Originalism For Realists: Two Obvious Thoughts

by John Holbo on May 12, 2024

Looks like I haven’t posted for a couple years. Probably time to fix that!

This one kicks off from a tweet I fired off, off-handedly, that led somewhere useful. “If you were wanting a paradigm case-in-point to illustrate the plausibility of legal realism, the history of legal originalism would be hard to improve on.” [click to continue…]


Abandoned restaurant complex near Mèze


This text is not about Baby Reindeer, Netflix’s latest hit. It’s about one of the most perverse dimensions of sanism and anti-madness: the exploitation of madness as an edifying aesthetic resource. It is also about the obsolescence of narratives centered on the uncritical perspective of the traditional agent of the banality of evil, the mediocre white guy who destroys everything, including himself (even if temporarily), in the pursuit of a vague and elusive future for which he has neither the preparation nor the talent.

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Later this month it will be World Biodiversity Day, and we will again celebrate the remarkable contributions that biodiversity makes to the resilience and productivity of the earth’s ecosystems. But it will also be a fitting time to face the continued failure of our institutions to grasp the scale of biodiversity loss. Or, if not to grasp it, to respond in any way adequately.

The figures speak for themselves. Since 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity has been charged with agreeing global targets for biodiversity conservation. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2011-2020, for instance, aimed to halve the rate of habitat loss, protect 17% of terrestrial ecosystems, and much else besides.

None of those targets were met. In response, the Kunming-Montreal Agreement recently agreed to protect 30% of ecosystems by 2030, to restore 30% of degraded ecosystems, and so on and so on and so on. On current projections, these targets are going to be missed too, by some distance. Like Canute ordering the tides to stop, it turns out that setting targets, by itself, achieves nothing. [click to continue…]


Run, Bezos, Run

by Doug Muir on May 6, 2024

A transcript from memory of an evening conversation with my two older sons:

“I heard that Jeff Bezos could run through the streets every day, throwing hundred dollar bills in the air, and he’d still be making money.”

“I wonder if that’s true?” [click to continue…]


Sunday photoblogging: pink salt lake at Gruissan

by Chris Bertram on May 5, 2024



Machines and tools

by John Q on May 1, 2024

It’s International Workers Day, still celebrated as the May Day public holiday here in Queensland, at least when the Labor party is in office. So, it’s a good day for me to set out some tentative thoughts on work and its future.

Via Matt McManus, I found this quote from Marx ‘Fragment on Machines”.

The hand tool makes the worker independent — posits him as proprietor. Machinery — as fixed capital -posits him as dependent, posits him as appropriated

Reading this, it struck me that, whereas mainframe computers were archetypal examples of impersonal and alienating machines, personal computers are, or can be, regarded as extensions of their users, that is, as tools. Employers have long struggled to exert control over office computers and the workers who use them, making them extensions of the machine that is corporate IT. But these efforts have always been resisted, and have broken down, to a large extent, with the shift to remote work. My intuition, following Marx, is that this development presages a bigger shift in the relationship between between workers and bosses.
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Scientific research, academic knowledge production, and higher education are under an obscene and direct attack today in Argentina. Milei’s attack is not an isolated case. To a certain extent, it is part of a global phenomenon, i.e. the rampant anti-intellectualism of the “new” right-wing movements and governments, which has certainly accelerated its spread with the last pandemic. Regarding this, I have written about the relationship between anti-intellectualism and the elitist conditions of knowledge production, focusing on our real practices and material conditions as workers of science and higher education here (in Spanish). In this entry I want to stress a different aspect of today’s anti-intellectualism, its consequences vis-à-vis neoliberalism’s own goals.
By attacking higher education and public scientific research, any openly capitalist government is shooting itself on the foot. The purpose of Milei’s government can only be pushing Argentina into an even more subaltern position regarding the global knowledge production. But I think that knowledge production is, like nature, politics, and social reproduction, an area of the “non-economic” sphere of reality without which capitalism cannot survive for (too) long in a given place and time and (in the long run) in general, globally, so this latter aim is also a suicidal decision wherever it is carried out. [click to continue…]


Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on April 28, 2024



Going Meta on Culture Wars

by Eric Schliesser on April 26, 2024

Culture wars have two main functions. First, to split an existing, dominant social or political coalition apart by the clever use of wedge-issues. (Not all wedge-issues are a part of a culture war.) So, a culture war reveals a latent or induces real divergence in a pre-existing coalition. So, for example, how to think about trans-issues has split contemporary feminism apart (especially in the U.K, which is itself an interesting phenomenon). Second, and this mirrors the first function, to induce or solidify unity within a potentially heterogeneous coalition (think of the role of women’s ‘right to choose’ in America’s Democratic party). So, the issue must have salience to what we may call ‘tribe formation.’ (If you don’t like my examples offer your own!)

Now, the term ‘culture war’ is a literalist translation of the German ‘Kulturkampf.’ This nineteenth century conflict involved a major political conflict between Bismarck and the Catholic Church over control of educational institutions (and the content taught) as well as ecclesiastical appointments. In it national/ethnic stereotypes (about the Polish) were used to shift balance of allegiance. One reason I mention this origin of the term because in it we already see many of the later features of culture wars: the significance of education, especially the education of social elites, the role of non-materialist values, including ethnicity/race, religion, and nationalism.

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Sunday photoblogging: crossroads

by Chris Bertram on April 21, 2024

Pézenas cross

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Online talks

by Henry Farrell on April 20, 2024

I’ve been doing a bunch of talks and events online, mostly not CT related, but a couple that might be interesting to readers. One that certainly is is this conversation with Francis Spufford, which is a coda to Red Plenty.

Some of my bits of the conversation build on this Long Now talk from a few months ago.

I’ll also be talking in a couple of weeks at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center, riffing on Alison Gopnik’s notion of Large Language Models as “cultural technologies.” I was deeply unhappy with HKS’s speech policy some years back, but they appear to have gotten substantially better even as other places are getting worse.

Finally, Abe Newman and I will be doing a conversation with Paul Krugman at CUNY’s Graduate Center a month from now. This will be open to the public (free tickets) as well as being videoed for broadcast. If you want to come, would love to see you! (I’m thinking about having an open coffee somewhere nearby before if people would like to say hi).


Expertise and naval power

by John Q on April 20, 2024

Robert Farley has replied to my recent post on the obsolescence of naval power. Unlike our previous exchange, a pile-on where I was (as he points out) in a minority of one, Robert’s tone is mostly civil this time, and I intend to reciprocate. Our disagreements have narrowed a fair way. On many points, it’s a matter of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.

For example, Farley observes that despite Houthi attacks, 2 million tonnes of shipping per day is passing through the Suez canal. I’d turn that around and point out that 4 million tonnes of shipping per day has been diverted to more roundabout routes. However, since we agree that naval authorities overstate the macro importance of threats to shipping lanes, we can put that point to one side.

A more relevant case is that of China’s capacity (or lack thereof) to mount a seaborne invasion of Taiwan. I said that China has only a handful of modern landing craft and that their announced plan relies on civilian ferries. Farley points out that China has constructed 16 large, modern amphibious assault vessels in the past 18 years, with more on the way. That’s more than might normally be implied by the word “handful”, but not in a way that meaningfully challenges my argument.

According to Robert’s link, the ships in question can carry 800 troops, or about 10 000 if all of them were used. That’s enough to do a re-enactment of the Dieppe raid, but not to play a major role in an invasion of a country with a standing army at least ten times as large. And the implied rate of construction (one per year) suggests this isn’t going to change any time soon. This leisurely approach is consistent with the CCPs need to maintain a public position that it is willing and able to reunite with Taiwan by force, along with a private recognition that this isn’t possible and wouldn’t be wise if it were.

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In all the discussion of Leif Wenar’s critique of Effective Altruism , I haven’t seen much mention of the central premise: that development aid is generally counterproductive (unless, perhaps, it’s delivered by wealthy surfers in their spare time). Wenar is quite clear that his argument applies just as much to official development aid and to the long-standing efforts of NGOs as to projects supported by EA. He quotes burned-out aid workers “hoping their projects were doing more good than harm.”

Wenar provides some examples of unintended consequences. For example, bednets provided to fight are sometimes diverted for use as fishing nets. And catching more fish might be bad because it could lead to overfishing (there is no actual evidence of this happening, AFAICT). This seems trivial in comparison to the lives saved by anti-malarial programs

Update Wenar’s claim about bednets, as presented by Marc Andreessen, was thoroughly refuted by Dylan Matthews in Vox earlier this year. (footnote 1 applies) End update

It’s worth pointing out that, on Wenar’s telling, a project that gave poor people proper fishing nets (exactly the kind of thing that might appeal to the coastal villagers befriended by his surfer friend) might be even worse for overfishing than the occasional diversion of bednets.

Wenar applies his critique to international aid programs. But exactly the same kind of arguments could be, and are made, against similar programs at the national level or subnational level. It’s not hard to find burned-out social workers, teachers and for that matter, university professors, who will say, after some particularly dispiriting experience, that their efforts have been worse than useless. And the political right is always eager to point out the unintended consequences of helping people. But we have plenty of evidence, most notably from the last decade of austerity, to show that not helping people is much worse.

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Gina’s post on Indiana’s DEI-related law came at a fortuitous time for me, because last week I participated in a panel about State Legislatures, Academic Freedom and Public Universities. The panelists were given about 6 minutes to present some prepared remarks’ and discussion ensued. As far as I could tell there was just one state legislator present, and one administrator; otherwise the audience was students, faculty, and members of the public.

I did write out my remarks, but then I didn’t say exactly what I wrote, so below the fold is an attempt at a rough transcription of what I actually said:

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