From the monthly archives:

June 2018

The World Needs More Blogs

by John Holbo on June 13, 2018

Remember when there were blogs? Ah, those were the good old days. Whenever I see we haven’t been watering CT properly with fresh posts, I feel ashamed.

You know who’s got a blog? My dear old advisor at UC Berkeley, Hans Sluga! Here it is. Remember when blogs used to link to blogs all the time, and that was a lively and friendly thing to do? We should do that again.

(You may say I’m just an old man, clinging to my legacy media platform here at CT. Maybe you are right. But I truly do miss when there were more blogs.)

In comments, feel free to promote your favorite blog, including your own.

Here’s a thought about the Trudeau incident. (Remember that?) Possibly an obvious thought. Or obviously wrong. (You tell me.)

The first rule of persuasion is: make your audience want to believe. Trump has a talent for that. But I think it’s fair to say that he has often lived his business life by a different maxim: if you owe the bank $100 it’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million it’s the bank’s problem. There is a sense in which that works at the persuasion level, as epistemology. In the Trudeau case there are two options as to things you might believe.

1) Justin Trudeau is a weak, nefarious dairy extortionist.

2) 1 is just fucking ridiculous.

If 2 is true, Trump voters ought to be ashamed of themselves. Anyone can make mistakes. But the President of the United States should not be ridiculous.

If you have to choose between being being ashamed of yourself or thinking Justin Trudeau is going to hell for dairy-related reasons, the latter option is far superior on grounds of psychic comfort. (Exception: you yourself are Justin Trudeau.)

But it adds up. I don’t just mean: you get wronger and wronger. It gets harder and harder to doubt the next ridiculous thing – since admitting Trump said or did one thing that was not just wrong but ridiculous would make it highly credible that he has done or said other ridiculous things. But that would raise the likelihood that you, a Trump supporter, have already believed or praised not just mistaken but flat-out ridiculous things, which would be an annoying thing to have to admit. So the comfortable option is to buy it all – the more so, the more ridiculous it threatens to be. [click to continue…]

The release of the trustees reports for Social Security and Medicare has produced the usual crop of alarmist articles, though with more pushback than in the days when the political class was united around the idea of a “grand bargain”. So, I thought I’d repost this piece from 2014.

[click to continue…]

The Creative Class Gets Organized

by Corey Robin on June 6, 2018

The staff of The New Yorker—the people behind the scenes: editors, fact checkers, social media strategists, designers—are unionizing. They’ve even got a logo: Eustace Tilly with his fist raised. If you’re a loyal reader of the magazine, as I am, you should support the union in any way you can. Every week, they bring us our happiness; we should give them some back. They’re asking for letters of solidarity; email them at

If you look at their demands, they read like a tableaux of grievances from today’s economy: no job security, vast wage disparities, no overtime pay, a lot of subcontracting, and so on.

The creative class used to see itself and its concerns as outside the economy. Not anymore.

A few years back, I read Ved Mehta’s memoirs of his years at The New Yorker under editor William Shawn. Shawn helped Mehta find his first apartment: he actually scouted out a bunch of places with a real estate broker and wrote Mehta letters or called him about what he had seen. Shawn got Mehta set up with a meal service. The money was flowing. Again, not anymore.

The sea change isn’t just economic; it’s also cultural.

When we first started organizing graduate employees at Yale in the early 1990s, we got a lot of hostility. And nowhere more so than from the creative class. People in the elite media really disliked us. Many of them had left grad school or gone to fancy colleges, and we may have reminded them of the people they disliked when they were undergrads. (Truth be told: sometimes we reminded me of the people I disliked when I was an undergrad.) In any event, they saw us as pampered whiners, radical wannabees, Sandalistas in seminars. It was untrue and unfair. It didn’t matter. Liberals have their identity politics, too.

As some of you know, my union experience didn’t end happily. I lost three out of four of my dissertation advisers. And two of them wound up writing me blacklisting letters. After that, I wrote a mini-memoir-ish essay about the whole experience. I had great ambitions to be a personal/political essayist; this was my first stab at the genre. Part of my dissertation had been on McCarthyism and the blacklist, so I wove that into my essay: the experience of writing a dissertation that I wound up living a version of in real life.

I shopped it around to The New Yorker. I even called a top editor there after they turned it down. He answered the phone. That’s how things rolled back then. It was an awkward conversation.

I sent the essay to another top magazine. An editor there read and rejected it. I can’t remember if we spoke on the phone or corresponded by mail, but I remember his objection clearly. He didn’t like my comparison between my being blacklisted and McCarthyism. McCarthyism, he said, was about people going to jail; my essay was about people losing jobs and careers (which had happened to one of my fellow unionists, a student of the conservative classicist Donald Kagan).

The editor, of course, was wrong about that. Relatively few people went to jail under McCarthyism. Thousands upon thousands, however, lost their jobs and careers. That’s what McCarthyism was: political repression via employment. It didn’t matter. He knew what he knew.

Fifteen years later, there was a union drive at the magazine where this editor worked. He led it. He was fired.

My piece wasn’t great; it should have been rejected. I was an amateur, and it needed work. But I can’t help feeling that some part of the disconnect back then—the easy ignorance and confident incuriosity that so often pass in the media for common sense—had to do with where the creative class was in the 1990s: liberal on everything but unions.

Again, not anymore.

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 11

by John Q on June 6, 2018

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first ten chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 11: Market failure: Information, uncertainty and financial markets
. Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

[click to continue…]

Yet more on the generation game

by John Q on June 5, 2018

Following my critique of generational cliches in the New York Times a while back, I was invited to talk to public radio program Innovation Hub. Here’s the link. If you couldn’t get past the NYT paywall, this gives a pretty good idea of my argument.

Democratic legitimacy and the ethics of asylum

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2018

I was invited to participate in a panel at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre last week on the theme “Democratic legitimacy and the ethics of asylum” alongside David Miller and Mollie Gerver, with Matthew Gibney in the chair. My remarks went something like this:

Our title today is “democratic legitimacy and the ethics of asylum”. There are many things this could mean, but I think that the person who formulated this title probably had it in mind to draw our attention to a supposed conflict between two principles or ideals. The first is our duty as citizens and as the states that we constitute to live up to our responsibilities to refugees (perhaps as understood in relation to the 1951 Convention to which the UK is a party and in subsequent jurisprudence, including its 1967 extension). The second is a requirement that the governments of democratic states be responsive to what their citizens want and should not pursue policies, including in the general area of immigration, that go against those citizens’ wishes. It then looks as if there is a tension or even a contradiction, because the UK’s declared international commitments point to an openness towards those fleeing their countries out of fear of persecution, whereas the general public, often fed a diet of stories alleging that asylum seekers are really economic migrants in disguise, want a generally restricive immigration policy backed up by fairly robust enforcement measures.

But there is much that we can usefully challenge in that brief account of the issue, both in the areas of fact and of principle. Let me deal with some issues of fact first. At least in the case of the UK, the reality is that an extremely hostile and restrictive policy towards refugees corresponds with and is responsive to the putative attitudes of the general public. Despite the propensity of both ministers and the Home Office robotically to utter the stock formula, “The UK has a proud history of providing protection …”, the UK actually hardly takes in any refugees. According to Refugee Action, in mid-2015 there were, 117,234 refugees and 37,829 pending asylum seekers (0.24 per cent of the population). To get a sense of those numbers, if Bristol City’s Ashton Gate stadium (capacity 16,600) were full, that proportion is equivalent to a grand total of 40 spectators. As we know, the UK takes active measures to prevent people likely to claim asylum from arriving on its territory, using methods including visa restrictions and carrier sanctions. The few who slip through the net are made to live in substandard housing, forced to exist on £35 a week, are sometimes detained, are often subjected to harsh reporting regimes that require them to travel long distances, are routinely disbelieved by Home Office staff who often assess their claims incompetently and unfairly (as we know from the high rates of successful appeals), are excluded from the labour market and sometimes from other activities such as study. Failed asylum seekers who cannot return home are forced into destitution; those whose refugee status is recognized often become destitute because of the obstacles in the way of them getting bank accounts, housing etc. I could go on, but there is no need. So it turns out that there is no gap between democratic legitimacy, so narrowly conceived, and the UK goverment’s own miserable conception of its ethical duties to refugees, a conception that it claims to be in line with its international commitments.
[click to continue…]

It’s a little-known fact that John Dewey, the father of Pragmatism, started his career as ‘the midnight philosopher’, a lab assistant for Victor Frankenstein. (He didn’t have the ‘stache yet, you will note. He grew that later, to cover his exit shortly before the mob with the torches and pitchforks showed. But the resemblance is unmistakable.)

Percentiles (repost from 2011)

by John Q on June 3, 2018

I’m reposting this piece from 2011, as a prebuttal of arguments like this. I give a bit more detail here.

One of the most striking successes of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been the “We are the 99 per cent” idea, and more specifically in the identification of the top 1 per cent as the primary source of economic problems.

[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Port of Liverpool Building

by Chris Bertram on June 3, 2018

Port of Liverpool Building

Eric Schliesser on Omelas and Ideology

by John Holbo on June 1, 2018


… the representation of Omelas shows how an ideology that is grounded in the truth, in a society in which philosophy and knowledge exist, is possible … Even so, I insist that their self-understanding is a form of ideology. By ‘ideology’ I mean (without pretending to have offered an analysis or to be at all precise) a discourse that (i) justifies a status quo – in which some are subjugated (made miserable, exploited, etc.) – and (ii) which prevents from conceiving alternatives to the status quo. Only (i) is necessary for something to be an ideology, but (ii) is an important function. This (i-ii) is precisely what happens when the children begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom.” What they say is (let’s stipulate) all true, but it ends up justifying continued misery for the child.

I’m interested because I wrote about this a while back. I’m not sure I like this semi-definition of ‘ideology’. I confess, I’ve really never thought about how ‘ideology’ can be usefully teased apart from error-implying notions like rationalization, bias, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, more neutral, but socially thicker terms like belief-system, value-system. (I am aware a great deal of ink has been spilled over ‘ideology’, over the years, yes. Just not by me.) One of the things that’s disturbing about Omelas is our strong suspicion that, even if the citizens are justified, they would keep on doing it even if they weren’t. Because they are human. But this is cross-cut by the fact that the Omelans do something that humans never would: namely, confront the facts squarely and honestly. Is ideology always psychic self-preservation from inconvenient facts? The Omelans, oddly, have no such mechanisms. Which makes the story surreal, which is satisfying. But perhaps inhumanly unhelpful as political parables go?