From the monthly archives:

August 2018

Oh I feel old

by John Holbo on August 30, 2018

But I was charming and non-arbitrary in my lovely youth. Buy me a drink, will you, lad?

Gone are the happy days when we dialed up to submit a comment to, only to be abused by Glenn Greenwald or destroyed — respectfully — by the academics at Crooked Timber. Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere, a term we mocked for years until we found it charming and utopian. Blogs felt like gatherings of the like-minded, or at least the not completely random. Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context — why else would they be spending time in the comments section of a blog that looked like 1996? Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless.


Economics in Two Lessons: Acknowledgements

by John Q on August 30, 2018

Nearly seven years after I started, I’ve finally submitted the manuscript of Economics in Two Lessons to Princeton University Press. There’s still a lot of work to be done in turning it into a published book, and some changes are still needed, but this is as close to a milestone as I’m going to get.

Over the fold are the Acknowledgements. As I mention, I’m sure to have omitted someone, so if you have contributed comments and your name is missing, please point this out. Also, if there’s anyone commenting under a pseudonym who’d like me to use their real name, or vice versa, I’ll be happy to make the change.

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The American Political Science Association is holding its annual convention this coming week in Boston. As luck would have it, the three hotels (all owned by the Marriott chain) at which the convention is being held are in the midst of a labor dispute with the hotels’ workers, who are members of Local 26 of UNITEHERE.

The issues are many, but the main one is that, as the union contract has expired and the workers renegotiate a new one, they’d like to make sure that a hotel worker should only have to work at one job—not two, not three—in order to support herself and her family. That’s the workers’ demand: “One job should be enough.” And that’s the name of their campaign, which you can read more about here.

Additionally, the workers are frustrated by the hotels’ cynical use of environmentalism to cut costs and increase the burden on workers.

Whenever you go to a hotel these days, you see these signs: don’t wash your towels every day, save the environment. Or don’t opt for housekeeping, make the planet green. Sounds great, right? For the workers, it’s a nightmare. According to this eye-opening expose in the Boston Globe:

But the housekeepers who would otherwise be cleaning these rooms, many of them immigrants, say the increasingly popular programs are cutting into their livelihoods by reducing their hours, making their schedules more erratic, and — ironically — making their jobs harder. That’s because rooms that go without housekeeping for several days are often a wreck — trash piled up, shower doors coated in gunk, crumbs in the carpet, and hair everywhere.

I can’t help noting the irony: The hotel industry, which depends on the carbon-emitting and planet-destroying activity of millions of people hopping into their cars and driving to the airport where they then fly hundreds and thousands of miles to their destinations, happily gives its customers the opportunity to do their little bit for the planet by cutting workers’ hours and making their lives and jobs harder. I guess this is the hotel version of carbon offsets, and as is often the case, it’s working class people of color, many from the Global South, who pay the price.

I reached out to one of the officers at Local 26, who said that the union is not asking people to boycott the hotel or to refuse to cross picket lines. At least not yet. Instead, here are three things the union would like members of APSA to do:

  • Sign this pledge to support Marriott workers at this dispute develops.
  • Refuse the “Make a Green Choice/Your Choice” program at check in.
  • Participate in an informational picket and action that is planned at the Sheraton, one of the main hotels of the convention, on Thursday, August 30, at 1 pm.


The soft bigotry of low expectations

by Harry on August 26, 2018

Adam Grant offers excellent advice for students and administrators, and lets professors completely off the hook. Observing that the expert academic is often not an expert teacher, he advises students to look for professors who are good teachers, and advises administrators to create separate career tracks for researchers and teachers (something that, as we’ve talked about before, can work well only if the teaching faculty have equal governance rights and clear pathways for career advancement). So far so good.

But why are so many expert professors not good teachers? Well, it’s not in any sense their fault. Talking about his incompetent professors at Harvard he says:

It wasn’t that they didn’t care about teaching. It was that they knew too much about their subject, and had mastered it too long ago, to relate to my ignorance about it. Social scientists call it the curse of knowledge. As the psychologist Sian Beilock, now the president of Barnard College, writes, “As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse.”

Maybe, just maybe, that’s true of his professors. But its probably not. I would guess that, in fact, they didn’t care about teaching, or if they did they cared about it in the way that I care about the fate of the red squirrel: I really do wish it the very best but I am not going to do anything to help it. Most of his professors were probably good learners, and my educated guess is that they didn’t put a lot of that learning effort into learning how their students learn, or how to be effective instructors in the classroom. I do agree that being an expert in the field and having been top of the class when one was a student oneself are handicaps in acquiring and maintaining the complex skills that a teacher needs. But many can overcome them: observe excellent teachers; get others to observe you, talk to your students a lot, and especially to those who struggle with the material. Practice communicating effectively with students; keep practicing it. Talk to good high school teachers about how they motivate weaker students (I sat on a train yesterday while a 75 year old former headteacher gave my about-to-start-teaching daughter a brilliant refresher on how to approach her first 3 weeks in a secondary school — most of my colleagues, like me, are sufficiently good as learners and sufficiently limited as teachers, that sitting eavesdropping would have been as a fruitful use of their time as it was of mine). Establish formal mechanisms for discussing and improving teaching in your department. I can believe that one of his professors would have remained dreadful in the face of such effort, but not that all of them would have.

One-Star Reviews of Chartres Cathedral

by John Holbo on August 25, 2018

Of course you can write online Google reviews of Chartres Cathedral, so sometimes it gets one star.

“wrong location information, wrong in a game to find the place because of it”

(Reminds me of a story.)

“Nothing to do with that of Quasimodo’s film”

(Oh, THAT Notre Dame!)

Moving on to two-star territory:

“The mosaics are impressive, although too bluish for my taste, for the rest despite its size I was disappointed.”

“well, look like so many others”

(If you’ve seen one Cathedral at Chartres, you’ve seen them all.)


“It’s A huge Building …”

“… Found this Cathedral while walking around …”

(Wouldn’t it be amazing to have been the first person to discover the Cathedral at Chartres?)

“Big, fresh, relaxing, silent, meditating, beauty …”

(Considerable consensus on bigness. But not unanimous!)

So then I checked one-star reviews of the Grand Canyon. It seemed like more reviewers were in on the gag by now. There are also reviews for the Pacific Ocean (3.5 stars average). I think being a professional ocean critic would be an ok gig. Then I checked Northern Hemisphere. Google doesn’t let you rate hemispheres. Or elements on the periodic table. Who decides? Then I walked right into it. ‘Why can’t I rate the sun?’ I asked the youngest daughter. ‘Dad, it would only get one star.’ Oh, snap. You see what I did to myself there?

So How Serious Is This?

by John Holbo on August 22, 2018

Manafort and, especially, Cohen.

I honestly can’t tell. Ever since Lester Holt and ‘nothing matters anymore’ I really can’t tell what matters anymore. I mean: obviously any other President would be toast. But Trump? I’m reading Lawfare. But it seems to me the question is: can Congress ignore it? Signs point to: yes. At least until January. Obviously if Congress can ignore, they will.

In the meantime, I would just like to remind you that Jesus colluded with the sinners.

How Many Times, Sweethearts?

by Belle Waring on August 21, 2018

Like most people (I think?), if I’m listening to an album with a song I dearly love I will hit the back icon on my phone screen and just listen to that joint again. And again. And then, additionally, again. I’m not sure what the limit has ever been. I mentioned this already about the Rolling Stones “Worried About You.” I have listened to it about 12 times this morning, and it’s just starting again. I’m trying to think what other songs demand extravagant repetition. I once made a mix tape to listen to on my long commute to high school that had Van Morrison’s “Madam George” twice in a row at the start, so I only had to go back once, but with the distinctive sound of the rewind clattering softly for such a long time.

Big Star is a little tough because there are so many songs. “Stroke It Noel” is the my one truest, though. I was both in love and depressed when I listened to it first, which may explain my obsessive fondness. When I learned about Big Star (which was in my first year of graduate school, meaning I wasted actual years of my life not listening to Big Star) I had the LP, so I had to sit by the turntable and pick up the needle and move it back again and again. I’m damn good at having the needle slowly settle down into the tiny groove of silent space. I know I’ve told you this, but maybe not all of you. I had the funny experience of going home to my dad’s and playing Big Star and having him say, “is that Alex Chilton?” I said yes, and his response was “I know that guy. I think he’s in Tennessee.” Me, breathless, “could you, like, call him up?” “Yeah, I could get his number from [my godfather.]” Me: soul swiftly leaving body “then–” “I wouldn’t, though, I hate that guy. He’s an asshole.” DAD WHY?! So, that.

Let me think of some other repeats. Mmmm…Sam Cooke “Cupid” live–so piercing and sweet. Teenage Fanclub “December.” I’ll post later about how ideally songs like this are 2:59 or less, because that’s just the perfect length, but also because it’s memorialized in The Clash’s “Hitsville UK: “the band came in and knocked them dead/in two minutes fifty-nine.” However I need the desktop and John is like, doing real work, god (eyeroll emoji). Many of these are longer but arresting; quite a number of my faves are a lot shorter than 2:59, like “Stroke It Noel” coming in at 2:06. You just have to listen to that again. Warren Zevon “The French Inhaler”–how did he convince Stevie Nicks to sing “where will you go/with your scarves and your miracles/who’s going to know who you are?” There are not enough recent songs on here which is not totally representative of what music I listen to but I’m blanking out somehow. The Mountain Goats (not recent, but I just thought of it): “This Year”; this is a gimme, but I had a year to get through or die, so I deserve this song. (Also “Wear Black” off their latest album). Sorry about the radio silence; things have been going epically badly, and we’re by no means out of the woods. My psychologist has suggested that withdrawing from other humans, practical necessities, and the entire world, alone with my sweet headphones, listening to the same song over and over in an OCD way is harmful to my mental health, or at least not best practices. Hah what does he know. Share your “must be listened to multiple times” favorites in coments

I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Avital Ronell/Nimrod Reitman sexual harassment story. Here are some excerpts:

The question of sex, of Ronell’s work and stature in academe, of literary theory or critical theory or the academic left, of the supposed hypocrisy of the scholars who rallied to her side, of the fact that the alleged harasser is a woman and gay while the alleged victim is a man and gay — all of this, if one reads Reitman’s complaint, seems a little beside the point. And has, I think, clouded the fundamental issue. Or issues.

What’s clear from the complaint is just how much energy and attention — both related and unrelated to academic matters — Ronell demanded of Reitman, her student. At all hours of the night, across three continents, on email, phone, Skype, in person, on campus, on other campuses (Ronell berates Reitman when he does not accompany her to the weekly lectures she is giving at Princeton that semester; according to Reitman, she even punishes him for this act of desertion, removing him from a conference she was organizing and at which he had been slated to present), in apartments, classrooms, hallways, offices, subway stations (there are multiple scenes at the Astor Place stop, with Ronell either insisting on walking Reitman to the train or keeping him on the phone until he gets on the train), and elsewhere. It’s almost as if Reitman could have no life apart from her. Indeed, according to the complaint, when Reitman had visitors — a member of his family, a friend — Ronell protested their presence, seemingly annoyed that Reitman should attend to other people in his life, that he had other people in his life. That really is the harassment: the claims she thought she could make on him simply because he was her advisee.

The issue of sex always clouds these discussions. One side focuses on the special violation that is supposed to be sexual harassment; the other side (including many feminists) accuses the first of puritanism and sex panic. Try as they might, neither side ever gets beyond the sex.

Hanging over all of these exchanges, unmentioned, is the question of power. This is a grad student trying to make his way in an institution where everything depends on the good (or bad) word of his adviser.

The precinct of the academy in which this story occurs prides itself on its understanding of power. Unfortunately, that understanding is often not extended to the faculty’s dealings with graduate students, where power can be tediously, almost comically, simple. Cross your adviser in any way, and that can be the end of your career.

In her various responses to the case, Ronell implies that people on the outside of these relationships don’t understand the shared language, the common assumptions, the culture of queer and camp (and of being Israeli, which both she and Reitman are). As soon as she went there, my antenna went up. It reminded me of communitarians in the 1980s and 1990s, who made similar arguments about local cultures, that people outside of them don’t understand the internal meanings of the specific codes and customs, particularly when those codes and customs are oppressive toward women or gays and lesbians or people of color, that people on the outside don’t understand how differently that oppressiveness might read to someone on the inside. And it also reminded me of Judith Shklar’s admonition to the communitarians: Before you buy the story of shared codes and customs, make sure to hear from the people on the lower rungs, when they are far away from the higher rungs, to see how shared that code truly is.

For all of Ronell’s talk of shared codes and such, there is one experience, one code, in this story that every academic — gay, straight, male, female, black, white, brown, trans, queer — has shared: being a graduate student.

And here is the whole piece.

Do The Nordic Codetermination Moonwalk

by John Holbo on August 18, 2018

I am amused.

Thus, Kevin D. Williamson:

Senator Warren’s proposal entails the wholesale expropriation of private enterprise in the United States, and nothing less. It is unconstitutional, unethical, immoral, irresponsible, and — not to put too fine a point on it — utterly bonkers.

Yglesias points out that this is obviously false.

Williamson responds to Yglesias (while being careful not to link to Yglesias): “property rights would be diminished by the adoption of Warren’s plan.” That is, there would be wealth redistribution.

How could Yglesias not see that saying the first thing was just saying the second thing?

“It isn’t a difficult thing to understand, unless you have an investment in failing to understand it.”

How did The Atlantic fail to snap this prize up when they had the chance?

Decoding the Deep State

by Henry Farrell on August 17, 2018

Robert Litt has a piece in Lawfare, which probably deserves some further attention, if only because smart people seem to be misinterpreting it:

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Someone on Westminster Hour this week, discussing the idea of a people’s vote, mentioned the poor British voter who won’t be grateful to be drawn back to the polls for yet another vote. Brenda from Bristol was cited.
[UPDATE: in the first comment below Russell Arben Fox points us to this much better piece by the late Anthony King which says the same things and much more…]

Well, they should try living here. I voted this week in the primaries. I voted in only three of the races — Governor, State Assembly, and (because my wife was hovering over me and pressed the button herself), Lieutenant Governor (whatever that is — and I should add that I spelled it wrong 7 different ways before finally looking it up). But there were plenty more races, some uncontested (I don’t vote in uncontested races, unless I feel strongly negative about the candidate, in which case I write in the name of my most distinguished former colleague). Here’s a list of the other races:

Attorney General
Secretary of State
State Treasurer
US Senator
US Congress
County Sheriff
County Clark of Circuit Court

I have to vote again in November in the general election.

Every year we have one or two school board elections — primary, and general (in the spring — there are 4 elections per year in even years, and two a year in odd years).

Here’s a selection of other positions for which there is a primary, and a general, election (some are in the spring, others in the fall):
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Economics, Trumpism and Migration

by John Q on August 11, 2018

It’s obvious enough by now that support for Trumpism in the US and elsewhere is motivated primarily by racial and cultural animus, and not (or at least not in any direct way) by economic concerns. Still, to the extent that Trumpism has any economic policy content it’s the idea that a package of immigration restrictions and corporate tax cuts[1] will make workers better off by reducing competition from migrants and increasing labor demand from corporations. The second part of this claim has been pretty thoroughly demolished, so I want to look mainly at the first. However, as we will see, the corporate tax cuts remain central to the argument.

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Arthur Machen – A Fragment of Life

by John Holbo on August 9, 2018

Quiet around here of late. I just enjoyed an audiobook, The Great God Pan and Other Weird Tales, by Arthur Machen, narrated by Peter Wickham. (I got from Audible.) I recently read The Hill of Dreams and found it fairly astounding, so I wanted to revisit “The Great God Pan” and “The White People” (real classics, those two.) Some folks might object that the audiobook cuts out some of the episodic bits from The Three Imposters – “White Powder” and “Black Seal” – but that’s ok. They are stand-alone. But the one in the set that I really loved, that I never knew before, is “A Fragment of Life”. A novella. It’s one of those sad English clerk and wife experience strange mystic growth in the dreary London suburbs-type possibly-fairies affairs. “Darnell had received what is called a sound commercial education, and would therefore have found very great difficulty in putting into articulate speech any thought that was worth thinking; but he grew certain on these mornings that the ‘common sense’ which he had always heard exalted as man’s supremest faculty was, in all probability, the smallest and least-considered item in the equipment of an ant of average intelligence.” That’s sounds like a first line but really it’s from the middle and – how can I put it: it handles its own heavy-handed re-enchantment theme with such a wonderfully light touch. I enjoyed the gentle ride so vastly and enormously. How can I describe without telling it? It’s like Chesterton, but instead of bouncing around or standing on its head, or executing a fake-military about-face and marching into the sea, it just keeps sliding dreamily sideways, out of its own frame, scene by scene, small episode by episode. It builds in the slowest, strangest way. It doesn’t really build but, in the end, how could I possibly mind the odd spot where it leaves me? And having it read to me nicely, while I was doing some calm drawing? My brain feels so much better.

Arthur Machen fans in the audience tonight? Never read him? Probably you should start with “The Great God Pan”.

Sunday photoblogging: St Nicholas Market, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on August 5, 2018

St Nicholas Market, Bristol

Touched by the hands in Pech Merle

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 4, 2018

We visited the Cave of Pech Merle yesterday, which is famous for its prehistorical paintings of bisons, mammoths, horses, and other animals. Those paintings have been made by people who, according to our guide, were almost identical to us, except, she said, that they were taller than us – on average 1 meter 85 centimeter. Pech Merle has a website that is a bit slow (at least, given my present internet-conditions), but it has a very interesting part where you can enter the cave virtually.
I’ve visited many caves in my life, but never one with prehistorical paintings, and was very impressed. If you ever get a chance to see them, do go see them! Although the crown piece of the cave are two dotted horses, which are large and in excellent condition and include something of an optical illusion (avant la lettre?) — I was especially touched by the painting of the hands of the people. There are a number of hands, painted in black, close to the dotted horses, presumably by a man (or several men); and then there is this single hand in red, which is presumably from a woman. At first, I was surprised to note that the hands touched me more than the animals (which may be seen as artistically more sophisticated). I guess that seeing a hand brings the presence of the human being closer than seeing a non-human animal. People, almost identical to us, who made paintings in a cave, some 20.000 years ago, that we can still watch today…