From the monthly archives:

April 2018

Own Troll

by John Holbo on April 29, 2018

Robin Hanson is catching it for this post. There is something so … elegant about such developments.

It was supposed to be a simple troll. If you think goods redistribution is a good idea (inequality = bad), you must be in favor of a bit of the old forced sexual redistribution. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) Also: it’s gotta be just envy. “Their purpose seems to be to induce envy, to induce political action to increase redistribution.” “Two Kinds of Envy”. That’s the title. (This envy bit is going to be key. See below.)

Forced redistribution of sex out of envy sounds pretty rape-y, as you may notice. Of course it’s a bad argument. It’s easy to explain how and why one might favor redistribution but not rape. But in politics, if you’re explaining you’re losing. Having to argue for a ‘no rape included’ on your social welfare proposal kind of puts you on the rhetorical back-foot. I’m sure that was Hanson’s plan.

But then it backfired.

Even though Hanson is not himself proposing forced sexual redistribution – he’s merely making a bad argument that leftists should – folks on Twitter are reading him, straight up, as advocating ‘sexual redistribution’, which they take to be something rape-y. (Since he kind of went out of his way to make it sound rape-y.)

Hanson tries a leftier-than-thou head-fake. “A tweet on this post induced a lot of discussion on twitter, much of which accuses me of advocating enslaving and raping women. Apparently many people can’t imagine any other way to reduce or moderate sex inequality.”

Oh, why aren’t people more imaginative about creative social welfare solutions to inequality problems!

This seems like a great point for Hanson to double-down! Take critics to task! He could school ’em by introducing these fools to the ideas of, oh say, Charles Fourier, who proposed a ‘sexual minimum’. (Oh, the shame. To be lectured by a George Mason economist about the woke wisdom of Charles Fourier!) Hell, Hanson could read ’em Dan Savage’s excellent column. Proposing ‘redistribution of sex’ doesn’t have to mean rape! It doesn’t have to mean trying to pay some sex workers enough to be heroic first responders to potentially deadly levels of masculine resentment and anger. Suppose – just suppose! – we tackled the very real (!) problem of sexual inequality and suffering by 1) trying to detoxify the culture in various ways; 2) valuing and respecting sex work, and sex workers. (What Savage said, but maybe the government kicks in with support.)

Tragically, it’s at this point – when by rights the troll ought to roll! – that Hanson is hobbled, unfairly, by his own ‘envy’ premise (which he pretty clearly only intended to trip other people, unfairly, not himself.)

He’s assuming this social justice thing is basically envy on the verge of eruption into outright violence. He says any push for this sort of thing “strengthens an implicit threat of violence.” If, by hypothesis, the sexually deprived won’t be motivated by a desire for equality and respect, they just want to tear down those they resent for being above them, then, yes, ‘sexual redistribution’ can only mean asking a bunch of women to volunteer for a beat-down (so others won’t be outright killed by violent men.)

Hanson assumes it in his first paragraph. Why shouldn’t others assume he assumes it?

I think the larger moral of the story is that Hanson needs to face up to the elephant in the room. The tricky problem of non-hidden motivations in everyday life. Maybe he should give them a look.

At this point Belle says to me: hey, you know what this Hanson guy wrote way back? This!

And I’m like: ah, crap. I’m making this too complicated. (There I was, just trying to troll a guy about how it’s his own damn fault that he’s getting trolled for being in favor of rape, because he was just trying to troll leftists for how they should be in favor of rape. And it turns out? This? This? People are messed up, man.)

Gelman’s Law

by Henry Farrell on April 26, 2018


A quick rule of thumb is that when someone seems to be acting like a jerk, an economist will defend the behavior as being the essence of morality, but when someone seems to be doing something nice, an economist will raise the bar and argue that he’s not being nice at all.

I’ve spotted two instances already on Twitter since seeing this post this morning. See how many you can find!

In the UK we are living through one of those moments when the public briefly realises that immigration control has significant human consequences and can be bad not just for the stock “illegal immigrants” of tabloid caricature, but for citizens too. The background is that Theresa May, now Prime Minister but then Home Secretary progressively [introduced what she called “a really hostile environment” for “illegal immigrants”](, a regime continued by her successor, Amber Rudd. [This has involved turning ordinary citizens and civil society institutions into border guards so as to deprive people without the proper documentation of the means to live a tolerable existence.]( So those who cannot prove their right to be in the country, by producing, say, a passport, can lose their job, their home, their bank account and be denied medical services. Well, guess what? Thousands of people, particularly people born overseas as British citizens but legally resident in the UK for decades, lack the documentary proof required. So they have indeed lost jobs, homes and been [denied cancer treatment]( Others have been subjected to detention in immigration removal centres, some may have been removed or deported from the country, and others have gone abroad and visited relatives only to be refused readmission.

This has not had an even impact on all sectors of the population. It turns out that having a black or a brown skin makes it far more likely that you will be left destitute and without healthcare or that a prospective landlord with be inclined to check your identity and leave you homeless. So much for all citizens being equal before the law. Indeed, so much for the “rule of law”, much promoted by the Conservatives as a “British value” under the Prevent Strategy. The rule of law requires not just that people obey the law (as Tories seem to think) but that it be possible for people to regulate their conduct on the basis of laws that are reasonably knowable and that they are able to assert their rights effectively in the face of state power. This is totally undermined by the fact that those people caught up in the hostile environment are often poor and vulnerable and lack the means effectively to challenge the bureaucrats who have wrecked their lives. The rules people are expected to follow are complex and ever changing and the evidence they are expected to provide is often refused as inadequate by civil servants who hold onto essential documents for years on end and often lose them. To further undermine the ability of citizens and migrants to defend themselves, the UK government removed legal aid for immigration cases. Unable to establish their status to the satisfaction of the Home Office, people have been left in limbo for years.
[click to continue…]

The Impossible World Called America!

by John Holbo on April 25, 2018

Sorry for lack of posts. More uncanny researches to follow. Here are some old comics covers. I think you are rather easy to please, apparently. I’ve gotten rather fascinated by an old DC series with the excellent title, “From Beyond The Unknown”, which is enough to strike even as undisciplined a mind as – oh, say Zizek’s – as a bit undisciplined, as para-Rumsfeldianisms go. (You’ve got your unknown beyond the unknowns, your known beyond the unknowns, but also presumably you want to introduce a beyond-the-beyond-ness axis. I leave construction of a box, exhausting the range of impossibility spaces, as an exercise for the interested reader.)

As I was saying, just some of the best. covers. ever. But the stories were all retreads of 1950’s comics, hence the need to update the material in one case. [click to continue…]

GMI + JG = paid work as a choice for all

by John Q on April 23, 2018

I’ve been arguing for a while that a Guarantee Minimum Income (or Universal Basic Income) ought to be combined with a Jobs Guarantee to would make paid work a genuine choice for everyone. To spell this out, the GMI/UBI would make it possible to live decently without paid work, while a Jobs Guarantee would ensure that paid work was available to everyone. As a medium term policy, the best form of GMI would, I think, be the participation income advocated by the late Tony Atkinson. That is, a payment conditional on some form of social contribution, including voluntary work, study and childcare. Support for such a policy entails a direct confrontation with the punitive attitudes behind policies like Work for the Dole, while still maintaining the widely-held principle of reciprocity.

I was going to write more about this, but I just received an article by Felix FitzRoy and Jim Jin, in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice which presents the argument very well. So, I’ll just recommend that to anyone interested in the issue.


by Belle Waring on April 23, 2018

We were once at a psychiatrist session that was actually for another family member, but I was kind of getting grilled. No, I was for real getting grilled. Are you crazy or nah, was the line of questioning. I mean, maybe I suffer from serious mental illness, sure, but this question seemed out of place in the context: do you have any rituals that you have to do. Ha, no! I am not crazy in this particular OCD way! Take that! And then the psychiatrist asked whether I had any superstitions. Umm.

Only one, I said, that you can’t put a hat on the bed, and especially not on a made bed because that is just straight disastrous. But I made an exception for doll hats, while at the same time feeling uncomfortable about it. (When you have little girls with dolls life would be tough otherwise.) Then everyone started laughing. You have a billion superstitions, they pointed out. OK fine, maybe I think that if you’re walking with someone and something comes between you, like the pole of a parking sign or some sort of stanchion, one of you has to say “bread and butter” and then the other has to respond with “come to supper.” Otherwise…maybe you might not get along, like something came between you in that sense? And if you kill a spider it will rain. That’s just common sense. When you get an ice-water-down-your-back feeling it’s because somebody walked over your grave (this is silly because I plan to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in the lovely May River; do I think someone kayaked over my grave or something?).

If you spill any salt at all you have to throw some over your left shoulder. Oh, this one is heavy duty: don’t take the salt out of the air. Like, you have to put it down on the table and allow the other person to pick it up. I am so serious about this one; so is everyone in my family. As a child my father waited until his aunt was very absorbed in conversation, and when she asked for the salt he handed it to her directly, and when she realized what had happened she reacted so strongly that she pushed her chair right over and fell backwards to the ground. I have convinced my in-laws to humor me in this regard by making no movement and looking at them sadly when they pass the salt until they put it down on the table in mild exasperation. There are others but I can’t think of them right now. My children were taught additional ones by our Filipina maids. Such as, your hair is stealing your growth, so cutting it will make you grow taller (Zoe fell for that.) If you cut your hair at night, snakes will come. Every grain of rice you leave on your plate is a blemish on your future husband’s face.

When I was little I had more classically OCD ones I think, like not stepping on a crack to avoid breaking my mother’s back, to where I really caused myself difficulty on the sidewalk. I actually remember when I could first step on them, initially with trepidation, then with the glee of freedom. I used to have to run my hand along and count the railings of fences near our home in Georgetown (in D.C.) by groups of…I think eight, that seems random. But maybe all 12-year-olds are kind of OCD. Now the question: do I really believe in these superstitions? Some more that others: the hat on the bed kills me, and so does taking the salt out of the air. Do I feel compelled to do them? Yes, I just plain have to throw salt over my left shoulder pretty much anytime I cook. I believe them with double-consciousness; I can see that they’re just dumb while simultaneously being unable to get rid of them. Maybe if I did CBT and repeatedly took the salt out of the air I could numb myself to their effects. But what about you? Do you have superstitions? I want to hear new ones. Though there is the danger you will pick up someone else’s superstitions and be stuck with it.

Sunday photoblogging: sculpture of divers, Oslo

by Chris Bertram on April 22, 2018

Sculpture of divers, Oslo

What’s in a name?

by John Q on April 21, 2018

Daniel once quipped that political views among the Crooked Timber team span the gamut: from social democrat to democratic socialist. Having spent the past fifteen years wearing the “social democrat” label, I’ve now made the shift to “socialist and democrat”. I’ve talked a bit about my reasons at my blog, and there’s been an interesting discussion there. Readers are welcome to join in there or discuss here, as you please.

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 9

by John Q on April 19, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first eight chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve found the comments on Chapter 8 valuable, but haven’t yet found time to edit in response to them. Soon, I hope!

In the meantime, I’ve posted a draft of Chapter 9: Market Failure. Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

[click to continue…]

Spiritualism and Uncanny Fiction

by John Holbo on April 16, 2018

Pursuant of to my uncanny researches I’ve been thinking about ‘supernatural’ and how the term has wandered over time. I got to thinking, as well, about the growth of ‘spiritualism’ in the 19th Century – theosophy, all that stuff – and how that fed into fiction. What with one thing and another, I found myself reading The Supernatural In Modern English Fiction (1917), by Dorothy Scarborough [Project Gutenberg link]. It’s interesting to see through the eyes of an author who has done her best to read it all up to the early 20th Century, for the sake of offering a broad, general survey. She knows Blackwood and Machen. She doesn’t mention Hodgson or M.R. James. (I realize I don’t know how widely either of those now-classic authors was known by, say, 1915.) Here is one passage in which Scarborough scribbles out, off-handedly, a lot of things to come.

The investigations in modern Spiritualism have done much to affect ghostly literature. The terrors of the later apparitions are not physical, but psychical, and probably the stories of the future will be more and more allied to Spiritualism. Hamlin Garland, John Corbin, William Dean Howells, Algernon Blackwood, Arnold Bennett, and others have written novels and stories of this material, though scarcely the fringe of the garment of possibilities has yet been touched.

If one but grant the hypothesis of Spiritualism, what vistas open up for the novelist! What thrilling complications might come from the skillful manipulation of astrals alone,— as aids in establishing alibis, for instance! Even the limitations that at present bind ghost stories would be abolished and the effects of the dramatic employment of spiritualistic faith would be highly sensational. If the will be all powerful, then not only tables but mountains may be moved. The laws of physics would be as nothing in the presence of such powers. A lovelorn youth bent on attaining the object of his desires could, by merely willing it so, sink ocean liners, demolish skyscrapers, call up tempests, and rival German secret agents in his havoc. Intensely dramatic psychological material might be produced by the conflict resulting from the double or multiple personalities in one’s own nature, according to spiritualistic ideas. There might be complicated crossings in love, wherein one would be jealous of his alter ego, and conflicting ambitions of exciting character. The struggle necessary for the model story might be intensely dramatic though altogether internal, between one’s own selves. One finds himself so much more interesting in the light of such research than one has ever dreamed. The distinctions between materializations and astralizations, etherealizations and plain apparitions might furnish good plot structure. The personality of the “sensitives” alone would be fascinating material and the cosmic clashes of will possible under these conceived conditions suggest thrilling stories.

Titanic psychic battles! Astrally-projecting criminals, detectives and secret agents oh my! Mike Mignola, call your agent! This passage is the earliest occurrence I know of some ideas for really gonzo comic book and occult action plotlines. (Obviously you’ve still got to actually write them for it really to count!) [click to continue…]

Blowing stuff up

by John Q on April 15, 2018

A while ago, I had a multi-topic post covering some things I hoped to expand on. One of them was this

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.

We’ve now had another round of bombing from Trump, and yet more instant applause. As I reread the para above, and looked at evidence on the general ineffectiveness of airstrikes, it struck me that there is a big asymmetry. The satisfaction we get when our side blows something or someone up is trivial in comparison to the hatred generated when we are on the receiving end. In most cases, the people and resources mobilised against the bomber far outweigh the physical destruction the bomber can inflict. Here’s a study (paywalled, but the abstract is clear) making that point about Vietnam; it seems to be entirely general.

I’ve talked here about large-scale aerial bombing, but all of these points apply with equal force to bombing campaigns undertaken on the ground by non-state actors, going back to the “propaganda of the deed” in the 19th century. Experience has shown that deeds like bombings and assassinations make great propaganda, but not for the side that carries them out.

Sunday photoblogging: woods outside Madison, Wisconsin

by Chris Bertram on April 15, 2018

Taken last week on a walk with Harry Brighouse. I had the thought at the time that we were not so far from regular photo-commenter Alan White.

Madison, Wisconsin (woods)

Hackery or heresy

by John Q on April 9, 2018

Henry’s recent post on the irrelevance of conservative intellectuals reminded me of this one from 2013, which concluded

Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.

Overwhelmingly, the choice has been hackery (or, a little more honorably, silence).

The case for hackery is put most clearly by Henry Olsen. Starting from the evident fact that most Republican voters are white nationalists who don’t care about small government, Olsen considers the options available to small government conservatives. He rapidly dismisses the ideas of challenging Trump or forming a third party, and concludes that the only option is to capitulate. Strikingly, the option of withdrawing from party politics, and arguing for small government positions as an independent critic isn’t even considered.

As Paul Krugman has observed recently, conservative economists (at least, those who comment publicly). are a striking example for the choice of hackery over heresy. Krugman, along with Brad DeLong, has been particularly critical of a group of economists (Robert Barro, Michael Boskin, John Cogan, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Glenn Hubbard, Lawrence Lindsey, Harvey Rosen, George Shultz and John. Taylor) who’ve made dishonest arguments in favor of corporate tax cuts.

Recently, an overlapping group (Boskin, John Cochrane, Cogan, Shultz and Taylor) have taken the hackery a significant step further.

[click to continue…]

The History of the Uncanny Valley?

by John Holbo on April 9, 2018

I’m tracking the history of the cross-disciplinary uptake and general popularization of the concept of the uncanny valley. The term was coined in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, in a paper entitled “The Uncanny Valley”, that did not get attention at the time. Its first English occurrence is in 1978, in Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction [amazon], by Jasia Reichardt. I don’t have a copy. Reichardt, apparently, coins the translation of the Japanese title, giving us our name for the concept. Wikipedia suggests Reichardt hit on it without awareness of the Jentsch-Freud precedent. But here’s a (2009) paper that speculates that Reichardt might have intended to make the link. It seems a bit … serendipitous that a Polish-English art critic, with an interest in cybernetics, would know to pluck an utterly obscure Japanese-language paper out of oblivion. So presumably the paper got independent traction in robotics circles between 1970 and 1978, bringing it to Reichardt’s attention? Or maybe Reichardt indeed knows Japanese and very perceptively saved it from obscurity? If so, does the paper’s currency in Japan result from it first having traveled abroad, in 1978? Is Reichardt the reason this paper didn’t disappear? I would be curious to know.

[click to continue…]

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 8

by John Q on April 8, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first seven chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve tried to think about all of them and respond to as many as possible, but I’m seeking comments from quite a few sources and may have missed some. Feel free to remind me if you think you have a point that’s been overlooked.,

I’ve just posted a draft of Chapter 8:Unemployment. This is one of the most important chapters in the book where I confront a central error in both Hazlitt and Bastiat – the implicit assumption that full employment is the norm in a market economy. So,

[click to continue…]