From the category archives:

Books

CBS on the superrich and limitarianism

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 23, 2022

We were having birthday cake with my youngest son who turned 14 today, when CBS aired an item on the Sunday Morning Show for which I was interviewed. The item was on the question whether one can be too rich. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve written a couple of papers (this one being open access) and more journalistic pieces (e.g. this) that we should answer this affirmatively. So now CBS decided the idea deserved an item, and I think they did a great job in putting several different relevant concerns together in a mere 8 minutes. It can be watched online here. (I believe they could have found more vocal opponents of limitarianism, but I guess these voices get plenty of airtime elsewhere?)

Abigail Disney has a line of critique from which I’ve so far tried to steer away – namely that becoming superwealthy changes a person and their character for the worse. That resonates with some of the findings in the intriguing book by Lauren Greenfield, Generation Wealth. Although I wrote very briefly (in Dutch, alas) on the scientific studies that we have that suggests that extreme wealth concentration might lead to unhappier people than being moderately well-off, I am hesitant to write more about this, for two reasons. One is that arguing that they are less happy and that therefore they should not be so rich is quit paternalistic (and most approaches in political philosophy and social ethics reject paternalistic arguments). Still, it also affects their children, so the paternalism objection might be less strong than at first sight. Arguing that they become less virtuous (read: bad people) is something that I cannot say since I haven’t tried to find the relevant studies (if they exist); moreover, it also seems a non-starter if we want to engage in a political debate that should include those that are superrich, or that defend the superrich. The other reason why I haven’t gone down this road so far is that I think the other arguments for limitarianism are strong enough in themselves to carry the claim – why then introduce a more contentious one, except if the evidence were to be overwhelming?

I don’t think I’ve announced on this blog the other news I have on limitarianism, which is that I’m writing a trade book on the topic, which is under contract with Allen Lane/Penguin (for the UK), Astra (for North America), and translations secured in Dutch, German, Korean, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish (the magic that working with an agent does!). The manuscript is due after the (Northern Hemisphere) Summer, so I’ll be having more posts on this matter over the next months.

Getting to know cities through science

by Eszter Hargittai on December 9, 2021

Covid times don’t allow for a lot of travel, but that doesn’t have to stand in the way of dreaming about and planning travel. My parents have written four books that put an interesting twist on getting to know a city: through its landmarks related to science. Their first in the series was Budapest Scientific, fitting since that is where they have lived for much of their lives and where they are both members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Next came New York Scientific then Science in Moscow, and finally Science in London. Each is filled with many hundreds of photographs to illustrate how the various places commemorate important scientific achievements and researchers through statues, memorial plaques, and other ways of remembering. Some are well-known sculptures, others will be new even to locals. They make great gifts in case anyone happens to be looking for ideas. :-)

The Future Finds Its Own Uses for Things

by Henry on November 15, 2021

So this event on the relationship between social science and science fiction went live late last week. It has Paul Krugman, Ada Palmer, Jo Walton, Noah Smith and … me. I’ve been wanting to say something a little bit more about this relationship for a while. Here is one take, which surely misses out on a lot, but maybe captures some stuff too. [click to continue…]

The financial sector after the pandemic

by John Quiggin on October 10, 2021

In comments at my personal blog, James Wimberley asked about the recent agreement on a 15 per cent global minimum rate of tax. Over the fold, a section from my book-in-progress (still a bit rough in places), Economic Consequences of the Pandemic addressing this and other points

. Comments and criticism appreciated. [click to continue…]

Climate and Covid

by John Quiggin on August 26, 2021

Over the fold, an excerpt from my book-in-progress, The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, adapted from an article coming out soon in Australian magazine Inside Story

Comments, criticism and (of course) praise welcome

[click to continue…]

Chatting about books

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 3, 2021

Yesterday, I handed over the directorship of my institute to a colleague. In the speech two colleagues gave to thank me for my service, they described my role as being that of the ‘middle-manager’, who in the present-day neoliberal universities is crushed between the powers and constraints set by those above them, and the demands and needs of the many below them. I fear that kind of sums it up (although one could also mention the added difficult which is the negligence of the Government that continues to underfund higher education, despite report after report showing that with current levels of funding the only way for Universities to continue their mission is by effectively forcing its workers to produce massive amounts of unpaid overwork). No surprise, it was a role that consumed way too much of my time.

In any case, I turned this page and am now looking ahead to a year in which to concentrate fully on writing a book on limitarianism, the view that no-one should be extremely rich, which recently was discussed in The Washington Post. And I’m also very much looking forward to reading widely and freely, rather than not having time to do that to the degree that I would have wanted to.

My hope to read up on many books that have been staring at me, some for years, waiting to be read, made me think that it might be nice to organise “Book chats” here at Crooked Timber. So what’s the plan? [click to continue…]

Response

by Kim Stanley Robinson on May 14, 2021

When I attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop in 1975, our first teacher Samuel R. Delany gave us some advice: don’t respond to critics. It never does any good. Don’t even write reviews.

It was good advice, and I’ve followed it ever since. But here I am. Did I make a mistake? Maybe so.

On the other hand, I’ve published a lot of non-fiction in recent years. What was I saying in those pieces? Couldn’t I respond like that?

Maybe so. Quite a bit of my non-fiction consists of appreciations of other writers, like this one of Gene Wolfe. These were expressions of love.

And I’ve answered lots of interview questions. These were like conversations. There’s no harm in love or conversation.

So I’m going to try this: I’ll happily express my appreciation for all the generous giving of time and thought that I see in the responses below; and I’ll do my best to answer any questions they ask. If there are complaints about my book (and there are), I’ll stick to my long-time practice, and hold my tongue.

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This Is How It Gets Better

by Suresh Naidu on May 13, 2021

It’s a real privilege to comment on this book.From the Mars trilogy to my personal recent favorite, Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson has been one of my favorite science fiction authors, staying with me as I went from teenage escapism to middle-aged escapism. There are so many great ideas in The Ministry of the Future (TMFTF), where Stan has clearly combed the academic and activist literature for the boldest ideas to grapple with the climate crisis and used the medium of fiction to communicate them. There are engineering feats, like the propping up of glaciers to slow melting, direct air capture of CO2 at economically feasible scale, alongside political transformations like the mutually-assured-destruction made possible by targeted kinetic pebble smartbombs, a rebirth of Indian democracy, and carbon quantitative easing? Everyone who cares about climate change (and really at this point it should be everyone with some stake beyond the next 10 years) should read it. But beyond being a hardware store full of tools for decarbonization, it also charts a politically possible trajectory to a transformed economy. TMFTF is not just outlining a future sustainable economy, but showing a properly historically contingent path to it. [click to continue…]

Technocracy and Empire

by Henry on May 12, 2021

The Ministry for the Future is a novel, not a manifesto. That complicates things. As Francis Spufford described Red Plenty nine years ago in his own CT seminar:

I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour. Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights. Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.

KSR was in that seminar too, arguing that Red Plenty was a novel. And so is TMFTF – it brings negative capability into the politics of climate change, allowing it to capture both how we need radical changes, and how we can’t be sure exactly which radical changes, in which combinations, we need. You can read the book as presenting KSR’s best guesses as to how such changes might unfold. But – and this is my argument – that’s not the only reading of the book. Because it’s a novel, it folds those best guesses together with the uncertainty that they will be right, and with the presupposition that actual history emerges, as the imagined history of the novel does, from disagreement and conflict between people with different guesses, different theories, different ideologies. From this perspective, the novel invites people who disagree with KSR’s surmises to advance their own, recreating in real life something like the arguments that drive the book.

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Half the Earth ?

by John Quiggin on May 11, 2021

When I read fiction, it’s mostly either the 19th century classics or speculative fiction – what was and what might be, as opposed to what is. I live in the present, and spend most of my waking hours analysing the economy and society of today, along with the recent past and near future. In doing that, I am, for the most part, in agreement with Mr Gradgrind – what I want is facts, nothing but facts.

But in relation to the future (and, in many ways, the past) we don’t have facts, only possibilities. And, unlike the present, we don’t have lived experience to help us understand those possibilities. Speculative fiction, at its best, extends our thinking to encompass possibilities we wouldn’t otherwise consider, and to imagine ways of life no one has actually experienced. [click to continue…]

The Sudden Tempest of Ultimate Summer

by Belle Waring on May 10, 2021

O Kali’s feet are red lotuses wherein lie heaps of holy places. 
All sins are destroyed by Kali’s name as heaps of cotton are burnt by fire. How can a headless man have a headache?
I am irresponsible, cruel and arrogant,
I am the king of the great upheaval,
I am cyclone, I am destruction,
I am the great fear, the curse of the universe.
I have no mercy,
I grind all to pieces.
I am disorderly and lawless,
I trample under my feet all rules and discipline!
I am Durjati, I am the sudden tempest of ultimate summer,
I am the rebel, the rebel-son of mother-earth!
Say, Valiant,
Ever high is my head!
—Kazi Nazrul Islam
[Translation: Kabir Chowdhury] 

We can think of two versions of The Ministry of The Future, each of which invites us to imagine a world in which we make difficult, creative choices to mitigate the effects of climate change, and ultimately prevail. In the first book, a whirl of technological, sociological and financial solutions are attempted. Some are cautious science, some desperate acts of brute force, such as filling the atmosphere with particles to rival the cooling effects of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption (and indeed, scientists are seriously considering this, which I have always thought would be the first true action on climate change). In the second book, a careful ruthlessness prevails. People still use container ships? They are sunk in spots to create new reefs. Billionaires have gotten rich on carbon fuels, and have no plans to stop? They are brutally stabbed to death in their own beds before their companions can even grasp what’s happening. But, which of these two books above has Kim Stanley Robinson written? Having written the first seems to say he can’t write the second, and yet can he still have written both? [click to continue…]

Ministry for Your Future Soul

by Todd Tucker on May 7, 2021

“The Ministry for the Future” should be required reading for anyone that writes white papers for a living.

A few reflections and (potential) spoilers.

[click to continue…]

Can the World’s Bankers Really Save the Climate?

by Jessica Green on May 6, 2021

The Ministry for the Future (TMFTF) should be lauded for reimagining global climate governance. It recognizes what many climate scholars do not: climate change is in large measure, a problem of extreme wealth and wealth inequality. Thus, addressing the climate crisis requires discussing “potential alternatives to the global neoliberal order” (155). Moreover, the Ministry is keenly aware of the shrinking window for action. Addressing climate change is a race against time, rather than a “tragedy of the commons.” Thus, we should be less worried about getting everyone to participate in international agreements, and more worried about acting quickly, since delay will make climate problems harder to solve, and could result in irreversible changes. What follows from these two premises is nothing less than a wholesale reimagining of the global economy, as enacted through coordinated efforts by the world’s biggest central banks. However, the Ministry’s proposed technocratic solutions overlook the messiness of domestic politics, and the huge challenge of constraining powerful anti-climate interests.

In essence, TMFTF trades one technocratic solution for another – bankers instead of climate wonks, converting tons of carbon dioxide into “carbon coins.” Robinson acknowledges this, noting that “all central banks [are] undemocratic technocracies” (291). Indeed, the appeal of the Ministry’s proposal to the central bankers is precisely the extent to which it bypasses the politics of democratic decision-making. [click to continue…]

On Solar Geoengineering and Kim Stanley Robinson

by Oliver Morton on May 5, 2021

The solar-geoengineering effort in The Ministry for the Future takes place shortly after the book’s harrowing opening. It is presented as part of a continuum of responses to that extraordinarily lethal Indian heat wave, one which stretches from domestic politics—the full nationalisation of the electricity industry—to transnational armed struggle by means of support, at a level never fully revealed, for the revolutionary violence of the “Children of Kali”. [click to continue…]

What is Ours is Only Ours to Give

by Maria on May 4, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson’s books are how I think about the future. I’m not exaggerating when I say they’re how I manage to think about it at all. They provide much of the temporal and political context in which I do my work, which is to say, they educate me and let me know I’m not alone. Future uses of data and networks are a tiny part of The Ministry for the Future (TMFTF), just as tech policy only counts, now, insofar as it serves our species-wide effort to survive and perhaps flourish. TMFTF does some thinking on how network and information technology – specifically, social media and blockchain – can do the genuinely liberatory work they’ve long been hailed as making possible. I’ve worked in tech policy since the late nineties and will talk mostly in this piece about ways that might work sooner and better to get us to a desirable tech future, and one that gets less in the way of dealing with climate crisis. (I use ‘climate crisis’ as shorthand for the cluster of anthropogenic extinction events described in TMFTF.) [click to continue…]