From the monthly archives:

October 2019

Not everyone who is a sceptic about the benefits of migration is a nativist. On the contrary, many progressive opponents of migration cite the harm that is done when people leave poor countries to make better lives in wealthy ones. The grounds for their opposition vary, but two particulary common reasons given are climate change and brain drain. Here, for example, is Rupert Read, philosopher and Extinction Rebellion spokesperson, [writing in The Ecologist in 2014](

>There must be absolutely no compromise whatsoever on the humanity and rights of immigrants, and on our responsibility to welcome and help to integrate those who are here. But we ought to accept the power of the reasoning that shows that a high level of immigration leads to significant problems – here, abroad, and in the future. It …increases  net environmental footprint – people migrating here whether from Estonia or East Africa suddenly jump their footprint dramatically: this is bad news of course for all things ecological / for future generations.

Other writers, two numerous to mention here, are worried about “brain drain” and the decision of wealthy professionals to take their skills, often developed at the state’s expense, to rich countries when there are so many people locally who need doctors, nurses, teachers and hedge-fund managers.
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… what replaces it will be even worse. That’s the (slightly premature) headline for my recent article in The Conversation.

The headline will become operative in December, if as expected, the Trump Administration maintains its refusal to nominate new judges to the WTO appellate panel. That will render the WTO unable to take on new cases, and bring about an effective return to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) which preceded the WTO.

An interesting sidelight is that Brexit No-Dealers have been keen on the merits of trading “on WTO terms”, but those terms will probably be unenforceable by the time No Deal happens (if it does).

LA - Downtown reflections

39 migrants found dead in Essex, England

by Chris Bertram on October 24, 2019

Yesterday morning, 39 migrants, now revealed to be Chinese nationals, were discovered dead in a transport container in Essex, England. Politicians were not slow to give their opinions about who was responsible, even though it is on ongoing murder investigation. [I have a short piece on this case]( at the London Review of Books blog.

On seeing Astra Taylor’s What is Democracy?

by Chris Bertram on October 22, 2019

I went to see occasional Timberite Astra Taylor’s remarkable film *What is Democracy?* last night. It takes us from Siena, Italy to Florida to Athens and from Ancient Athenian democracy through the renaissance and the beginning of capitalism to the Greek debt crisis, occupy and the limbo life of people who have fled Syria and now find themselves stuck. It combines the voices of Plato and Rousseau with those of ordinary voters from left and right, Greek nationalists and cosmopolitans, ex-prisoners, with trauma surgeons in Miami, Guatemalan migrants in the US, with lawmakers and academics, and with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. All the while it poses the questions of whether democracy is compatible with inequality and global financial systems and the boundaries of inclusion.

Some of the testimonies are arresting: the ex-prisoner turned barber who tells us of his nine years in a US prison of a hunger strike when the authorities tried to take the library away and of his problems adjusting to life of the outside, to being around women, and the fact that he’s denied the vote. And all the time he’s telling you this with attention and passion he’s clipping a customers beard, which adds a note of tension. We hear from trauma surgeons who tell us of the levels of violence in Miami – so much blood that the city is used for training by medics from the US military – and the shock of cycling from one neighbourhood to the next and experiencing swift transitions from opulence to utter destitution. We hear from a young Syrian woman who relates how she had to leave Aleppo after her mother was wounded by a stray bullet in her own home and whose idea of democracy is a country where she can lie safely in her bed.
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People's vote march- London 19 October 2019

From yesterday’s march.Tragically, the UK now is probably the member state with largest group of people who are enthusiastic about being part of the EU, and are critically aware of its shortcomings (as this placard tells us). Not a great photograph, but a record of an event. [Dipper and Stephen are banned from commenting on my threads.]

No true war is bad?

by John Q on October 13, 2019

On Facebook, my frined Timothy Scriven pointed to an opinion piece by classics professor Ian Morris headlined In the long run, wars make us safer and richer It’s pushing a book with the clickbaity title War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”. Timothy correctly guessed that I wouldn’t like it.

Based on the headline, I was expecting a claim along the lines “wars stimulate technological progress” which I refuted (to my own satisfaction at any rate) in Economics in Two Lessons”. But the argument is much stranger than this. The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity.

For the classical world at 100 CE or so, the era on which Morris is an expert, that argument seemed pretty convincing. As the famous Life of Brian sketch suggests, Roman rule delivered a lot of benefits to its conquered provinces.

The next 1900 years or so present a bit of a problem, though. There have been countless wars in that time, and no trend towards bigger states. On the contrary two or three dozen states (depending on how you count them) now occupy the territory of the former Roman Empire.

You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but then you have an even bigger problem. The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.

Morris avoids the problem by a “no true Scotsman” argument. He admits in passing that the 1000 years of war following the high point of Rome had the effect of breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones, but returns with relief to the era of true wars, in which big states always win. That story works, roughly, until 1914, when the empires he admires destroyed themselves, killing millions in the process.

After that, the argument descends into Pinker-style nonsense. While repeating the usual stats about the decline in violent deaths, Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

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The Imprints’ Archive

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 12, 2019

Almost ten years ago, Chris wrote a blogpost announcing that the last issue of Imprints had been sent to the subscribers. Political philosophers beyond a certain age had greatly enjoyed the articles, bookreviews and interviews published by Imprints, but it was not possible to continue. But we should not forget – and this post is merely a reminder for us not to forget – that the entire Imprints‘ Archive is online.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I went to a lecture by Elizabeth Anderson in Amsterdam, who – to my surprise – during her talk endorsed limitarianism. Chris remarked on FB that this was a departure from her earlier views in which she merely supported sufficientarianism. The 2005 interview with Anderson in Imprints seems to support Chris’ observation, since she said (p. 15) the following:

‘Some people care about getting lost of this stuff [that doesn’t matter from a political point of view]. Once citizens’ satiable interest in securing social equality are satisfied, and he system secures for all a decent chance to get more, the state has no further interests of justice in micromanaging how the gains from cooperation are divided.”

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The third lesson ?

by John Q on October 9, 2019

Another review of Economics in Two Lessons has come out. It’s by David Henderson and appears in Regulation, published by the Cato Institute (link to PDF). There’s a blog post with extracts here.

Unsurprisingly, given the source, it’s mainly critical of the analysis, but still has some kind words about the book. This para gives the flavour

Quiggin is a good writer who lays out much of the economics well. His analysis of rent control and price controls in general is a thing of beauty. Along the way, though, he makes small and big mistakes. He also shows by omission that the book, to be complete, badly needs a third lesson, on why government works so badly even when it intervenes in cases where markets work badly.

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Sunday photoblogging: 2-headed cow (from 2007)

by Chris Bertram on October 6, 2019

What are you looking at?

At Five Thirty Eight, Maggie Koerth-Baker has yet another article bemoaning the way partisanship biases our views. Apparently, one side, based on eyeballing, thinks the earth is flat, while the other, relying on the views of so-called scientists, or the experience of international air travel, regards it as spherical, or nearly so.

In the past, before the rise of partisanship, we would have agreed on a sensible compromise, such as flat on Sundays, spherical on weekdays, and undetermined on Saturdays. Moreover, there was a mix of views, with plenty of Democratic flat-earthers, and Republican sphericalists.

Of course, there is no way to resolve questions of this kind, but apparently, ““warm contact” between political leaders” will enable us to agree to differ, which would be a big improvement, at least until we decided whether to risk sailing over the edge of the world.

For a long time, I’ve been convinced that we can only improve our teaching practice in a reliable, systematic way up to some threshold. Below that threshold, we can read books, talk to those who have more experience, and refine our teaching by growing our knowledge of best practices for getting students to learn. But once we’ve really effortfully done all that, further gains just aren’t something we can get through any sort of studied practice. We hope we continue to improve, but our best bet is just to figure out over time how to fully inhabit our teaching skin.

This was never meant as an excuse for complacency: Further reading and study might make improvement more likely, so we shouldn’t let up our efforts once the low hanging fruit begins to seem depleted. (For one thing, we might be wrong about its being depleted!) But the kind of progress we can hope to make is different above the threshold than below. Above it, for example, there are few standards of success that aren’t endogenous in important ways to questions of value that we settle at early stages of thinking about what we as teachers want for our students.

To put it roughly: I thought that below some threshold, teaching is a science, and above it, an art.

Harry’s contribution to the Fall 2019 issue of Daedalus is beginning to convince me otherwise.  The issue “Improving Teaching: Strengthening the College Learning Experience,” features thirteen essays that focus on “what goes on inside the ‘black box’ of teaching and learning.”

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