From the monthly archives:

October 2020

The good effects of the Pandemic

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2020

The pandemic has been hitting many of us hard – from the (roughly) 100 million people who were poor and are now pushed into extreme poverty, but also those of us reading this blog who might be lucky enough not to have lost their job, or not to have fallen sick or having lost family members, but who are nevertheless feeling gloomy, missing friends, and social interactions as we knew them.

But is there then absolutely nothing good coming out of this pandemic?

I confess I had to think hard to not answer this question with “No, what were you thinking??”. Still, while the advantages of the pandemic are peanuts compared to all its bad effects, there are a few changes for the good. I’ll start with pointing out the ones I see in my live and around me; then you tell me what you see in yours. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Liverpool, multi-storey

by Chris Bertram on October 25, 2020

Liverpool - multi-storey

Why publish books open access?

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 23, 2020

This week is the 2020 Open Access week. I’m using the occasion to share my experiences with publishing a book open access, now almost 3 years ago. I’ve had multiple emails since publishing that book, mainly from established scholars who had earlier published with world-leading academic publishers, and who were wondering whether or not they should opt for a genuine non-profit open access publisher for their next book project. [click to continue…]

I’m in the New York Review of Books this morning, offering my thoughts on the election as part of the magazine’s series on November 2020. I make three points:  

  1. The right used to be thought of as a “three-legged stool” made up of economic libertarians, statist Cold Warriors, and cultural traditionalists. Whether that characterization was accurate, it expressed an understanding of the right as a political entity capable of creating hegemony throughout society. That is no longer the case. Today, the right’s three-legged stool is an artifact, a relic, of counter-majoritarian state institutions: the Electoral College, the Senate, and the courts.
  2. However undemocratic these three institutions may be, they are are eminently constitutional. The most potent source of the right’s power is neither fascism nor authoritarianism; it is gonzo constitutionalism.
  3. Should the Democrats win the White House and the Senate come November, they will have to engage in a major project of norm erosion just to enact the most basic parts of their platform. Should they do so—eliminating the filibuster, say, for the sake of achieving voting rights for all citizens—we will see that norm erosion is not how democracies die but how they are born.

Check the rest of it out here. And if all goes well, I should have a piece on the new translation of Max Weber’s Vocation Lectures coming out soon.

Too cheap to meter

by John Q on October 19, 2020

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Inside Story, looking at the implications of zero interest rates for renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Key para

Once a solar module has been installed, a zero rate of interest means that the electricity it generates is virtually free. Spread over the lifetime of the module, the cost is around 2c/kWh (assuming $1/watt cost, 2000 operating hours per year and a twenty-five-year lifetime). That cost would be indexed to the rate of inflation, but would probably never exceed 3c/kWh.

The prospect of electricity this cheap might seem counterintuitive to anyone whose model of investment analysis is based on concepts like “present value” and payback periods. But in the world of zero real interest rates that now appears to be upon us, such concepts are no longer relevant. Governments can, and should, invest in projects whenever the total benefits exceed the costs, regardless of how those benefits are spread over time.

Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas doorway

by Chris Bertram on October 18, 2020

Pézenas door

Sunday photoblogging: leaf

by Chris Bertram on October 11, 2020


In the process of working on my book-in-progress, The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, I’ve been trying to integrate a number of facts about the economy of which I’ve been more or less aware for a while, along with claims I want to make, and put them together into a coherent account of the economic system prevailing (in advanced/developed economies( in the 21st century and how it differs from the industrial goods economy of the 20th century.

As a step towards this, I’ve put together a list of factual claims which I think can be established reasonably firmly, along with claims I want to make that will be more contentious. My plan is to put this together into a coherent analysis, including supporting evidence. So, I’m keen to get good supporting links for any of these points (I have quite a bit, but more would be helfpul). I also want to be sure I’m not missing contrary evidence, and to adjust the claims if necessary, so please point this out also.

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We’re starting a new journal!

by Eszter Hargittai on October 8, 2020

Does the world really need yet one more academic journal? It does when there is an unmet need for disseminating certain types of work. Andy Guess, Kevin Munger (two political scientists) and I (a communication scholar/sociologist) are starting the Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media (link to temp Web site while the permanent one gets set up). The journal publishes quantitative descriptive social science. It does not publish research that makes causal claims. Descriptive work can be very important and also very resource-intensive to produce, yet notoriously hard to publish in existing outlets. We want there to be an outlet where people can free up the tremendous amount of information residing on their machines from data sets they have collected, but that they don’t write up and disseminate, because there is currently no place to do so. Thus our journal. JQD:DM is an open-access no-fee publication (for at least the first two years, ideally indefinitely). Check out the journal site for more on the motivation and more thoughts from Kevin on where he sees it fitting into the scientific enterprise.

Sister Ben / Margaret MacCurtain / Peig

by Maria on October 7, 2020

“They always bring up the toilets as an impediment to women. It’s always the toilets.”

In a seminar room in University College Dublin, some time in the spring of 1994, the historian and campaigning Dominican nun lectured final year students on twentieth century women’s history. I don’t remember if the examples Margaret MacCurtain gave us were from her own research – she was a copious and generous supporter and sharer of other scholars’ work – but her quotes from Irish politicians from the 1920s through the 1940s were bizarre and hilarious. Several generations of men had dutifully conveyed the sad but apparently insurmountable fact that women could not participate fully in public life because sports facilities and the buildings of state did not have women’s toilets. Margaret MacCurtain would rock with laughter, letting the ignorant men’s words speak to their own ridiculousness, and then barrel straight into a detailed and sympathetic analysis of why so many post-Civil War Irish women politicians were radically discomfiting. (Short answer; many were the widows and sisters of men shot by first the British and then by the Free Staters.) That was her to a ‘t’ – pulling together the cultural, the structural, the individual and the contingent practicalities that make history thick, urgent and real.

Ireland’s bravest and most beloved historian died on Monday night. Margaret MacCurtain, known to UCD students of the nineteen-sixties as Sister Ben (short for her assigned religious name, Benvenuta), was a Dominican sister and social activist who pioneered feminist history in a country (and a university department) that insisted there was simply no such thing. With other scholars, Sister Ben painstakingly established both a new area of research and the importance of women in the long struggle for Irish independence both before and after the foundation of the state. Working with Maureen Murphy of Hofstra University, New York, she established a channel of exchange between Irish and Irish-American historians whose scholarship first challenged then supplanted many complacent narratives of power with an almost infinitely diverse flora of ‘up from below’ reclamation any annaliste would be proud of. [click to continue…]

The risk of creeping apartheid

by Chris Bertram on October 6, 2020

I have a piece in today’s Guardian, arguing that a combination of demographic changes and the political interests of the right risk creating a growing democratic deficit, in which more and more people on the territory of states have no democratic voice despite living, working and paying taxes there. I didn’t write the headline, which refers to Britain only, but in the text I also discuss cases like the DREAMers in the US.

Another in my series of extracts from my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. So far I’ve looked at luck the limited relationship between returns and social value and the fact that risk-taking is mostly done (involuntarily) by the poor, not the rich. Now I’m going to consider possibilities for reform
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Sunday photoblogging: caterpillars

by Chris Bertram on October 4, 2020


So far, in this series of extracts from my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, I’ve argued that the inequality of incomes in our society is largely a matter of luck rather than inherent personal ability, and that it is only distantly related to the social value of the contributions people make through their work. These conclusions undercut the idea that taxing those on high incomes will harm society by reducing incentives to work for the most able and social valuable workers. Although the evidence was already strong, the pandemic has brought these points into even brighter relief.

Now I want to consider the claim that we need inequality in order to encourage people to take risks. The simplest response is to point to the empirical fact that high income earners take (or, more accurately, are subject to) less risk than average not more[1].

Hardy and Ziliak (confirmed in general terms by many other sources) give the numbers

in any given year since 1996 the level of volatility among the bottom 10% was 81% higher than the volatility among the top 1%, and this level nearly doubled since 1981

Here’s a graph illustrating this point.

Income risk by income group

[click to continue…]

The first day of the rest of my life

by Chris Bertram on October 1, 2020

Today, for the first time for over thirty years, I don’t have an employer. This is because I decided to retire rather than to face the unwelcome choice between online teaching and exposing myself to COVID in the classroom. I think, in fact, that I didn’t have enough “points” to get an exemption from face-to-face, despite being nearly 62 and having high blood pressure. Oh well, the issue is now moot. I shall miss being around students, chatting to them, helping them and getting the buzz that you get from a good classroom discussion. I won’t miss reading and marking student essays and exams though. Not one bit. I hope I’ve done a good job over the years, even though I feel I only learnt to teach well in the past decade (thanks to the direct and indirect influence of Harry).

There’s another reason to stop now though, which gives me a slight sense of vertigo, to be honest, and it involves “owning your own bullshit”. I’ll have a lot less income but I’ll have a lot more time. I’ve long believed that we, as a society (swap in your own society if you too live in a wealthy one) consume too much, engage in too much burdensome toil, and have too little leisure time to enjoy and indeed work on freely chosen goals. Capitalism has a built-in tendency to promote burdensome toil in the pursuit of consumption, but now I have a choice. Can I live with it? And will I make the most of it without the external discipline provided by the expectations of employers, colleagues and students? That’s a big test. But I hope to continue writing and publishing on many of the same topics I worked on up to now, and chiefly on migration and justice. I’m also happy to stand up on my hind-legs and talk to people about political philosophy and related matters, most of the time for nothing (invitations welcome!).

One thing I haven’t made my mind up on though: mode of publishing. People read books and people read blogs, so if you want to communicate your ideas then both are good formats (among others). But is there any point in continuing to send papers to academic journals? On the plus side, the peer review process induces a kind of discipline and quality control. On the other hand, many of the things that reviewers insist upon are pointless and detract from what you’re trying to say. And then there’s the small matter of the fact that nobody reads such papers. It is a source of lasting frustration that political philosophy as practised in academic journals is an activity that is almost entirely disconnected from the social and political life of the societies that surround it. I don’t mean that we ought to be getting down and dirty with Donald Trump or Brexit, but that we need to find ways of making the things we write about (should foreigners, or expatriates, have voting rights?, for example) cut through to public discourse. Making that argument in the pages of Philosophy and Public Affairs may not make enough of a difference, however good it is for an academic’s promotion prospects. But then, cutting through was one of the hopes I always had for Crooked Timber.