look you into the eyes?

But the good news is that the article by Aiyana Bailin gives us an opportunity to learn something. I suspect it will eye-opening to many of us. It’s an example of how disability discrimination works, and examples may well be more effective in showing the working of disability discrimination than some abstract theory. Yet it’s an example of a more general problem that Bailin wants to draw our attention to:

But the power structure is still there. There’s still a rigid hierarchy of who gets to decide which behaviors are normal or pathological. There’s still a societal subtext that tells people who are different “be less like yourself and more like us.” We need to work on that.

Would you eat bugs? How about a dog?

by Eszter Hargittai on May 21, 2017

In my German class in Zurich this week, we read a piece about how important bugs may be to the future of feeding the planet thanks to being high in protein and having considerably lower environmental costs for production. Several of my classmates seemed visibly disturbed by this. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten bugs before – have you? – but I don’t have a problem with the concept. I’m not a vegetarian and don’t see why I should be any more put off by bugs than a cow or a chicken. If I think about the origins of a cow or a chicken, I may wince, but I still like the food. Why would that be different with bugs?

In the domain of animal consumption, Switzerland tends to garner outrage, because it is legal to eat cats and dogs. This may be disgusting to many Europeans and Americans, but it’s not at all uncommon in countries elsewhere such as in Asia. It is clearly in many ways a cultural issue. While many Europeans and Americans don’t think twice about eating cows and pigs, they are not on the menu elsewhere. (I purposefully said “cow” and “pig” in that last sentence instead of “beef” and “pork”. Why don’t we just say the animal at hand? I enjoyed the ponderings on this MetaFilter thread about that question although didn’t really get a satisfying answer.)

Growing up in Hungary, I ate cow tongue on occasion, something quite tasty, but clearly revolting to some who had never considered it (I base that on personal experiences talking to folks elsewhere about it). Unless you are a vegetarian, it seems it would be hard to make the case that one animal is okay while another is not as long as it is produced and prepared under healthy conditions. (And let’s not even get started on how much of the meat we consume anyway would not qualify as such!) Should pet Miss Piggy be an easier case for dinner than pet dog Spot?

Curiously, the author of the piece advocating for bugs as a source of nutrition and who herself eats them said that she is a vegetarian due to ethical reasons. I cannot reconcile then, how she can justify eating bugs. Anyone want to defend her position?

Runner bean field in Herefordshire

I’m packing for a short trip to Berlin, where I’ll be giving a public lecture on Monday on the question whether there should be an upper limit to how much wealth a person should morally be able to hold (it’s open to the public so you’re welcome!). The lecture will draw from a paper I wrote that was just published in the most recent volume of NOMOS, which was edited by Jack Knight and Melissa Schwartzberg, and which is entirely on Wealth (there is a link to the PDF of my chapter online too, though I’m not sure whether that will stay there for long). I haven’t been able to read the other papers in the Volume, but a quick skim suggests the other chapters should really be very interesting. I’ll write more about the volume after the Summer, when I will have embarked on a 5-year ERC-funded research project investigating the plausibility of upper limits on ecological and economic resources. [click to continue…]

Every Picture Tells A Story

by John Holbo on May 19, 2017

Col. A. Miller, Maj. C. Spatz, Mrs. C.B. Spatz, Anna Spatz, Sgt. Tanner (LOC)

Wonder what this one is. Please offer your best attempt at Maj. and Mrs. Spatz fanfic in comments. (I love the Flickr Library of Congress photo feed.)

Huh, so that happened.

by John Holbo on May 19, 2017

It’s been a couple days since we had fresh Trump thread – mayfly life cycle of the news cycle, pegged to POTUS attention span! (Trump: the shallow state vs. the Deep State!) [click to continue…]