From the monthly archives:

June 2023

The Correct Way to Argue with Richard Hanania

by Henry Farrell on June 28, 2023

Attention conservation notice 1 – a long read about a simple idea. When reading trolls, focus on the anodyne-seeming starting assumptions rather than the obnoxious conclusions.

Attention conservation notice 2 – This is also available via my Substack newsletter, Programmable Mutter. I’ll still be writing on CT, but I have a book with Abe Newman coming out in a few months, so that there will be a lot of self-promotion and stuff that doesn’t fit as well with the CT ethos. And do pre-order the book, Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy, if you think it sounds good! We’ve gotten some great blurbs from early readers including Kim Stanley Robinson, Francis Spufford, Margaret O’Mara, Steven Berlin Johnson, Helen Thompson, Chris Miller, and my mother (the last is particularly glowing, but sadly not likely to appear on the back). Available at and Amazon.

I’ve often had occasion to turn to Daniel Davies’ classic advice on “the correct way to argue with Milton Friedman” over the two decades since I’ve read it. The best white hat hacker is a reformed black hat hacker, and Dan (dsquared) knows both the offense and defense sides of trolling.

Dan (back in 2004!):

I’m pretty sure that it was JK Galbraith (with an outside chance that it was Bhagwati) who noted that there is one and only one successful tactic to use, should you happen to get into an argument with Milton Friedman about economics. That is, you listen out for the words “Let us assume” or “Let’s suppose” and immediately jump in and say “No, let’s not assume that”. The point being that if you give away the starting assumptions, Friedman’s reasoning will almost always carry you away to the conclusion he wants to reach with no further opportunities to object, but that if you examine the assumptions carefully, there’s usually one of them which provides the function of a great big rug under which all the points you might want to make have been pre-swept. A few CT mates appear to be floundering badly over this Law & Economics post at Marginal Revolution on the subject of why it’s a bad idea to have minimum standards for rented accommodation. (Atrios is doing a bit better). So I thought I’d use it as an object lesson in applying the Milton Friedman technique.

In the same friendly spirit, I’ll note that Jonathan Katz flounders a bit in his rebuttal of Richard Hanania. None of this is to blame Katz – Hanania is not only building on his knowledge of social science (he has a Ph.D.), but some truly formidable trolling techniques. Years ago, I upset Jonathan Chait by suggesting he was a highly talented troll of the second magnitude, if a bit crude in technique. Hanania is at an altogether different level. He’s not blessed with Friedman’s benign avuncularity, but he is as close to masterclass level as we are likely to get in this fallen world. [click to continue…]

45 minutes overview of the capability approach

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 26, 2023

I’ve been largely absent here – wrapping up my editorial work on two academic volumes and the various rounds of edits on the popular book on limitarianism. I promise I’ll be back with substantive posts by late August (after resting and travelling). In the meantime, I thought I might share this 45 minutes podcast episode in which I give an overview of the capability approach. Jack Simpson conducted this interview with me quite a while ago, but it only got released last week (congratulations on getting your PhD-degree in the meantime, Jack!).

Jack not only asked me to explain some things, but also asked me several times for “my take on” strenghts/weaknesses/inspiring examples in this literature – which is fun to talk about, since these are the kind of things you never put in an academic article.

Available via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, via RSS, or one of the other platforms that airs this podcast.

Looking forward to the next episodes of Jack’s podcast The Capability Approach in Conversation.

Sunday photoblogging: Berlin Alexanderplatz

by Chris Bertram on June 25, 2023

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Sunday photoblogging: Gdansk

by Chris Bertram on June 18, 2023


Daniel Ellsberg has died

by John Q on June 17, 2023

Daniel Ellsberg has died, aged 92. I don’t have anything to add to the standard account of his heroic career, except to observe that Edward Snowden (whose cause Ellsberg championed) would probably have done better to take his chances with the US legal system, as Ellsberg did.

In decision theory, the subsection of the economics profession in which I move Ellsberg is known for a contribution made a decade before the release of the Pentagon papers. In his PhD dissertation, Ellsberg offered thought experiments undermining the idea that rational people can assign probabilities to any event relevant to their decisions. This idea has given rise to a large theoretical literature on the idea of ‘ambiguity’. Although my own work has been adjacent to this literature for many decades, it’s only recently that I have actually written on this.

A long explanation is over the fold. But for those not inclined to delve into decision theory, it might be interesting to consider other people who have been prominent in radically different ways. One example is Hedy Lamarr, a film star who also patented a radio guidance system for torpedoes (the significance of which remains in dispute). A less happy example is that of Maurice Allais, a leading figure in decision theory and Economics Nobel winner, who also advocated some fringe theories in physics. I thought a bit about Ronald Reagan, but his entry into politics was really built on his prominence as an actor, rather than being a separate accomplishment.

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Why Didn’t *He* Scream?

by Liz Anderson on June 13, 2023

If you follow college football, you probably heard that Glenn “Shemy” Schembechler was recently forced to resign from his post as assistant director of football recruiting at University of Michigan shortly after he was hired.  This occurred after news emerged that he had liked  numerous racist tweets.  Glenn is the son of “legendary” Bo Schembechler, who won 13 Big Ten championships as coach of UM football from 1969–1989.  Apparently it wasn’t enough to prevent Glenn’s hiring that he denied that his brother Matt had told their father that UM team doctor Robert Anderson had sexually assaulted him during a physical exam.  Glenn insisted that “Bo would have done something. … Bo would have fired him.”  Yet law firm WilmerHale had already issued a report confirming that Bo had failed to take action against Anderson after receiving multiple complaints from victims about Anderson’s abuse.  Matt has testified that his father even protected Anderson’s job after Athletic Director Don Canham was ready to fire him.

Women are often asked why they didn’t scream when they were being raped, or why they didn’t immediately report the rape to the police, as if these inactions are evidence that the rape never happened.  This post is about why Bo didn’t scream after his own son complained of sexual victimization by his team’s doctor.  The answer offers insight into the political psychology of patriarchy, which is deeply wrapped up in the kind of denial of reality that Glenn expressed, and that Bo enforced.  It also illuminates why women don’t scream when they are assaulted.

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Museum of the Second World War, Gdansk

A few weeks ago, Daniel Dennett published an alarmist essay (“Creating counterfeit digital people risks destroying our civilization”) in The Atlantic that amplified concerns Yuval Noah Harari expressed in the Economist.+ (If you are in a rush, feel free to skip to the next paragraph because what follows are three quasi-sociological remarks.) First, Dennett’s piece is (sociologically) notable because in it he is scathing of the “AI community” (many of whom are his fanbase) and its leading corporations (“Google, OpenAI, and others”). Dennett’s philosophy has not been known for leading one to a left-critical political economy, and neither has Harari’s. In addition, Dennett’s piece is psychologically notable because it goes against his rather sunny disposition — he is a former teacher and sufficiently regular acquaintance — and the rather optimistic persona he has sketched of himself in his writings (recall this recent post); alarmism just isn’t Dennett’s shtick. Third, despite their prominence neither Harari nor Dennett’s pieces really reshaped the public discussion (in so far as there (still) is a public). And that’s because it competes with the ‘AGI induced extinction’ meme, which, despite being a lot more far-fetched, is scarier (human extinction > fall of our civilization) and is much better funded and supported by powerful (rent-seeking) interests.

Here’s Dennett’s core claim(s):

Money has existed for several thousand years, and from the outset counterfeiting was recognized to be a very serious crime, one that in many cases calls for capital punishment because it undermines the trust on which society depends. Today, for the first time in history, thanks to artificial intelligence, it is possible for anybody to make counterfeit people who can pass for real in many of the new digital environments we have created… 

Another pandemic is coming, this time attacking the fragile control systems in our brains—namely, our capacity to reason with one another—that we have used so effectively to keep ourselves relatively safe in recent centuries.

You may ask, ‘What does this have to do with the intentional stance?’ For Dennett goes on to write, “Our natural inclination to treat anything that seems to talk sensibly with us as a person—adopting what I have called the “intentional stance”—turns out to be easy to invoke and almost impossible to resist, even for experts. We’re all going to be sitting ducks in the immediate future.” This is a kind of (or at least partial) road to serfdom thesis produced by our disposition to take up the intentional stance. In what follows I show how these concepts come together by the threat posed by AIs designed to fake personhood.

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Disinformation and the Intercept

by Henry Farrell on June 8, 2023

There’s a backstory behind this Washington Post story on Republican persecution of academics, and it’s one that doesn’t make the Intercept look good.

Jordan’s colleagues and staffers met Tuesday on Capitol Hill with a frequent target of right-wing activists, University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, two weeks after they interviewed Clemson University professors who also track online propaganda, according to people familiar with the events. Last week, Jordan (Ohio) threatened legal action against Stanford University, home to the Stanford Internet Observatory, for not complying fully with his records requests. … The push caps years of pressure from conservative activists who have harangued such academics online and in person and filed open-records requests to obtain the correspondence of those working at public universities. The researchers who have been targeted study the online spread of disinformation, including falsehoods that have been accelerated by former president and candidate Donald Trump and other Republican politicians. … Last month, the founder of the conspiracy-theory-prone outlet the Gateway Pundit and others sued Starbird and Stanford academics Alex Stamos and Renée DiResta, alleging that they are part of a “government-private censorship consortium” that tramples on free speech. …
“Whether directly or indirectly, a government-approved or-facilitated censorship regime is a grave threat to the First Amendment and American civil liberties,” Jordan wrote.

The claim that these academics are part of a “government-approved or-facilitated censorship regime” is complete bullshit. But it is bullshit that was popularized by a grossly inaccurate story at the Intercept, which purported to discover a secret collaboration between academics and DHS to censor the American right wing. [click to continue…]

Happy World Ocean Day

by Chris Armstrong on June 8, 2023

I’m off to do a talk to mark World Ocean Day, so this is posted in haste. The ocean needs advocates. It’s our biggest ecosystem, probably our biggest carbon sink, a major source of oxygen. It regulates temperatures, and drives weather patterns. Hundreds of millions of people are nutritionally dependent on fish. But the ocean is also increasingly central to the global economy, and facing threats like never before.

Climate change – which drives ocean warming and acidification – is the big one. But plastic and nitrogen pollution and destructive fishing practices are also major threats. Fish farming has an enormous environmental footprint, and now a Spanish company has plans to open the world’s first octopus farm. Plans for mining the seabed are close to fruition – or, depending on your view, they may be many years away, exaggerated to boost the share price of a few mining corporations. But one way or another, the ocean is more and more central to the global economy.

Today is a day to reflect on the kind of ocean we want: an industrialised ocean devoid of much of its present life? Or an ocean in recovery, teeming with life once more? After the second world war (when U-boats patrolled the oceans and fishing boats were forced to stay at home in much of the world) scientists were amazed at the recovery the ocean’s ecosystems had made in just a few years. Will they get the chance of recovery again?

Pew quits the generation game

by John Q on June 6, 2023

Since the beginning of this millennium, I’ve been writing critiques of the “generation game”, the idea that people can be divided into well-defined groups (Boomers, Millennials and so on), with specific characteristics based on their year of birth. As I said in my first go at this issue, back in 2000 (reproduced here )

Much of what passes for discussion about the merits or otherwise of particular generations is little more than a repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups Ð the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on.

Demographers have a word (or rather two words) for this. They distinguish between age effects and cohort effects. The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives. But, at any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age.

My most prominent contribution to the debate was this piece in the New York Times five years ago, prompted by the Pew Research Centre’s announcement that it would define people born between 1981 and 1996 as members of the millennial generation. After discussing the history of the “generation” idea, I made the central point

Dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender. When, for example, baby boomers are blamed for “ruining America,” the argument lumps together Donald Trump and a 60-year-old black woman who works for minimum wage cleaning one of his hotels.

Now, I’m pleased to say, Pew has changed its view, partly in response to a “growing chorus of criticism about generational research and generational labels in particular.”
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Sunday photoblogging: Malbork Castle, Poland

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2023

Malbork Castle, from which the Teutonic knights dominated a swathe of central Europe in the middle ages, is a vast and impressive fortress. It also has some rather stunning interiors.

Malbork Castle

In the Zone: Quinn Slobodian’s Crack-Up Capitalism

by Henry Farrell on June 1, 2023

Quinn Slobodian’s new book, Crack-Up Capitalism is an original and striking analysis of a weird apparent disjuncture. Libertarians and classical liberals famously claim to be opposed to state power. So why do some of them resort to it so readily?

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