From the monthly archives:

February 2018

Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas house

by Chris Bertram on February 11, 2018


On Being Radical for Non-Ideal Reasons

by Miriam Ronzoni on February 9, 2018

Thank you to Ingrid for introducing me, and to all current members of the Crooked Timber for welcoming me on board. I am a long term fan of the Crooked Timber (since my days as a graduate student, in fact!) and therefore really excited to be joining the team.

I would like to kick off by elaborating on some thoughts that I have only briefly mentioned in a recent piece. The basic idea, in a nutshell, is the following: could it be that we sometimes have reason to be more radical under non-ideal circumstances than under ideal ones?

The reason why this might seem initially puzzling – it definitely is to me – lies in the fact that, by definition, non-ideal theory falls short of ideal theory in important ways. Sure, the suggestion is often made that our obligations of justice under non-ideal circumstances might become more demanding – simply because we might be required to compensate for the non-compliance of other duty bearers (although some people want to resist that thought ). This, however, is a point about the demandingness of our duties, not about how radically our aims should diverge from the status quo. When it comes to what we should be aiming at, rather than how much effort we should put into it, non-ideal theory is usually depicted at giving us targets that are closer to home. We should be more modest, we should not demand too much. We cannot have a truly egalitarian society, but we can maybe try and aim for a more humane one than the one we currently have. We cannot have gender equality, but we can maybe narrow the gap. We cannot put an end to capitalism, but maybe we can tame it just a little bit. The most obvious way in which this approach plays out is in the chase of the political centre by the mainstream left, which has been making social-democratic agendas ever more lukewarm over the last three decades.

However, the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory does not always have to work that way. [click to continue…]

Introducing new blogger: Miriam Ronzoni

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 9, 2018

Good news, Folks! Miriam Ronzoni is joining the Crooked Timber Crew.

Miriam is a Reader in Political Theory at the University of Manchester. She has a background in both philosophy and politics and has worked in the UK, Germany, and Italy. She is interested in the interdependence between global and domestic justice, issues of domination across borders, feminism, the definition of the very concept of justice, and the methodology of constructivism. She lives in South Manchester with her husband Christian and their two children Francesco and Sara. She is a keen traveler and cyclist (kids allowing).

Miriam, welcome!

I have a piece in the New York Times looking at the implications for the bitcoin bubble for economic theory and, in particular, for the (Strong) Efficient (Financial) Markets Hypothesis (EMH) which states that prices determined in financial markets reflect all the available information about the value of any asset. If that’s true then governments can’t improve on a policy of allocating investment to those assets with the highest market return, which can be achieved by letting private capital markets determine all investment decisions.

Bitcoins have no inherent usefulness, being a record of pointless calculations. They are useless as a currency (their putative purpose) and are now being promoted as a store of value on the basis of scarcity alone. This leaves supporters of the EMH with a dilemma.

If Bitcoins are indeed worthless, then financial markets should price them at zero. But the introduction of futures trading actually boosted the price in the short run. Even after recent declines, there’s no sign that prices will reach zero any time soon.

On the other hand, if Bitcoins are valuable simply because people value them, then asset prices are entirely arbitrary. The same argument can be applied to any financial asset.

Dean Baker at CEPR has a nice followup, making the obvious but crucial point that, since financial services are an intermediate input to production, we want the financial sector to be as small as possible, consistent with doing its essential tasks. As the experience of the mid-20th century shows, a market economy can function perfectly well with a financial sector much smaller than the one we have today. As Bitcoin shows, the massive expansion since then is nothing but wasteful speculation. The financial sector should be cut down to (a small fraction of its present) size.
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Adam Roberts has been fighting the good fight, keeping blogging real. He’s been reading his way through H.G. Wells’ collected works so you don’t have to. You can just piggy-back along for the ride. But all good things must end. He just published the post for Wells’ final work, Mind At The End of Its Tether. I’m no Wells scholar but I actually had read that one. It’s astonishingly pessimistic. Nigh-Lovecraftian. And it isn’t even supposed to be fiction. It’s what Wells was feeling in his last days. Here is the book’s opening: [click to continue…]

Some Thoughts About Women’s Empowerment

by Serene Khader on February 8, 2018

A Valentine’s Day ad appeared in my feed today, suggesting that I give the meaningful gift of “sponsoring a girl.” Though getting such an ad on Valentine’s Day was a new one for me, these types of ads are nothing new. During the holidays, I saw ads suggesting I buy a poor woman jute to make baskets, a goat, and even, as Rafia Zakaria wryly remarked on at the end of last year, a chicken. Fifteen years ago it would have been a cell phone.

Why does it seem so obvious to so many that earning an independent income will lead to, or just is, women’s empowerment? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the origins and persistence of that association.

I’m not asking why it seems that earning more money will improve the lives of poor women. The answer to that question is, I think relatively straightforward. If poverty is conceptualized as a lack of money, then it is easy to see why more money seems like the solution. (However logically sound this line of reasoning may be, it is unclear that income usually improves poor women’s lives; often, as Sylvia Chant points out in her important work on the feminization of responsibility) making an income often just means more hours of exhausting and unrewarded work—but more about this below)

I’m also not asking why women’s entrepreneurship seems like a good thing in general. Narratives about the poor pulling themselves up by their bootstraps have tremendous power, at least over Americans–whether the contexts they are analyzing are domestic and international. A body of feminist literature also suggests another reason, in addition to capitalist ideology, that women earning an independent income seems desirable. The cultural ideal of the economically self-sufficient individual is androcentric. It frames what is possible and desirable for human beings in general in terms of what is possible for those who do not have care work socially assigned to them.

Important as this feminist literature is, what I want to know is why it has been so easy to convince Northern audiences that income generation empowers women. Many representations of women as farmers and small business owners treat income-focused development interventions as feminist. And it’s not just pop cultural representations; it’s not uncommon to find international development organizations whose entire women’s empowerment agenda is about income generation—often, though decreasingly so in recent years, through microcredit. Feminism is opposition to sexist oppression, so the implication of the empowerment language seems to be that gender relations are improved by income generation.

But why would this be? I’ve been thinking the answer has to do with underlying assumptions about the causes of sexist oppression, especially the oppression of “other” women.

One line of thought that would make sense of the view that income could reduce sexist oppression takes women’s male partners to be a cause, or at least major source of reinforcement of, sexist oppression. Women who live in nuclear households with men on whom they are utterly financially dependent are vulnerable. This vulnerability is to both abuse and deprivation. Data suggest that women and girls receive lesser shares of household resources than men.

There is certainly truth to this line of thought. But it is worth noting that even if economic dependency causes the vulnerability, it is unclear that income will eliminate it. As Chant’s work on the feminization of responsibility I mentioned above shows, income often causes men to increase their personal expenditures and contribute less to the household, leaving women’s bargaining position unchanged. The classic example of this is the recasting of children’s school fees as something women are responsible for.

But this line of thinking is not just empirically questionable; I think it also misses the role other factors play in causing sexist oppression in the global South. The gender division of labor, and the genuine need for household and caring labor to be performed, are not reducible to the actions of individual men. Without supports for the socially necessary labor that women perform, we can expect a common result of income focused interventions—in the North and the South– to be exhaustion rather than empowerment.

To put the point more bluntly, a key cause of women’s oppression is a system that depends on uncompensated labor from women, and the idea that income through additional public sphere labor is empowerment misses this.

I also think there’s another view about the causes of sexist oppression lurking in the background of the view that income is empowerment. To get at it, we need to pay attention to what are touted as the most important by-products of income-focused interventions. These include self-esteem, critical thinking—and something that has been loftily described as the ability to control or transform one’s destiny.

I think the idea that women’s entrepreneurship constitutes their empowerment appeals to the underlying view, widespread in the West and North, that “other” women are oppressed by customs, traditions, and cultures. (This view about the cause of “other” women’s oppression, and its deep flaws, has been theorized at length in transnational feminist scholarship.)

The idea that women become empowered by being able to think critically, to see themselves as distinct from their families, and to liberate themselves from a socially pre-determined future seems plausible if the background assumption that “other” women are oppressed by custom and culture.

Why income would cause these byproducts remains somewhat mysterious. But the idea that capitalism causes reduction in adherence to tradition has a long history in the West, as Naila Kabeer notes in her important intellectual history of women and development. Kabeer notes that modernization theorists thought that a nice byproduct of capitalism was that it would shake up the existing social order; social roles used to be assigned by custom, but now they would be allocated according to efficiency. But it’s unclear either that the division of labor caused by women’s double shift is economically inefficient. And more importantly, the fact that a division of labor is different from the one that preceded it does not mean it is more gender just.

The idea that income will empower women in the South has become a commonplace—so obvious that it needs no justification. The pop cultural images associated with it have been incredibly seductive. But I think it’s got its diagnosis of the causes of the oppression of women in the global South wrong.

Pride and Prejudice and P-Zombies

by John Holbo on February 6, 2018

Yeah, the zombie version was good. But what if you wrote a version in which they are all zombies? I’m not sure if any actual edits to the original text would be required. Passages like the following are fine. They just need to be understood properly. [click to continue…]

I’m planning an event (mainly for faculty and administrators) about improving undergraduate instruction, and I want the voices of undergraduates to, in some way, inform what gets said. it would be helpful to me to hear from current or recent undergraduates answering the questions below. And, to be honest, I have been collecting stories about good and bad college instruction for years, but not in any systematic way and only, obviously, from students who tell them to me, so this is an opportunity to gather stories from other people. Now — I know that not many undergraduates read CT regularly. But lots of you know some undergraduates and recent undergraduates, and many of you teach them. So i) ask students or recent students whom you know, and give me their answers. And ii) I’d be really grateful if those of you who teach undergraduates could send them this link, and ask them to contribute.

Here are the questions:

1. Describe something that one or more of your professors does/did that you think other professors ought to do as well.

2. Describe something that more than one of your professors does/did that you think no professors ought to do.

I can give you a couple of examples that I’ve gathered from recent undergraduates, that seem sensible to me, just to give you a sense of the sorts of things I am looking for.

Do: make students discuss a question for a few minutes in small groups before opening the class up to discussion
Do: cold call, but only after warning the students that you are going to do that
(I do both of these).

Don’t: ever speak to the board with your back to the class
Don’t: simply read the powerpoint slides, and don’t also make the powerpoints the textbook
(I did the first of those occasionally till a student told me not to. The second one… well, I don’t know what to say).

Please, just answer one or both of the questions!

Sunday photoblogging: crane

by Chris Bertram on February 4, 2018


Schopenhauer On Philosophy’s Overton Window

by John Holbo on February 4, 2018

On Facebook a friend was mentioning that good old Francis Bacon bit:

The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.

This reminds me of a bit from Arthur Schopenhauer I really love. In this other thread I joked about The World As Willed Misrepresentation, but here’s the real deal: Schopenhauer on philosophy’s Overton Window, so to speak. This is from his Parerga and Paralipomena (the title means something like ‘extras and omissions’), which used to be damned hard to find but was reissued last year (volume 1, volume 2). [click to continue…]

The gig economy and the future of work

by John Q on February 3, 2018

One of the things I do from time to time is write submissions to public inquiries, mostly those of our Senate, which has a committee system loosely modelled on that in the US. I’ve had a run of them lately, appearing (by teleconference) before two of them this week and making a submission to a third. The first two, on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (a slush fund that may be used to finance coal projects) and one on the problems of vocational education

In addition, i completed a submission to the inquiry into the Future of Work and Workers, which is now available on the inquiry website. The submission is about the way in which technology and labor market institutions have interacted to generate the “gig” economy of insecure employment, continuously threatened by technological disruption. The key point is that decades of anti-union and anti-worker legislation and state action have created a situation where technological change is likely to harm rather than help workers. A summary is over the fold
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The Birth of Intermediacy?

by John Holbo on February 1, 2018

I’m taking a break from reading stuff about political theory and liberalism and reading, instead, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness [amazon]. It turns out Peter Godfrey-Smith on the octopus brain is more like Jacob Levy on Montesquieu and intermediacy than I was expecting. (The cover of Levy’s book is a bit tentacular. Maybe they should have played that up?)


The cephalopod body, and especially the octopus body, is a unique object with respect to these demands. When part of the molluscan “foot” differentiated into a mass of tentacles, with no joints or shell, the result was a very unwieldy organ to control. The result was also an enormously useful thing, if it could be controlled. The octopus’s loss of almost all hard parts compounded both the challenge and the opportunities. A vast range of movements became possible, but they had to be organized, had to be made coherent. Octopuses have not dealt with this challenge by imposing centralized governance on the body; rather, they have fashioned a mixture of local and central control. One might say the octopus has turned each arm into an intermediate-scale actor. But it also imposes order, top-down, on the huge and complex system that is the octopus body.

This is something a lot of people know about the politics of being an octopus: your various members enjoy semi-autonomy. Tentacles are federated, after a fashion. They continue to act in a purposive manner even if they are cut off from the center. Weird! (See also: Montesquieu on monarchy.) But what does he mean by ‘these demands’? [click to continue…]