From the monthly archives:

January 2023

Digital hoarding

by John Q on January 31, 2023

Yesterday, I dug into the deepest nest of folders on my MacBook Pro to find an article I wrote on a 512K Mac in 1987, for a magazine that no longer exists and isn’t (AFAICT) digitally archived. The file must have made transitions from “hard floppies” to removable 44Mb drives (remember them?) to hard drive to SSD and then, when that filled up, to my iCloud backup.

Today, I read about “digital hoarding“. Count me in!

Whatever the psychological causes, it’s hard to imagine negative real-world consequences from storing files. And it’s easier to search for stuff when you need it than to spend a lot of time filing. I used to sort my email, but now I just delete 90 per cent as it comes in, and archive the rest every couple of years.

In the physical world, I’m the opposite. I’m hopelessly untidy, but I follow Marie Kondo in throwing out anything that no longer sparks joy, and in trying to avoid acquiring stuff I don’t need. Being free of paper has been a huge boon in this respect.


by Paul Segal on January 30, 2023

I was 28 when I first got a maid. She wasn’t even my maid. My partner and I spent a year renting a flat in Mexico City from friends-of-friends, a well-to-do family who were abroad, and who paid their maid to keep coming while we stayed at their place. So she was taking care of their home as much as she was taking care of us. Young, childless, unbothered by moderate levels of messiness, I wasn’t that comfortable with someone so intimately handling my stuff.

My partner, being from an elegant part of Buenos Aires (I’m from an ugly part of London), found my attitude to our maid baffling, even bothersome, my naivety, my lack of understanding that one person dedicating their work hours to cleaning up after another person was really quite normal. There is a saying in Mexico that the maid is la felicidad de la casa, the happiness of the house. A professor we met there told us that she had wanted to dedicate her PhD to her two (two!) nannies, without whom her distinguished academic career would not have been possible.

Youth is wasted on the young; in my case, domestic service too. Now, 17 years later, drowning daily in childcare, cooking, washing, shopping, driving back and forth to ballet, art, swimming, I can say the taste for it is well and truly acquired.

But here in the UK, the economics just don’t add up. Another academic Mexican friend (in a private university) told me his salary and that of his maid a few years ago; paying her full time cost about 20 percent of his take-home pay. (Remarkably, while his income didn’t quite get him to the top 1 percent, this small fraction he paid her still meant she was better paid than nearly 90 percent of Mexican workers. That’s what high inequality looks like.) For me in the UK, with a comparable job to him, I would have had to pay double the share, a little over 40 percent of my salary. La felicidad in the UK would cost me a lot more. Poor me, and my wife, and our children who have to put up with overwrought and distracted parents.

That felicidad, of course, is pretty one-sided. It doesn’t take much digging to find out how domestic workers themselves view all of this.

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Mitigated disaster

by John Q on January 24, 2023

Over the past past few years we’ve had to deal with all sorts of new or resurgent evils, including climate catastrophe, Covid and the global assault on democracy. That’s been made harder by the fact that our political leaders (and plenty of their supporters) have either failed to respond effectively, or have actively promoted these evils. Yet there’s nothing positive about giving in to despair, either politically or personally.

In trying to respond, I’ve started thinking about the idea of ‘mitigated disaster’. Despite our collective failures on all of these issues, there’s still a good chance that the worst of the catastrophe will be staved off. And individually, we need to find ways to act responsibly and to resist the call of despair.
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Twigs and Branches

by John Q on January 22, 2023

A new Twigs and Branches post, open for comments on any topic. Please take long side discussions on other posts here. The usual rules on civil discussion apply.

Sunday photoblogging: Redcliffe flats

by Chris Bertram on January 22, 2023

Redcliffe flats

On Constitutional Monetary Moments

by Eric Schliesser on January 18, 2023

Earlier today,  after I tweeted out that “Proposals to mint $1tn platinum coin are designed to circumvent the US constitution’s “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts,” I got lectured by Nathan Tankus for “not grasping the most elementary legal issues in the topic you’re pontificating on.” This turns on the interpretation on the authority granted by Section 31 U.S. Code § 5112. Advocates of the platinum coin naturally like to quote the plain meaning of the text: “(k) The Secretary may mint and issue bullion and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.” The plain meaning interpretation of (k) has been supported by Philip N. Diehl, former director of the United States Mint, who helped write the bill. But Diehl was not in Congress (and in virtue of his former office has obvious incentives to exaggerate its power and his former achievements).

However, the official author of the original bill, Representative Michael Castle, denied this interpretation, and suggested (quite plausibly in my opinion) that the provision was intended to cover collectibles (and not to provide the Treasure with the power to do an end run around any debt limits). I would be amazed if the original legislative record suggested otherwise. The law as we have it was inserted as a provisions into H.R. 3610, the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act for 1997. It would be interesting if the congressional leadership recorded any views on the matter at the time (and that would change my view!) But the revisionary (‘plain meaning interpretation’) wasn’t voiced until May 2010. Even Diehl has admitted at one point that (the ‘plain meaning interpretation’) would constitute an “unintended consequence” of the bill. [Quoted in Grey (2020) op. cit, p. 261.] So, I don’t think this is really in doubt.

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Committing to Net Zero Means…Committing to What, Exactly?

by Chris Armstrong on January 17, 2023

The goal of Net Zero emissions by 2050 has had a remarkable rise to the forefront of climate politics. Governments and corporations are falling over one another to commit to it. That in itself might sow some suspicion about how firm or flexible a target Net Zero is. In a recent piece with Duncan McLaren, we try to show that the flexibility of the goal is a real danger. We might be tempted to think that, once we all agree on Net Zero by 2050, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief (so long as we…ah…actually implement our various commitments).

But things are not so simple. Net Zero is an important part of the solution. It would involve any carbon emissions being balanced by carbon removals, and that should allow the climate to stabilise (i.e to stop warming further). But the precise temperature it stabilises at will depend on how much carbon we emit before 2050, and that is a question about which the Net Zero goal is, of course, silent.
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Why I am (Still) a Conservative (For Now)

by Kevin Munger on January 16, 2023

In celebration (?) of my book’s recent Kindle release, today’s post aims to make the connection between my interest in generational conflict and technological progress more explicit.

(In case anyone came here just to get mad about the title, let me emphasize that this is a follow-up to Why I am (Still) a Liberal (For Now). I am less invested in defending a single theoretical or political tradition than in re-evaluating these traditions—indeed, in re-evaluating everything—in light of contemporary technology, and especially media technology.)

The traditional justification for conservatism is based in epistemic humility: there is only so much knowledge that we can accumulate within our lifetimes—especially about life-changing events like marriage or raising a child—so we should defer to the condensed knowledge of the past, condensed in the form of traditions, norms and institutions. The challenge for any reasonable person is to evaluate the tradeoff between tradition and progress, and the conservative is simply someone who puts more weight on the former.

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Sunday photoblogging: Bathurst Basin, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on January 15, 2023

Bathurst Basin, Bristol

(iPhone photo)

Parfit inaugurated several new areas of moral philosophy. The one that has most shaped my worldview, and which is covered in this chapter, is population ethics—the evaluation of actions that might change who is born, how many people are born, and what their quality of life will be. Secular discussion of this topic is strikingly scarce: despite thousands of years of ethical thought, the issue was only discussed briefly by the early utilitarians and their critics in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it received sporadic attention in the years that followed.6 The watershed moment came in 1984 with the publication of Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons.
Population ethics is crucial for longtermism because it greatly affects how we should evaluate the end of civilisation.–William MacAskill (2022) What We Owe The Future, p. 168.

This is the fourth post on MacAskill’s book. (The first one is here which also lists some qualities about the book that I admire; the second one is here; the third here.) MacAskill’s note 6 refers to the Mohists, who are not treated as population ethicists because “they did not discuss the intrinsic and instrumentalist benefits and costs of increasing population.” (307) Let me grant, for the sake of argument, that such an economic analysis (costs/benefits) is intrinsic to population ethics.

It’s unclear why we should exclude non-secular population ethicists (starting with Plato, but not least Berkeley, Malthus, and Nassau Senior all of whom shaped the early utilitarians), although (recall) Parfit has soft-Nietzschean reasons for doing so, but it is left unclear whether MacAskill endorses these. Even so, MacAskill’s historical claim is odd. Some of the most important innovations in early twentieth century social and biological sciences and statistical technique (associated with names like Galton, Pearson, Fisher, Edgeworth, and Haldane)* are intertwined with population ethics (and eugenics). I am almost inclined to joke that in their age we even developed a fallacy, ‘the naturalistic’ one so as to avoid tainting doctrines with their sordid origins.

While undoubtedly some early utilitarians were pioneering population ethicists, it seems unfair to ignore the pre-utilitarian population ethicists of imperialists political arithmeticians like William Petty (seventeenth century), who put the art of managing populations by modern states on a more scientific footing while terrorizing the Irish. The managing of the size and quality of populations was an intrinsic part of the (quite ‘secular’) art of government in the reason of state tradition of the sixteenth century, too. In fact, civilizations (including feudal orders) that emphasize ‘good breeding’ (a phrase that had a positive connotation until quite recently) are generally self-consciously engaged in population ethics (even if their cost-benefit analysis deviates from MacAskill’s).

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After Stagflation during the 1970s, many markets were liberalized and, over time, central banks made a lot more independent in lots of places. In addition, some countries in Europe embraced the EURO (and founded the ECB), and barriers between regulated banking and shadow-banking (including by investment banks) were removed.

The intended aim, and in certain respects the successful effect, of central bank independence was to de-politicize central banks in three senses: first, to remove the temptation for politicians to use interest rates to benefit their own electoral prospects (which was thought to be the cause behind persistent inflation). Second, to prevent the use of central banks as a piggy bank for well-connected interest groups. Third, to turn monetary policy over to technocratic experts and, thereby, remove it as an electoral issue.

Over time one unintended effect of the third kind of de-politization is to dumb down our political class, which need not show any interest in monetary policy because it can always pass the buck to central bankers, and even delegate the execution of other policies to them. Arguably this state of affairs also made political debates more focused on cultural issues and less on the complex trade-offs involving monetary (and so-called fiscal) issues. In addition, as central banking was removed from the political arena, and so able to move with great rapidity, central bankers were actually nudged into taking on a whole range of crisis management tasks.

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Structured Academic Controversy: A Variant

by Harry on January 11, 2023

A grad student advisee of mine who had previously been a high school teacher introduced me to the Structured Academic Controversy when I observed her teaching a class for future secondary social studies teachers. I’d never seen it used before in class, and have to come to find a variant of it — but not the actual variant she used — a very useful strategy in quite specific conditions. Here’s roughly how she did it:

Students were given a controversial proposition. They were divided into groups of 4, and each of those groups was further divided into pairs.

Within each group one pair received materials favoring the proposition; the other pair receives materials opposing it. Students read material and discussed the most salient points of the argument to present.

Students presented their argument. Each pair had three minutes to present their ideas. After 3-minute presentations, each pair had a minute to rebut.

Then they swapped sides. So the favoring pair now had the opposing materials, and vice versa, and they went through the whole process again.

Then students reported back to the whole class.

The way the exercise is described above assumes that the students have not done any prior relevant reading or research. And its purpose when used in high school is really to get students to see all sides of the issue, and internalize the reasons that are given in the supporting and opposing material. It worked pretty well when my graduate student did it in my class, partly because we hadn’t, in fact, assigned material pertaining directly to the proposition that we were asking them to consider. But when I tried it s a couple more times it didn’t work so well.

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Film Review: The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 11, 2023

One of the challenges critics of our contemporary form of capitalism face, is how to make the analysis of that beast clear to a broad audience. Let’s face it, most academic books on the topic are hard to understand. Moreover, many people hardly ever read a non-fiction book about politics, let alone the economy. Film is in this respect a great medium, since it is easier to digest than reading a book. And often a picture says more than a thousand words.

Some years ago, I was teaching ‘ethics of capitalism’ to an interdisciplinary group of undergraduate students. Many of them had never had any economics, and since any third-year student could take this course, I had students in that class from all over the university – history, philosophy, economics, geography, anthropology, sociology – even a student from theoretical physics. In the last week of the course, we zoomed in on the financial crisis, and I was worried how to teach such complex material. So, in addition to giving a lecture, I also organised a screening and discussion of Inside Job, and that worked very well. The film was pretty effective to further process the dry material from the lecture, and put all of it into a broader perspective. [click to continue…]

Open thread on Brazil

by John Q on January 9, 2023

An open thread on the insurrection in Brazil. I’d particularly be interested in comments from a Latin American perspective.

Twigs and Branches

by John Q on January 9, 2023

A new Twigs and Branches post, open for comments on any topic. Please take long side discussions on other posts here. The usual rules on civil discussion apply.