From the monthly archives:

June 2020

Reappraisals (repost from 2011)

by John Q on June 30, 2020

  • As Princeton has just repudiated Woodrow Wilson, I thought I’d repost this from 2011, which seems relevant to a lot of current discussion*

As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms[1], something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere. So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

What has brought this to mind is running across George Will’s campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who always seemed to be presented in hagiographic terms until relatively recently. Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson: a consistent racist, who lied America into the Great War, and used Sedition acts and similar devices to suppress opposition. His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint[2], and his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

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“Traditional British values” in political science

by Chris Bertram on June 30, 2020

Yesterday, one of those reports was released purporting to reveal some things about British political attitudes. The take-home was that the public were closer to Labour than the Tories on the economic dimension but that things were reversed when it came to social attitudes, with voters being more authoritarian and traditional than their representatives and more closely aligned with the Tories. This, coupled with the claim that the social values dimension is gaining in importance compared to the economic one, looms large in some “political science” explanations of Brexit and Tory success.

Looking at the report, I noticed an odd thing: one of the questions was about “traditional British values” and whether respondents thought young people should respect them more. I imagined, naively that there must be a list somewhere of what these values are, given that they are purportedly what voters have opinions about. But no. Respondents are expected to interpret the question for themselves, so if a person thinks Britain is traditionally open and tolerant and thinks this has gone into reverse in recent years and says “yes”, their response will nevertheless count as a score for authoritarianism. I don’t know how likely my hypothetical case is, but it is at least possible, particularly, perhaps, from a disappointed immigrant who had been sold on a particular image of Britain.

There is, by the way, an official list of British values. It occurs in the case of the British goverment’s “Prevent” strategy, which is supposed to combat extremism. According to that policy, the British values are “democracy”, “the rule of law”, “individual liberty and mutual respect”, and “Tolerance of different faith and beliefs”. If you run an educational establishment, you have specific duties to encourage these. (A nursery for under-5s I’m acquainted with had a little official explainer on the wall, telling its charges that the “rule of law” is about “following the rules”.) I suppose, hypothetically, that a respondent with these values in mind, and thinking of the Brexiteer and Johnson record on them – plans for voter suppression, illegal prorogation of Parliament, frequent abuse of executive power in immigration, racist and Islamophobic diatribes by the man at the top – might regret their demise and say “yes” but be coded as “authoritarian”. Perhaps not so likely, I admit.
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Trumpism after Trump

by John Q on June 29, 2020

Predicting election outcomes is always risky (for example, the People’s Action Party could lose the current election in Singapore), but life involves taking some risks. So I’m going to predict that Trump is going to lose in November, and lose badly*. He is far behind in the polls, substantially further than in 2016. More relevantly perhaps, the resurgence of the pandemic in Arizona, Florida and Texas has ended any chance that the economy will be successfully reopened and the pandemic clearly under control by November, not to mention giving the citizens of those states very personal reasons to vote against him.

What will happen to Trumpism after Trump’s defeat, in the US and globally? Here are some very disorganised thoughts.

A big part of Trump’s appeal is that he is a winner, and a big part of Trumpist mythology comes from wins against the odds, as with Brexit and Johnson and, more periphally, with the re-election of the Morrison government in Australia (which had the good sense to dump most of its ideology for the duration of the crisis, but is now returning to its roots). With that gone, Trump’s support will be much weakened So, the stage will be set for a fight in which the hard neoliberals who controlled the party before Trump attempt to reassert themselves, breaking with Trump’s explicit racism while still trying to keep the Repubs white voting base behind them.

On the other hand, Trump has lots of supporters who will refuse to accept the reality of a defeat (not enough, I think, and particularly not enough in positions of power, for him to stop the election or overturn its result). And there are more competent Trumpists, in the mould of Viktor Orban, keen to push an ethnonationlist, racist and authoritarian policy program without Trump’s clownish demagoguery.

Internationally, a defeat for Trump probably won’t make much difference to the ethnonationalist voting base of the Trumpist right. That base has always been there, ready to turn out whenever some other group can be identified as the enemy. But it will, I think, have a significant effect on the right wing of the political class. Some of them will find themselves outside the bounds of legitimate discussion (this is already happening in a small way in Australia), while others will engage in some quick reinvention.

The big question is whether hard neoliberalism can recover. On the one hand, the financial sector still has huge economic power, which usually translates into political power. And the common-sense economics of the Swabian housewife still retains its grip on many. On the other hand, just about everything that is identified with hard neoliberalism (globalisation of trade and financial flows, the hypertrophic growth of the financial sector, trickle-down economics and more) is massively unpopular. That’s particularly true of those under 40, who never experienced the illusory prosperity of the 1990s, or the crises of the 1970s (minor by comparison with the last decade, but a massive shock to expectations conditioned by the postwar boom).

The best hope for the US right is that Biden and the Democrats are unable to fix the catastrophic mess they will inherit. More on this soon, perhaps.

  • I meant to have a footnote about the possibility of Trump rejecting the election outcome, but covered it with a parenthetical statement.

As Eszter said in her post on health living,, everyone has their own story and their own health. That’s true, but we are all subject to the same physical laws. So, here’s my story and some thoughts on the physics.

I managed to lose about 12 Kg over a couple of years, almost entirely through exercise.

The basic physics is simple
(1) weight loss = (kilojoules burnt – kilojoules consumed)*k,
(2) kilojoules burnt = base metabolism + work done

where k ≃ 0.025 is a constant reflecting the rate at which your body converts kilojoules of food energy into kilograms of fat. If you can alter the right hand side of (1) through any combination of diet and exercise then you will lose weight.

The problem is that altering either of these, or even altering while holding the other constant is really hard. Dieting makes you tired and slows your metabolism. Exercise increases your appetite, and also encourages you to flop once you stop exercising. All that’s because your body isn’t evolved to lose weight easily. Hunger and fatigue are both adaptations to stop you doing that. And, even if you can shift (1) enough to lose some weight, (2) puts a limit on how much you can lose. Balance is restored by the fact that your lighter body takes less energy to maintain and move around.

The crucial thing is to find some change for which you have both the willpower to adopt it initially and the willingness to maintain it indefinitely. For me, as I said, that’s been exercise. I aim to burn 4000 kj (about 1000 calories) a day in addition to base metabolism, which implies about 100 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise. That’s logistically feasible for someone with flexible working hours and no kids at home, but very difficult otherwise. And it takes a long while to get to the point where you really enjoy it. That’s why the experts mostly recommend working on diet. But, if you can manage it, I think exercise is the better way to go.

Danielle Allen wins the Kluge prize

by Henry Farrell on June 22, 2020

The New York Times story is here. We ran a Crooked Timber seminar on her book on the American Declaration of Independence. I am delighted to see this prize be awarded not for past achievements, but for someone who is still caught up in doing, thinking and changing the world.

Healthy living

by Eszter Hargittai on June 21, 2020

This post is about health, weight management in particular. Friends have been asking me to write up my experiences so here it is. It is a personal story and offers no social analysis other than to acknowledge that living healthy is by far not the cheapest option out there, which is of course a problem.

A little over a year ago, my doctor told me that I was pre-diabetic. I had been steadily gaining weight for several years. I didn’t feel good in my body anymore, but wasn’t managing to do much about it. Knowing that my weight gain was having medical repercussions was the final push I needed to start making significant changes. I set out to lose 25* lbs (~11 kg) in three months and eventually lost 30 in four (for illustrative purposes, the books on the right equal that weight). I know many people struggle with similar issues and several friends have asked me to tell them how I did it so I decided to write up some details. I purposefully waited a year to do so as I only wanted to report back if I managed sustained change. I did. I started on June 21, 2019 and I’m 28 lbs below what I was then consistently hovering between that and 30 lbs down (such fluctuation or even a bit more is common).

As a caveat to this post, I want to say that this is not meant as weight-shaming or body-shaming. Everyone has their own story and their own health, this is mine.

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My institution requires a Scholarly Activities Report every year, which includes subheadings for research, teaching, and service. There is no heading for pastoral work — indeed, pastoral work is so unrecognized officially that I don’t know if there is a word for it (“pastoral” is the word they use in Britain; I think ‘mentoring’ is the nearest equivalent in the US, but, for example, the only official recognition of ‘mentoring’ for undergraduates my institution has is an award for mentoring undergraduates specifically as researchers, which is not what I’m talking about here). But pastoral work is an essential component of keeping the enterprise moving — helping prevent students from dropping out, helping them deal with the stresses that inhibit their learning, or distract or demotivate them, and just sometimes being a friendly supportive presence at the edge of their lives.

Of course at American universities over time faculty outsourced a lot of pastoral work to student services professionals. And some of the work – mental health counseling, financial aid counseling, and some academic advising – is so specialized that it would be inefficient for faculty to learn the relevant knowledge and skills.[1] But faculty still have a lot of pastoral work to do – typically, on a residential campus, a teacher is the main adult that a student regularly interacts with, and is the best placed employee to notice if something is going wrong, at least when it is affecting academic performance. And teaching is an intimate activity: successful teaching requires a certain level of individualization and mind-reading that inevitably requires and results in getting to know the student somewhat, and in healthy relationships of that kind students are at least somewhat liable to seek support beyond the academic. If this wasn’t happening at all something would be seriously wrong. And if it is happening, it is time-consuming.

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Mr Dooley, right again

by John Q on June 16, 2020

The decision of the US Supreme Court, that the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was entirely predictable, based on the century old observation of the fictional Irish-American bartender Mr Dooley observed “The Soopreme Court follows the illiction returns.” As I said in 2018

At most, the court constitutes a veto point, able to block legislation that can be represented as violating constitutional protections. But most of the progressive agenda is clearly within the power of the legislature and executive. If the Democrats win the next few elections, the Roberts Court will be as much of a disappointment to its creators as the Warren Court in the 1960s

A decision restricting the interpretation of the Civil Rights Act would have had huge political costs for the Republican majority, without achieving any long term results. In the quite likely event that the Democrats gained control of both the Presidency and Congress sometime in the next few years, the decision would probably have prompted a new and even broader Civil Rights Act, as well as a potential trigger for expanding the court to create a Democratic majority. Even if this didn’t happen, the remaining state-level restrictions would have been chipped away in a series of losing campaigns for the right. From Roberts’ viewpoint the key goal has to be to keep bringing down decisions like Citizens United, which entrench Republican advantages. As for Gorsuch, the advantages are even clearer. His appointment is widely regarded as illegitimate, and a decision showing that “textualism” means “rightwing interpretations of the text” would have entrenched that. As it is, he can present himself as someone who, while conservative, is not a partisan hack.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out on the right. Roughly speaking, I’d expect the hard neoliberals to welcome the fact that this unwinnable fight is over. By contrast, the culture warriors who back Trump will be furious. Apparently, many are expecting a sweeping win in November, in which case they could amend the law.

The discretion to escalate

by Henry Farrell on June 14, 2020

Police forcing a protestor to bump them

[Reader Attention Conservation Notice: This post consists of me trying to make the obvious a little more precise, at considerable length. Since it’s on topics where I have no obvious expertise, I may very possibly not only be reinventing the wheel, but adding superfluous corners].

The video linked above has been doing the rounds on social media. A protestor is arguing with a police officer, who moves in front of him and then (clearly quite deliberately, from the body language) stops suddenly, so that the protestor has no choice but to bump into the officer. This then provides a pretext for the police to swarm the protestor and subdue him, presumably on the theory that he has physical assaulted the officer. Up to a couple of weeks ago, this kind of technique wouldn’t have gotten much public attention. Some of the problems (certainly far from all) with the police in the US and elsewhere, reduce down to the problem of how much discretion police should be allowed. Much of this problem, in turn, reduces down to what might be called the discretion to escalate. [click to continue…]

A guest post by Professor Sophie Grace Chappell (Philosophy, Open University)

As an open response to the following blog post by JK Rowling:

J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues

June 11 2020

Dear Ms Rowling,

I am as far as I know the only Professor of Philosophy in the UK who is also transgender. Because my own research is in ethics, because I have in the past been a Governor of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (though I’m not their spokeswoman here), and because obviously I am also personally involved, I have said a few things in public on transgender issues. So I hope I won’t offend you if I chip in with a few thoughts about the current furore over your recent remarks. [click to continue…]


by John Q on June 12, 2020

As statues of slavers are pulled down around the world*, we are getting the usual stuff from the political right about rewriting history and so on. This is obviously silly. Less than twenty years ago, the same people were thrilled by (misleadingly edited) images of US forces pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. A bit before that, Lenin and Stalin had their turn.

Wondering about other cases, I looked at Wikipedia to find out about memorials to the personification of treachery against the United States, Benedict Arnold, who won a number of military victories for the American side in the Revolutionary War, before changing sides. It turns out that there are a couple, but he is never mentioned by name and, in one case, is represented by an empty niche. As Wikipedia observes, this is a striking instance of the practice of damnatio memoriae.

On one view, the idea here is to erase all memory of those whose memorials are destroyed. But this doesn’t happen, at least not reliably. With the exception of Washington, Arnold is probably the only Revolutionary War general most Americans could name. And the effect of the latest protests has to bring attention to the evil acts of men who had long been forgotten.

Thinking more about the example of Arnold, one way to deal with monuments of this kind is to remove the status, but leave the plinth and the original inscription, along with an updated version explaining the history.

Broken Hearts

by Henry Farrell on June 9, 2020

Bleeding Heart Libertarians is no longer publishing new material. The final post is here. It’s an end worth noting, because it seems to me (I have no very specific knowledge, and have deliberately not asked any of the principals involved) to say something bigger about what is happening to libertarianism. [click to continue…]

The Politics of Disorder

by Kieran Healy on June 3, 2020

The wave of protest and unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by the police shows little sign of abating just yet. Unrest nationwide is, if anything, increasing as protesters are met with repression by the police. Civil unrest of this scope is unusual. The conjunction of mass protest and widespread disorder should be worrying to those in authority.

When property damage and theft happens as a side-effect of real mass protest, authorities in a democracy cannot baton, tear gas, or shoot their way to legitimacy. People want social order, but this isn’t like quelling a riot after a sports game. The key issue—as the Governor of Minnesota put it the other day—is that “there are more of them than us”. All the tactical gear in the world isn’t worth a damn, ultimately, if enough of the population ends up in open revolt against civil authority. There are just too many people.

That’s one reason the Army are on the scene already in DC. If the mobilization is large enough and it’s met with police repression and brutality—rather than some more accommodating strategy—then it will only take a few days before things seem to spin right out of control. The desire to present a “show of force” to protesters is understandable. It can be strategically sensible, too, insofar as it is aimed both at dealing with those in the streets and at securing the support of an approving audience who just want things to calm down. This calculus can change rapidly, however, as larger and larger numbers of people become directly and indirectly supportive of the protests.

Those actually running cities, and city police forces, are usually aware of this. Practical experience and decades of research makes it clear what’s at stake when “ordinary criminal behavior” is happening in the context of mass protest rather than as mere disorderly conduct. This is one of the reasons that authorities tend to blame “outside agitators” or “the media” or “protesters from out of state” as being the real cause of unrest. Protest organizers will do this too, often enough, blaming disorder on fringe groups or provocateurs who have illegitimately attached themselves to an otherwise peaceful protest. But if the bulk of a city’s population really is directly engaged in mass protest or indirectly supportive of it, and these protests are met with force by the authorities, then violent disorder will start to look less like pockets of disruption disapproved of by all and more like the loss of legitimacy.

In the United States, these pressures are exacerbated by racial stratification. The deep-seated racism of almost all aspects of U.S. life, and the residential racial segregation of many cities, makes it easier to mobilize the support of whites for the use of force in the name of social order. Even here, crises have been accommodated by efforts to redirect unrest towards an ordinary political process. The demand for social order without repression, after all, is not restricted to whites.

President Trump has no interest in routine politics. His instincts are authoritarian, his interest in the mechanics of governance is nil, and his attention span is minimal. He has been happy to cultivate the political support of the police and to egg on its paramilitary elements. Trump’s temperament intersects badly with long-term trends. The increasingly paramilitary culture (and equipment) of U.S. police forces has been noted by observers over the past twenty five years. The police were already aware that, thanks to astonishingly strong union contracts, weak internal oversight, and the doctrine of qualified immunity, individual officers would face no or minimal consequences for the use of excessive force, up to and including force that resulted in someone’s death.

Trump’s personal attitudes merely catalyzed what was already there. But it did so on both sides. Trump started out as a very unpopular leader and the scale of the economic crisis accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything much worse. Structurally, lockdown has put millions of people out of work. Contingently, the relatively small but highly visible wave of reopening protests threw the current unrest into sharp relief. In the former case, white protesters were allowed to vent their anger directly in the faces of police in ordinary uniform. Masked men with armalite rifles were permitted to walk onto the floor of state legislatures in the name of liberty. Such things are of course simply inconceivable in the context of black-led protest.

Thus were created the conditions for the fusion of mass protest and violent unrest. In the absence of mass mobilization for protest, imposing “Law and Order” by force is usually a politically successful tactic, at least in the short-run. The demand for order is the most basic demand of political life. But attempting to impose order by force when people are protesting in the streets en masse is much riskier, both for the leader wanting to “dominate” and for political institutions generally. A competent democratic leader may effectively de-escalate conflict and return it to the sphere of ordinary political struggle. Alternatively, a competent authoritarian may secure control of the police and military and get the backing of enough people to leave democracy behind. What you generally can’t do in a democracy, though, is “crush” or “dominate” real mass dissent purely by force without also causing political institutions to come crashing down around your head.

Self-respect, justice and black resistance

by Chris Bertram on June 3, 2020

One of the most important books I’ve read over the past couple of years is Tommie Shelby’s Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent and Reform. One of the passages that struck me most forcefully at the time is where he discusses the value of self-respect in the face of oppression. “Those with self-respect,” he writes, “live their lives in a way that conveys their conviction that they are proper objects of respect. For example, they resist the efforts of others to mistreat them and openly resent unfair treatment.” (98)

He has a brief, but powerful discussion of this value in and the need to resist if it is to be affirmed:

Oppression can erode a person’s sense of self-respect, causing one to doubt one’s claim to equal moral status. We can understand an attack on one’s self-respect as an action, policy, or practice that threatens to make one feel that one is morally inferior, that one does not deserve the same treatment as others. To maintain a healthy sense of self-respect under conditions of injustice, the oppressed may therefore fight back against their oppressors, demanding the justice they know they deserve, even when the available evidence suggests that justice is not on the horizon. They thereby affirm their moral worth and equal status.

…. Persons with a strong sense of self-respect sometimes refuse to co-operate with the demands of an unjust society. They stand up for themselves, are defiant in the fact of illegitimate authority, refuse to comply with unjust social requirements, protest maltreatment and humiliation, and so on, even when they know that such actions will not bring about justice or reduce theor suffering. Self-respect, then, can be a matter of living with a sense of moral pride despite unjust conditions. (99-100)

This seems absolutely right to me. Resistance may turn out to be futile in the sense that it brings about no lasting change or improvement in conditions, though we hope that it will. Often, as Shelby says a few lines later on, discretion is the better part of valour, both morally and prudentially. But sometimes people just have to stand up to affirm their status as human beings. And when they do the rest of us have to stand with them, and we deny their value, and demean our own if we turn our backs. This is why the many acts of resistance and protest by black Americans and those standing with them are so deeply moving and significant, however this ends.

I’ve been working for some time on a review of the first full-length text based on Modern Monetary Policy, Macroeconomics by William Mitchell, Randall Wray and Martin Watts. A near-final draft is over the fold

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