Announcing special discounted presales for A Century of Communication Studies: The Unfinished Conversation.
Announcing special discounted presales for A Century of Communication Studies: The Unfinished Conversation. Until the end of October, pre-registration for the NCA convention includes an option to purchase the book at nearly half off.
Introduction. A Brief History of the National Communication Association
Once, several years ago, I asked Henry or Kieran how many readers this blog has (I wanted to use this information to please some academic bean counters), and the number I got was about 8,000 unique readers a day. I referred to this figure yesterday in a FB-discussion, and Chris told me that currently CT has about 12,000 daily viewers. Hi, all of you! Now, how many of you read Dutch? Perhaps 250? How many of those are interested in an introduction to Ethics book? Three? (the other Dutch philosophers reading this already had their ethics undergrad training, I am sure). So I have no illusions that many of our readers will be interested in the book that I coedited and that just got published, and which features 21 chapters providing a comprehensive intro to ethics, written by 21 philosophers based in the Netherlands. But, as some of you know (Harry in particular), I care a lot, perhaps excessively much so, about the aesthetics of book covers. And I can say I am quite pleased with this one. So perhaps this book is of no interest to 11,997 of you, but I hope you will enjoy the cover.
I promise my next post will be about a really interesting book that all 12,000 of you can read, but with a very different kind of cover… Animal rights activists may take offense of that cover, but there’s luckily no relation with its content. Stay tuned.
Media in Transition 9: Mediating Audiences
Audiences now include readers and viewers (of exhibits, websites, film, television), players and users (of software and libraries) and people as busy conversing, writing, and photographing as they are listening or viewing and reading. Produced, regulated, contested, surveilled, disaggregated, and of course, studied, audiences remain central to our understanding of media and culture.
The second stage of my travelogue finds me and the family in the French Alps, heading to the Italian lakes. Shortly after finishing this, I set off for Venice to take a ferry down the Adriatic …
1.Men in Tweeds
We left Switzerland to go to Chamonix, via the Swiss railways and the Mont Blanc Express. You need the right kind of weather for Chamonix to be special, and when we arrived the big peaks were all in the clouds. But we passed by the statues on the Rue Whymper and explained what they were all about to the kids. My wife’s grandfather climbed Mont Blanc in the 1930s, wearing a tweed suit and hob-nailed boots and carrying ropes and pitons. My uncle reached the top in the 80s, with Gore-Tex weatherproofs and blocks and wedges, the practice of banging spikes into rock faces having rather gone out of fashion as rock climbing became a mass market sport. The town was busy with extremely fit people; it was a five-day festival of what the French apparently call “Ultra Trail”, and I’d call fell-running. The runners were going to cover tens of kilometres of distances and thousands of metres of vertical ascent, but they weren’t going to get near any of the major tops.
The biggest Alps are not really all that big in the scheme of things; even Mont Blanc would be a big, but not exceptional peak if it were located in the Rockies or the Himalayas. But there’s a real sense of menace to the high European mountains; everything about them tells you to take them seriously. The danger on a mountain isn’t related to its height – Helvellyn in the Lake District is under a thousand metres high but people often die on it, while Pike’s Peak in the Colorado Rockies is over 4000 metres high but has picnic tables at the top. It is the route (and, massively, the weather) that makes the danger, and the big high Alpine peaks tend to have very few safe routes and a lot of dangerous ones. Twenty people died in the Haut-Savoie the summer we were there, and the regional mayor had to give a scathing interview about a man who tried to take two of his children (aged 11 and 9, almost the same as my kids) up Mont Blanc. He gave up shortly after having posted a video of them being swept off their feet by a small avalanche in the “Corridor of Death”.
2. The Methods of FFEs
I have a little bit of experience with the French engineering caste, as so many of them take their mathematical skills and go into equity derivatives these days; the Ecole des Mines and the Ecole des Ponts et Chausees are about forty per cent business schools these days. In some corners of the financial markets, they are ubiquitous, to the extent that “FFE” (the last two letters standing for “French Engineer”) is a recognised acronym. And FFEs have a particular way of dealing with you. They start of with, always with perfect politeness and usually in perfect English, something like;
“Hi Dan, I realise you say that it is basically impossible to get good data on this, but maybe you could help us out with a rough estimate?”
A few weeks later, they will come back; sometimes it’s the same one, sometimes a different member of the team (FFEs always work in teams). The question will now be;
“Hi Dan, I understand that these numbers are just a rough estimate, but is there any way you could help us to make them more precise?”
Then, and this is the really horrifying bit, they will start to iterate. Step by step, every little source of uncertainty is chipped away at, with a series of “just a rough estimate”, then returned to with a “can we work on making this a little more precise?”. And they know no cease; they will appreciate that you are busy, understand that this is annoying, never want to cause too much trouble, but never stop. Often, the initial enquiry will come with a strong instruction from their or your boss that you should not spend more time or effort on the question than it is worth, but this is meaningless; for an FFE, there is no such thing as too much trouble, and any imprecision is worth a literally infinite amount of time and effort to remove. The process might be terminated by the physical death of the parties involved, but I strongly suspect that this would merely trigger the first of a long series of contingency plans. And always with the subtle implication, unsaid of course under the skin of perfect politeness, that the question is actually quite simple, and that the real reason why the FFE does not have an immediate answer to a satisfactory level of precision is the laziness, slapdash attitude and failure to prepare of the people he has to work with. It’s one of the vestiges of the military culture that shaped the Grandes Ecoles, I think, and so stretches back to the order and organisation that Napoleon Bonaparte brought to the French Army.
3.Mont Blanc tunnel memorial
We took a bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel, another piece of engineering that set new standards in its time. There’s a monument outside the French side, which I thought might commemorate all the workers who died in building it. Actually, it’s a monument to the 39 victims of the Mont Blanc tunnel fire of 1999, which was the occasion for a lot of reappraisal globally of the kind of safety precaustions that it’s appropriate to take in long tunnels. You can see that the Mont Blanc authorities are still very sensitive to safety issues today – the bus had to radio ahead and check in, and we had to wait up for a minute or so, because they were preparing a convoy of trucks, which goes through with a safety car at the front and another at the back.
As regards workers dying in construction, though, I can’t find any record of there being any. There were a small number of fatalities in the construction of the Aiguille du Midi cable car, but in general, these projects were carried out with attention to detail, and as a result, they were built well and nobody died unnecessarily. I’ve made an argument in financial contexts a lot of times in the past to the effect that the “risk return tradeoff” is often a very bad way of thinking about the two concepts. Most financial risks, from Enron to CDOs, weren’t the natural and inevitable concomitants of chasing higher returns. They were just, purely and simply, failures of quality control – stupid, unrewarded risks which came about because something wasn’t being done properly. Drilling a tunnel through Mont Blanc, or stringing a two kilometre wire hundreds of feet above a glacier, is in some senses a risky thing to do, but the people who did these things didn’t treat it as ineivitable that some workers would die doing it.
4. Cranes that never build anything
As we passed the outskirts of Milan, I was surprised to see cranes sticking out of the horizon everywhere I looked from the motorway. I thought this was a bit odd; the North of Italy has been affected less than the rest of the country by the Euroland crisis, but I didn’t think that anywhere was really in any sort of state to be supporting a construction boom. It took an embarrassingly long time to realise that the “crane-count” indicator for monetary policy wasn’t going to work here; these were loading cranes, for moving metal containers round yards and on and off lorries. Of course, when you think about it , it’s obvious; Milan, Bergamo, Turin – there’s a string of cities across Lombardy that are perfectly placed to be hubs of a logistics operation even if they didn’t have a load of manufacturing of their own. Anything going to or from Italy, and quite a lot of stuff just generally wanting to make its way between France and Germany, is going to find an easier path going around the Alps rather than over them, and the A4 autostrade effectively serves as a bypass for the country of Switzerland. I saw something similar in Denver, every time I took the journey from the airport to the business district; a massive loading yard that apparently handles some large percentage of the trucking logisitcs of the Safeway supermarket chain.
5.Trucks along the way
There is a firm of refrigerated lorries based in Lambach, Austria, which is called the Gartner Group, and which advertises itself on the sides of its trucks. Tess was a consultant in the technology industry, and thus enjoys following these trucks at confusing intersections, declaring “this is the only time in my life I have been happy to follow a Gartner Group recommendation”. The trucks all seem to be carrying agricultural produce back and forth along the road from the Alps to the Adriatic, and as a result our decision to give up on thinking for ourselves and blindly follow them works better than anyone dared hope.
6. Birds on the lakes
The Italians don’t swim in the lakes, as far as I can see – they sail boats, they sometimes windsurf, and one or two of them appear to be, painfully slowly, teaching themselves to kitesurf. But, despite the posters up all round the lake shore, posting evidence of a comprehensive, EU-financed water quality testing programme, and making it totally clear that the water is indeed as perfect and crystalline as it looks, there are only a few sunbathers and literally nobody in the water. Maybe we’re late in the season, or it’s the wrong lake, or something, but this was what I saw – the Italians don’t swim in the lakes.
I do though and it’s fantastic. The water’s not as warm as a swimming pool or the ocean off Palm Beach, but it’s degrees warmer than the British seaside or Llyn Peris in Snowdonia. We share the beach with a gaggle of ducks – this family have a distinguishing mark of a single feather on each side that’s coloured white and blue, standing out from the usual mallard in a way that makes them look almost exactly like they’re wearing military insignia. There’s also a swan with her half-grown cygnets, who strut up and down the path hissing and preening, and leaving behind the most extraordinarily large green turds.
In the water, though, we are all calm, me and the birds. A few strokes out from the shore, you’re on your own to an even greater degree than if you’d walked up a path a hundred yards from the gift shop. The ducks and the swans politely glide away from me; they seem much less inclined to defend territory when they’re out on the water than when they’re on land. I can swim front crawl with my head out of the water, about the only thing left from Bronze Medallion life-saving classes, and it gets me across the bay quickly enough to not really realise how far out I am. And just as I’m ready to turn back, a bird – I thought it was a heron, but it couldn’t have been, possibly a grebe – pops up from below the surface, throws its head back to swallow a fish, and then struggles once, twice and it’s up, flying away toward the mountains.
7.Roads carved out of cliffs
For something like a year (I think, although the telescoping effect of memory seems to stretch it out to my whole childhood), there was blasting every evening outside our village, as they constructed the tunnels and cuttings that were needed to expand the A5, bypassing a few notorious traffic bottlenecks along the North Wales coast. So I tend to notice when the roads we’re driving on have been built into a mountainside, and how it’s been done. It is a hell of a lot of work, making any sort of even reasonably direct route, and the whole of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps are covered with them. It gives you a new perspective on development – there are dozens of countries in Africa and Asia where the economy has stagnated for years, simply because there is not much point making things if they can’t be transported to somewhere for people to buy them. But if you drive through the cols and passes, you begin to appreciate that these are multi-year projects, not the sort of thing that anyone would bother starting unless they had sufficient confidence in whoever was commissioning them to see the building through to the end. The big motorways have tolls on them and are generally privatised these days, but frankly when you look at the toll roads, they’re not that impressive; anyone can lay down miles of blacktop, and you can produce a project like that a kilometer at a time. The real economic secret of this prosperous belt of Europe is the network of little, perfectly maintained cuttings into the rock and stone. This sort of thing won’t pay back for a long time – like the Swiss railways, it’s something that has to be done by a community that doesn’t need a quick cash return on its money – and a mountain pass, unlike a motorway, can’t be half-finished and start paying. This kind of road is basically useless until it gets over the top to join up to a different network.
8.Jungfraujoch in the rain
The true “roof of Europe”, in the sense of the probable owner of that trademarked phrase, is the Jungfraujoch, apparently the highest railway station in Europe, or possibly the highest point you can get to using non-cable-car travel or some such; I didn’t do the research because I was just hanging around in Interlaken station having locked a mobile phone in a hire car, then waiting for my train. It looked like kind of a tourist trap though, so I didn’t go. The railway is basically a status symbol for the regional railway aimed at showing what they can do; it doesn’t serve any actual town, just the station, a restaurant and a massive great terrace sponsored by Piz Buin sun tan lotion. I could imagine thaat it would be a great sunbathing spot on the right kind of day, but when I passed through that part of Switzerland it was cloudy and grey in the valley; there’s a webcam down in the station showing what it’s like at the top, and fair do’s to the Swiss, they took it on the chin and broadcast us the images of pissing rain lashing the Piz Buin terrace as a few disconsolate tourists walked back and forth in front of the cameras, zipped up to the neck and presumably trying to convince themselves they hadn’t just wasted their money. At one point I seriously thought that the site owners had put a cut-out silhouette of a tourist up, to make the place look less deserted. On our return from Grindelwald, the sky was a beautiful clear blue, but I had already decided, ne vaut pas le detour.
9.The little things of Italy
Trains across the north-west of Italy, going from our Alpine campsite to pick up a hire car in Como Vineyards give way to apple orchards as we progress from the mountains into the valleys, but the Italian railways are perfectly serviceable. The rolling stock isn’t as spiffily maintained as the Swiss system (we only travel on one train which is noticeably new, and this turns out to be an SBB service going back toward Lugano), but it works well. And it makes sense to me that this line would have the older trains; like the North Wales line of my youth, this railway is all breathtaking mountainsides and short tunnels. I hardly speak any Italian at all, but I’m confident that there is a heated regional debate on the vital need for electrification, and that the national system is highly reluctant to shell out the cash. Meanwhile, everyone kind of knows that the bullet will be bitten one day, so nobody in their right mind is going to order new diesel kit.
But diesel is pretty cheap in Italy, and the old trains work well, and there doesn’t seem to be much freight on the lines, so the trains run nice and regularly. We roll past Banca di Bergamo, and Credito Valtinese, and Poplare di Vincenza and Banca Cattolica, as well as the conglomerates of UBI and Unicredito and Intesa SanPaolo. I would guess that if I’d been trainspotting bank brands (I mean, doing so more systematically than I actually was), I could probably have identified as much as 25% of the European Central Bank’s balance sheet – these Italian small business lenders were the main users of the Long Term Refinancing Operations which helped to save the euro. These little Italian lenders deserved help from Frankfurt – they basically never set a foot wrong, they didn’t get involved in speculation, their loans were not exactly risk free (small Italian manufacturing companies) but certainly not irresponsible, and all that went wrong with them is that the funding markets had a massive panic about the Italian state. Now they own large portfolios of Italian government bonds, bought with cheap ECB financing, and this props up their profitability and economic viability so they will still be around when the business cycle picks up again. I hope nobody starts to unwind the scheme before time – there is rarely a shortage of commentators in the Financial Times or its epigones to point an accusing finger at European banks, but these smaller Italians are the ones I really feel sorry for.
10.The real roof of Europe, and how it was built
A tourist trap that has to go down in my book as “totally, totally worth it”, though, is the cable car ride up from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi. My parents took me up when I was 16, but I hadn’t remembered how special it was; you just can’t keep something that intense in your mind at its full value. They keep adding bits to the top, but the original stop (although slightly lower than the new bit, which includes the “Step Into The Void” cantilevered glass box attraction) is still the most stunning. You go up about 6km of cable car in two stages, the last one being the longest single cable span in Europe at just under 2 kilometres. And then you come out, and you’re right on the top, and it’s a difficult top too; although the summit was first achived in 1818, the difficult south face was only completed in 1956, by Gaston Rebuffat, a legend of the Alps. Without the cable car, the Aiguille is quite serious Alpinism; from the observation terrace, you can, flask in hand, stand and watch tiny rows of climbers, roped up, make their way slowly up the glacier.
The views are indescribable. Bright, scorching light reflected off the snow, sharp granite ridges and points everywhere, and the clouds spread out a few thousand feet below you. And the constant amazement – how did they make this thing? Work started on the cable car shortly after the end of the war, and finished in 1955. There are black and white pictures of the men who built it, at work in overalls and cloth caps, drinking wine with their lunch and holding hammers in fur mittens. Swinging out to the pylons, feet on the traction wire and hands on the supporting wire. I doubt I know more than a dozen or so people who would be capable of climbing the Aiguille at all, and these guys packed cement up to the top, and steel bolts, and kilometres of wire. They’re still expanding the site and building a new terrace, so you can still see people standing bolted in, swinging picks and welding.
I can understand how it got done though. There was a head engineer, a graduate of one of the military schools. And he stood up there, as the site grew around him, smoking a Gitane and making notes in a ledger in precise handwriting, with a steel propelling pencil. And people would come to him with problems and explanations of why things couldn’t be done. And he would say “thank you so much for this information. Now, can we try just a little bit harder to get this done exactly right?”. And men, wiry men who had faced death on the glacier every day, many of whom would have been veterans of the resistance, would shuffle off and lose fingers to frostbite and risk their limbs once more, all to avoid having to meet that withering gaze again. Yeah, I know how things get done in France.
11. Roads made for motorcycles
Everywhere you go in the Alps and the Lakes, you see motorbikes. It’s not at all hard to see the almost sensual appeal of the roads themselves – you could take all the scenery away and hide it behind a screen wall (something which the planning authorities in my home town actually had to do once; there was a truly stunning sweep of the A5 Expressway over a viaduct which revealed a gorgeous bay which tended to attract drivers’ attention just at the point where, it transpired, they really needed to be looking out for a slightly tricky junction) and those roads would still be great fun to drive on a big motorbike. The bikes are in general big tourers, American or American-styled, and a lot of the cyclists are clearly members of clubs, but they don’t seem to be wearing patches or colours, so I presume they’re for the most part not outlaws. Some guest houses advertise that they are receptive to motorcyclists, though, which I would guess is not a thing that you would bother to advertise if it wasn’t teh case that most of them aren’t.
On the Italian side of Mont Blanc, there is a smaller monument than the official one to the tunnel fire victims. It commemorates Pierlucio Tinazzi, nicknamed “Spadino”, who was a security guard who essentially functioned as a motorbike cop, patrolling traffic in the tunnel. On the day of the fire, he took a breathing apparatus and rode into the blaze five times, pulling people out – in general, the ones who died were those who tried to stay in their cars. He saved as many as ten people from otherwise inevitable death, and died himself on his fifth journey into the furnace, after pushing a trucker into a fire refuge. His motorcycle melted into the tarmac. Every year in late March or early April, there is a ceremonial gathering of bikers, who ride through the tunnel, in convoy, in his memory.
I have a request1 for help from scientifically literate readers. A lot of my research work is focused on the problem of unforeseen contingencies, popularly, if ethnocentrically, described as “black swans”. In particular, I’m interested in the question of how you can prepare for such contingencies given that, by definition, you can’t foresee exactly what they will be. One example, with which I’m very pleased, is that of the precautionary principle. It seems reasonable to say that we can distinguish well-understood choices involving hazards from those that are poorly understood, and avoid the latter, precisely because the loss from hazard cannot be bounded in advance.
Anyway, I was thinking about this in relation to the actual case of black swans (or, from my own perspective, white swans). The question is: what principles would help you to avoid making, and acting on, the assumption “all swans are white (or, in my own case, black)”. It seems to me that the crucial fact here is that the shift from black to white, or vice versa, is, in evolutionary terms, a small one. So, if you used something like cladistics, you would avoid choosing feather color as a defining feature of swans, and birds in general. As I understand it, a phylogenetic approach starts with features that are very strongly conserved (body plans) and proceeds from there. But, rather than assume that my own understanding is correct, it seemed simpler to ask.
Most of the photos I’ve posted have been selected from a rather large back catalogue, but here’s one from less than 48 hours ago. A field in Pembrokeshire, a part of the world I’ve visited every year but one since 1994 and has something of the role for me that Wordsworth evokes in “Tintern Abbey”,
…oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Jonah Goldberg thinks it through. Bonus: “and Ludwig Wittgenstein had much to say on the subject as well.” I sort of hope Goldberg actually is writing a book about Confucius and Wittgenstein.
I can remember back when I was just a wee sleekit lass that read the Economist… OK maybe I was also a bit daft, but I got better when I realized it was, in the words of a recent Gawker article, a news aggregator magazine for people who want to pretend their seat in Economy Plus is a chair by the roaring fire in a manor house. Anyway, they always used to talk about Scottish Devolution and I thought it couldn’t possibly ever amount to anything very serious. But now it seems as if maybe really power will devolve to its utmost, since there’s going to be a vote on independence and everything, and the polls are tight. Scottish readers, are ye voting aye or nay? Subjects of HRH* generally, are Scottish subjects going to keep on keeping on being subjects of HRH, or what? Might she have to give back that big castle she’s apparently so fond of? Who gets the, um, nukes? Enlighten me with an open thread about how Scots maun live in the future.
*Commenters In The Sky and ZM have pointed out that the Queen is HM and only lesser royals mere Highnesses.
Now that Francis Spufford has shown up to do the work of knowing things about the subject, which is what open threads are for (i.e. making the readers do the work) I am hoisting his discussion with SF author Ken McLeod against Scottish Independence up here so that you may watch it more easily. John and I only watched the very very beginning, in which it was explained that Francies Spufford has a very posh accent (which he has come by in an honest, middle-class fashion) and that Lanark is important in some way, which has led us to extrapolate that perhaps giant crabs will come up through cracks in the ground if the two nations are divided, an outcome we naturally deplore. When it is not 10:22 at night and roughly two hours after I took the meds that are supposed to be, welp, going to bed for sure now, so it won’t hurt to take these topamax is very…what now? I will listen more fully and contribute intelligently to the debate. Possibly. Though I have my second Japanese lesson tomorrow! I had to learn katakana and hiragana in a week, that was sort of my own fault though. My brain is oozing knowledge at night in a way peculiar to language-acquisition. Like when I was cold at night and thought I had to curl up in the pages of the big Liddell to stay warm (insufficient heating in SF + Greek MA exams.) Thanks Francis!
2014 Award Winners
Donald H. Ecroyd Award for Outstanding Teaching in Higher Education
Marcella E. Oberle Award for Outstanding Teaching in Grades K-12
Michael and Suzanne Osborn Community College Outstanding Educator Award
Wallace A. Bacon Lifetime Teaching Excellence Award
John Bowers (submitter), firstname.lastname@example.org
Obituary- Bruce Gronbeck
I learned from the University of Iowa that Bruce Gronbeck died last
As it happens, I had been asked to contribute a few words to that
I've known Bruce Gronbeck since 1963. He came to Iowa as a beginning
I have two ideas for rock books I’m never going to write: first, a book about band members of famous bands who apparently don’t really love their own band. You’re the drummer for a heavy metal outfit (it pays the bills!) … but you prefer big band.
Second idea: members of cult bands with surprising musical biographies. Two examples I recently stumbled across.
First, I hadn’t realized Topper Headon (the Clash) played for Mirkwood, which, during that period, was opening for acts like Supertramp. There’s more strayed prog in the roots of punk than you might think.
This sort of poking about is inherently fun, also a healthy challenge to purity fetishes that may accumulate around cult musical acts. It seems natural that the musical ‘personalities’ of band members should exemplify that band’s sound. How could a member of the Clash – ‘The Only Band That Matters!’ – have, a few years earlier, wanted to play in a band that could open for Supertramp?
Most musicians in most bands could probably, quite easily, have ended up playing for quite different bands, if it had fallen out that way.
There have always been dark rumors that Charlie Watts only likes jazz. But I don’t suppose even Keith Richards just listens to Rolling Stones albums all day – or old Chuck Berry albums.
I’m teaching an aesthetics seminar. We’re reading some stuff on music and Roger Scruton’s views were referenced. I’ve never read Scruton on music but I had heard about the Pet Shop Boys’ libel suit , of course. So, naturally, I had long since filed him away in the Allan Bloom remainder bin. Dude hates rock and pop. Thinks it all sounds the same. But googling, to get more of a sense for his views, I found this interview, containing this bit:
I have actually been listening to quite a bit of heavy metal lately, and Metallica, I think, is genuinely talented. ‘Master of Puppets’ I think has got something genuinely both poetic – violently poetic – and musical. Every now and then something like that stands out and you can see that people have got no other repertoire and have a very narrow range of expression, but they’ve hit on something where they are saying something which is not just about themselves. Pop music is so concentrated on the self and the performer that it’s very rare that that happens, I think. It never happens with Oasis or The Verve. It did happen much more of course with the Beatles, and in the old American songbook, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter and all that. That was a popular music which was about communication of often quite gentle feelings. So I’m not as prejudiced as I seem. I would like to be more prejudiced because it would prevent me from listening to this stuff.
I now have a more fabulous picture of Roger Scruton in my mind, foxhunting to a Hoagy Charmichael/Metallica playlist.
The 1970s saw two important and influential publications in the long debate over justice, equality and public policy. In 1971, there was Rawls Theory of Justice, commonly described in terms like “magisterial”. Then in 1974, at lunch with Jude Wanniski, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Laffer drew his now-eponymous curve on a napkin. Of course there was nothing new about the curve: it’s pretty obvious that an income tax levied at rates of either zero or 100 per cent isn’t going to raise any money (* or, in the 100 per cent case, not very much money), and interpolation does the rest. What was new was the Laffer hypothesis, that the US at the time was on the descending side of the curve, where a reduction in tax rates would raise tax revenue.
I’ve always understood Rawls in terms of the Laffer curve, as arguing in essence that we should be at the very top of the curve, maximizing the resources available for transfer to the poor, but not (as, say, Jerry Cohen might have advocated) going further than this to promote equality.
A couple of interesting Facebook discussions have led me to think that I might be wrong in my understanding of Rawls and that the position I’ve imputed to him is actually far closer to that of classical utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham (which is, broadly speaking, my own view).
Facebook has its merits, but promoting open public discussion isn’t one of them, so I thought I’d throw this out to the slightly larger world of blog readers.
It started out with a post by Ingrid, mentioning a paper she’d presented on limitarianism (a new term to me, though not a new idea), the proposition that as a matter of public policy or of individual ethics, there ought to be a maximum limit on individual incomes. I’m hoping Ingrid might write something more about this here, but she shouldn’t be blamed for any errors I make.
On my interpretation of Rawls, it seems as his difference principle implies a kind of limitarianism. If high income earners are taxed to yield the maximum possible revenue, then their incomes will be bounded above. This won’t be an absolute bound, but will depend on their earning capacity which in turn will reflect both the general level of technology and the extent of “pre-distribution”, that is whether the economic organization of society yields highly unequal market incomes.
That got me thinking about utilitarianism. One way of looking at Rawls (not one he accepted, but still defensible) is as putting forward an extremely egalitarian rank-dependent version of utilitarianism, with all the weight on the bottom of the distribution. But it turns out that you don’t need this to advocate a tax system very close to the Laffer maximum. On the default utilitarian assumption of log utility, additional income to someone on $1 million a year yields 1 per cent of the utility of additional income to someone on $10 000. So, a costly tax-transfer system taking from money the $1 million group and giving it the $10 000 is beneficial as long as the proportion lost through incentive effects, collection costs and so on is less than 99 per cent. Diamond and Saez did the sums properly a while back and concluded that the social marginal utility at the $1,364,000 average income of
I got two things out of the discussion. The first is that Rawls had some mistaken ideas about economics, logically unrelated to his difference principle, which contributed to his scepticism about progressive taxes. The intellectual atmosphere of the 1970s, which gave rise to the Laffer curve and the “tax revolt” may have had something to do with this.
The second is his focus on “ideal theory” which I don’t fully understand, but which seems to me to be unhelpful, partly for the reasons put forward by Jacob Levy. The general claim made by Rawls is that, whatever the case for progressive income taxes in society as it is, a properly organized society with limits on inheritance, open access to education and no unfair market power wouldn’t need them.
I don’t buy this. In any society sufficiently close to reality to need a taxation system at all, there are going to be inequalities of pre-tax income large enough that an egalitarian would want to redistribute that income. Given that nearly all taxes are regressive, a progressive income tax is an essential part of such a policy.
Rhetoric and Economics
Mark Longaker, University of Texas at Austin
Hey -- Fall is here.
If you have a second, if you are teaching a course in rhetoric, post your name, your institution, the name of the course, and something cool about it below.
Let's see what is happening in rhetoric in the classroom today!
Twenty-first century architecture began tragically with the fall of the Twin Towers and staggered through a real estate boom and bust. Along the way the world's tallest building was constructed in Dubai and green architecture went mainstream. Critic Blair Kamin takes note of it all and in our free e-book for September, Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age conveys the sublime and the substandard, the spectacular and the mere spectacle.
Sponsor: International Society for the History of Rhetoric
RSQ invites proposals for the 2016 Special Issue
Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Volume 44, Issue 4, July-September 2014 is now available online on Taylor & Francis Online.
This new issue contains the following articles:
Diocletian’s Victory Column: Megethos and the Rhetoric of Spectacular Disruption