Crooked Timber

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Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
Updated: 1 hour 52 min ago

Great bad writing

9 hours 56 min ago

I used to think that David Brooks deserved some sort of George Orwell ‘best bad modern writing’ award for a phrase in his old attack on Markos Zuniga Moulitsas.

The Keyboard Kingpin, aka Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.

It’s hard to beat squadrons of venom-unleashing rabid command-lambs. But then, when doing some background reading for class in re: Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech, I came across this plea from Joseph Joffe:

who will save the American posterior once the chickens of aloofness come home to roost?

Who? Who indeed?

I envision America so:

I’m sure that there’s a lot of other policy writing with terrible metaphors out there that I’m unaware of. Feel free to provide in comments.

Categories: Group Blogs

The Tomb of the Unknown Deserter

Fri, 2014-10-24 14:55

Last year, I wrote a post building on James Scott’s argument that we should memorialize deserters. Today, I see a piece at Deutsche Welle saying that Austria is doing just that.

A monument to deserters from the German army during World War II has been unveiled in central Vienna. This follows decades of controversy over recognition and compensation in Austria. The monument on Ballhausplatz in central Vienna, right by the Chancellery, was unveiled on Friday in the presence of Austrian President Heinz Fischer and representatives of the government and victims’ rights groups. … Around 30,000 conscientious objectors and deserters from the German Wehrmacht were sentenced to death by the Nazi military courts from 1939 to 1945. An estimated 20,000 of them were executed, including 1,500 Austrian nationals. It took three years for all sentences to be overturned by the Recognition Act and deserters or their progeny granted compensation payments on a complex individual case basis.But the complete blanket rehabilitation only came into effect in 2009 – amid fierce opposition from Austria’s right wing parties.
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Ride a Painted Pony, Bounce, Skate, Rock, Roll

Fri, 2014-10-24 07:48

It’s important that you listen to these important songs now, because of their great import. I like the Shirley Bassey song because, when John and I were first married, it was the signature tune of one of our favorite DJs. He had a club night where he played goofy twinkly commercially popular 60s and 70s music, and this was the “get everybody out on the floor” song. The Vaughan Mason & Crew tune (Disco Remix) is a roller disco song thankyouverymuch. Not merely normal-disco. It is so good. SO GOOD. It sounds like some Derrick Carter-ness but it’s from 1979.

See? SEE??!?

So many, the sparkles. All the sparkles. And for years I couldn’t find this song somehow. Violet reminded me just now to search again and—duh there it was! The off-kilter horns make it. I’m glad I could make this significant contribution to our blog.

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David Brooks, Edmund Burke, and Me

Thu, 2014-10-23 07:42

David Brooks:
Burke is famous for his belief in gradual change….I’m sticking to my Burkean roots. Change should be steady, constant and slow. Society has structural problems, but they have to be reformed by working with existing materials, not sweeping them away in a vain hope for instant transformation.
Edmund Burke on the East India Company:
It is fixed beyond all power of reformation…this body, being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible; and because they are incorrigible, both in conduct and constitution, power ought to be taken out of their hands; just on the same principles on which have been made all the just changes and revolutions of government that have taken place since the beginning of the world.
The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read….Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.
David Brooks:
Gail, as you know I have a policy of teaching at colleges I couldn’t have gotten into, and as a result I find myself teaching at Yale….I just got out of a class in which we discussed Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”

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Gough Whitlam has died

Thu, 2014-10-23 05:23

Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975, died on Tuesday. More than any other Australian political leader, and as much as any political figure anywhere, Gough Whitlam embodied social democracy in its ascendancy after World War II, its high water mark around 1970 and its defeat by what became known as neoliberalism in the wake of the crises of the 1970s.

Whitlam entered Parliament in 1952, having served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the War, and following a brief but distinguished legal career. Although Labor had already chosen a distinguished lawyer (HV Evatt) as leader, Whitlam’s middle-class professional background was unusual for Labor politicans

Whitlam marked a clear break with the older generation of Labor politicians in many other respects. He was largely indifferent to the party’s socialist objective (regarding the failure of the Chifley governments bank nationalisation referendum as having put the issue off the agenda) and actively hostile to the White Australia policy and protectionism, issues with which Labor had long been associated.

On the other hand, he was keen to expand the provision of public services like health and education, complete the welfare state for which previous Labor governments had laid the foundations, and make Australia a fully independent nation rather than being, in Robert Menzies words ‘British to the bootstraps’.

Coupled with this was a desire to expand Labor’s support base beyond the industrial working class and into the expanding middle class. The political necessity of this was undeniable, though it was nonetheless often denied. In 1945, the largest single occupational group in Australia (and an archetypal group of Labor supporters) were railwaymen (there were almost no women in the industry). By the 1970s, the largest occupational group, also becoming the archetypal group of Labor supporters. were schoolteachers.

Whitlam’s political career essentially coincided with the long boom after World War II, and his political outlook was shaped by that boom. The underlying assumption was that the tools of Keynesian fiscal policy and modern central banking were sufficient to stabilize the economy. Meanwhile technological innovation, largely driven by publicly funded research would continue to drive economic growth, while allowing for steadily increasing leisure time and greater individual freedom. The mixed economy would allow a substantial, though gradually declining, role for private business, but would not be dominated by the concerns of business.

The central institution of the postwar long boom, the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, was already on the verge of collapse by the time Whitlam took office in 1972. The proximate cause of its collapse was the inflationary surge that had begun in the late 1960s and reached its peak with the oil price shock of 1973.

So, Whitlam was living on borrowed time from the moment he took office. His ‘crash through or crash’ approach ensured that he achieved more in his first short term of office (eighteen months before being forced to an election by the Senate) than most governments did in a decade. The achievements continued in the government’s second term, but they were overshadowed by retreats and by a collapse into chaos, symbolized by the ‘Loans Affair’ an attempt to circumvent restrictions on foreign borrowing through the use of dodgy Middle Eastern intermediaries.

The dramatic constitutional crisis of November 1975, and the electoral disaster that followed, have overshadowed the fact that, given the economic circumstances, the government was doomed regardless of its performance. The Kirk-Rowling Labour government in New Zealand, also elected in 1972 after a long period of opposition, experienced no particular scandals or avoidable chaos, but suffered a similarly crushing electoral defeat.

Despite his defeat, and repudiation by succeeding leaders of the ALP (and of course his conservative opponents), it is striking to observe how much of Whitlam’s legacy remains intact. Among the obvious examples (not all completed by his government, and some started before 1972, but all driven by him to a large extent)

  • Aboriginal land rights
  • Equal pay for women
  • Multiculturalism
  • Greatly increased Commonwealth spending on school education
  • Medibank (now Medicare)
  • The end of colonial ties to Britain
  • Welfare benefits for single parents
  • Extension of sewerage to Western Sydney
  • Reduction of the voting age to 18
  • No fault divorce

In all of this Whitlam is emblematic of the social democratic era of the mid-20th century. Despite the resurgence of financialised capitalism, which now saturates the thinking of all mainstream political parties, the achievements of social democracy remain central to our way of life, and politicians who attack those achievements risk disaster even now.

With the failure of the global financial system now evident to all, social democratic parties have found themselves largely unable to respond. We need a renewed movement for a fairer society and a more functional economy. We can only hope for a new Whitlam to lead that movement.

Categories: Group Blogs

Adolph Eichmann, Funny Man

Tue, 2014-10-21 23:35

One of the criticisms often made of Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial was that she found Eichmann funny. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt can barely contain her laughter at the inadvertent comedy of the man, which was connected to her claim of his banality and to the ironic tone she adopted throughout the text. Many at the time found her tone flippant and her irony distasteful; since then, her appreciation of Eichmann’s buffoonery has been seen as a sign, to her critics, of her haughty indifference to the suffering he inflicted.

Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand. As Deborah Lipstadt reports:
This was not the only time Eichmann seemed oblivious to how strange his explanations sounded. Servatius [Eichmann’s lawyer] asked him about a directive he had issued ordering that trains deporting Jews carry a minimum of one thousand people, even though their capacity was for only seven hundred. Eichmann claimed that the seven-hundred figure was calculated on the basis of soldiers with baggage. Since Jews’ luggage was sent separately, there was room for an additional three hundred people. The gallery erupted in laughter.
Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Those moments of laughter in Eichmann in Jerusalem—and in the courtroom—did not reflect an indifference to cruelty or suffering but a will to divest them of their unearned gravitas.

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.

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Two Great Parties

Mon, 2014-10-20 22:07

I’m reading up on the history of party politics. It’s a nice question why Henry Bolingbroke doesn’t get more credit for theorizing the benefits of Two Great Parties. But, now that I’m tucking into his “Dissertation Upon Parties”, I’m starting to get a notion.

Dude did not appreciate that regarding Whigs and Tories as closely related independent causes, yet great, does not make it great to write in closely related, independent clauses. Ahem:

How the notions then in vogue began to change, and this spirit to decline, some time after the Restoration; how the zeal of Churchmen and Dissenters against one another began to soften, and a Court and Country party to form themselves; how faction mingled itself again in the contest, and renewed the former resentments and jealousies; how Whig and Tory arose, the furious offspring of those inauspicious parents roundhead and cavalier; how the proceedings of one party might have thrown us back into a civil war, confusion and anarchy; how the success of the other had like to have entailed tyranny on the state, and popery in Church; how the Revolution did, and could alone, deliver us from the grievances we felt, and from the dangers we feared; how this great event was brought about by a formal departure of each side from the principles objected to them by the other; how this renewal of our constitution, on the principles of liberty, by the most solemn, deliberate, national act, that ever was made, did not only bind at least every one of those, who concurred in any degree to bring it about (and that description includes almost the whole nation); but how absurd it is for any man, who was born since that era, or who, being born before it, hath been bound by no particular, legal tie to any other settlement, to be willing to give up the advantages of the present constitution, any more than he would give up the privileges of the great charter, which was made and ratified so many ages ago; all these points are to be now touched in that summary manner which I have prescribed to myself, and which will be sufficient, in so plain a case, where men are to be reminded of what they know already, rather than to be informed, and to be confirmed, not to be convinced.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the use of the semicolon, in English, peaks at about the time that the notion of the ‘loyal opposition’ enters the language. For is not an independent clause, separated from the rest of the sentence, yet remaining within it, courtesy of a semicolon, something like a loyal, propositional opposition? And is not the ultimate break-up of the British Empire perhaps a phenomenon to be studied in parallel with, so to speak, post-semicolonial studies?

Some of this work is, admittedly, speculative.

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Sunday photoblogging: houses

Sun, 2014-10-19 04:35

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Of Collaborators and Careerists

Fri, 2014-10-17 00:22

The announcement of the death of David Greenglass has got me thinking a lot about collaborators. Though much of twentieth-century history could not be written without some discussion of collaborators—from Vichy to Stalinism to the Dirty Wars to McCarthyism—the topic hardly gets a mention in the great texts of political theory. Eichmann in Jerusalem being the sole exception.

In my first book on fear, I tried to open a preliminary discussion of the topic. That discussion drew from a wide range of twentieth-century experiences, in Europe, Latin America, the US, and elsewhere, as well as from my reading of Eichmann and Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.

Reading over what I wrote, I’d say I failed. I was so intent on breaking apart the conventional understanding of the collaborator as someone who aids and abets a foreign enemy that I wound up broadening the category too much. So intent was I, also, on breaking apart the three-legged stool of perpetrator-victim-bystander—where was the collaborator in all this, I wondered—that I wound up conflating low-level perpetrators with collaborators; I now think there’s an important difference there.

That said, I thought I’d reprint my discussion here. As I said, political theorists have yet to grapple with the problem of collaboration. Or careerism, which is a related topic. One day, when I’m in my dotage, I’d like to write a book, a kind of political theory of careerism and collaboration. Arendt thought we should take our theoretical cues from actual political experience; political theory was first and foremost an attempt to understand what we are doing. That’s why she wrote books and essays on totalitarianism, revolution, action, and other political phenomena. But when it comes to careerism and collaboration, we have yet to understand what we are doing. So here goes.

 • • • • • 

By conventional understanding, a collaborator is one who assists an enemy, helping groups to which he does not belong threaten groups to which he does belong. (1) But this definition, it seems to me, is too restrictive. It presumes that a group is a discrete whole, that once in it, we can’t get out of it or have competing affiliations.

Collaborators, however, cannot be so neatly bound. Some do not entirely belong to the group they betray; others, like the French fascists of Vichy, have a deep affinity for the enemy they aid. Informers are perhaps the most common kind of collaborator, but they are notorious chameleons, making it virtually impossible to pin down their affiliations at all.

Knud Wollenberger, an East German dissident who secretly kept the Stasi apprised of his wife’s subversive activities, claims that his collaboration was entirely consistent with his membership in the couple’s oppositional circle. One way to challenge the government, he explains, was “through open dissidence, and the other way [was] through government channels. I was on the inside and the outside at the same time.” (2)

Harvey Matusow joined the American Communist Party in 1947, began informing on it in 1950, recanted his testimony in 1954, and then lied about all three phases of his career in his memoir False Witness, published in 1955. So promiscuous were Matusow’s politics, it is impossible to know what he had been false to, except the truth. The title of another FBI informant’s memoir—I Led Three Lives (as Communist, informer, and “citizen”)—was more apt, suggesting the multiple identities the collaborator regularly assumes. (3)

I don’t wish to carry this notion of multiple affiliations too far. Wollenberger could very well be rationalizing a past of which he is ashamed, and Matusow may simply be the hollow man many at the time suspected him to be. Whether we belong to one group or another in some existential sense, in the course of our lives we do incur moral obligations to our comrades and friends, whom we betray when we aid our opponents.

But to avoid the question of identity that restrictive definitions of collaboration entail, I will use the definition contained in the word’s Latin root collaborare: “to work together.” By collaborator, I simply mean those men and women who work with elites and who occupy the lower tiers of power and make political fear a genuinely civic enterprise.

Collaborators may be low- or mid-level perpetrators; suppliers, like the warehouse in Jedwabne, Poland, which provided the kerosene local residents used in 1941 to burn a barn containing 1,500 Jews, or Ford and General Motors, which funded a Brazilian security outfit that interrogated and tortured leftists; attendants (cooks, secretaries, and other supporting staff); or spies and informers. (4) Though all are not equally compromised by their deeds, each is guilty of complicity.

The collaborator is an elusive figure. With the exception of The Persian Letters and Eichmann in Jerusalem, he seldom makes an appearance in the literature of political fear. One of the reasons for his absence, I suspect, is that he confounds our simple categories of elite and victim. Like the elite, the collaborator takes initiative and receives benefits from his collaboration. Like the victim, he may be threatened with punishment or retribution if he does not cooperate. Many collaborators, in fact, are drawn directly from the ranks of the victims.

Perhaps then we can distinguish between collaborators of aspiration, inspired by a desire for gain, and collaborators of aversion, inspired by a fear of loss. The first are akin to elites, the second to victims. But even that distinction is too neat. Elites also fear loss, and victims hope for gain, and as the economist’s notion of opportunity costs attests, the hope of gain often informs the fear of loss. (5)

Collaborators serve two functions. First, they perform tasks that elites themselves cannot or will not perform. These tasks may be considered beneath the dignity of the elite: cooking, cleaning, or other forms of work. They may require local knowledge—as in the case of informers, who provide information elites cannot access on their own—or specialized skills.

We often think of torturers, for example, as thugs from the dregs of society. But torture is a weapon of knowledge, designed to extract information from the victim, often without leaving a physical trace. The torturer must know the body, how far he can go without killing the victim. Who better to assist or direct the torturer than a doctor? Thus, 70 percent of Uruguayan political prisoners under that country’s military regime claim that a doctor sat in on their torture sessions. (6)

Second, collaborators extend the reach of elites into corners of society that elites lack the manpower to patrol. These collaborators are usually figures of influence within communities targeted by elites. Their status may come from the elite, who elevate them because they are willing to enforce the elite’s directives. (7)

More often, their authority is indigenous. Figures of trust among the victims, they can be relied upon to persuade the victims not to resist, to compound the fear of disobedience the victims already feel.

During its war against leftist guerillas in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Salvadoran army worked closely with such indigenous leaders. In 1982, a battalion officer informed Marcos Díaz, owner of the general store in the hamlet of El Mozote, with friends in the military, that the army was planning a major offensive in the region. To ensure their safety, the officer explained, the townspeople should remain in the village. Though many in El Mozote thought such advice unsound, Díaz was the local potentate who knew the army’s ways. His voice held sway, the villagers did as they were told, and three days later, some eight hundred of them were dead. (8)

Because their functions are so various, collaborators come in all shapes and sizes. Some travel in or near the orbit of elite power; others are drawn from the lower orders and geographic peripheries.

One common, though unappreciated, influence upon their actions is their ambition. While some collaborators hope to stave off threats to their communities and others are true believers (9), many are careerists, who see in collaboration a path of personal advance. In Brazil, for example, torture was a stepping stone, turning one man into the ambassador to Paraguay and another into a general, while doctors advising the torturers in Uruguay could draw salaries four times as high as those of doctors who did not. (10)

Whether the payment is status, power, or money, collaboration promises to elevate men and women, if only slightly, above the fray. Nazi Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101, for example, was a unit of five hundred “ordinary men,” drawn from the lower middle and working classes of Hamburg, who joined the battalion because it got them out of military service on the front. All told, they were responsible for executing 38,000 Polish Jews and deporting some 45,000 others to Treblinka.

Why did they do it?

Not because of any fear of punishment. No one in the 101 faced penalties—certainly not death—for not carrying out their mission. The unit’s commander even informed his men that they could opt out of the killing, which 10 to 15 of them did. Why did the remaining 490 or so stay?

According to Christopher Browning, there were different reasons, including anti-Semitism and peer pressure, but a critical one was their desire for advance. Of those who refused to kill Jews, in fact, the most forthright emphasized their lack of career ambitions. One explained that “it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise to advance. . . . The company chiefs . . . on the other hand were young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.” Another said, “Because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one . . . it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.” (11)

Though ambitious collaborators like to believe that they are adepts of realpolitik, walking the hard path of power because it is the wisest course to take, their realism is freighted with ideology. Careerism has its own moralism, serving as an anesthetic against competing moral claims. Particularly in the United States, where ambition is a civic duty and worldly success a prerequisite of citizenship, enlightened anglers of their own interest can easily be convinced that they are doing not only the smart thing, but also the right thing. They happily admit to their careerism because they presume an audience of shared moral sympathy. How else can we understand this comment of director Elia Kazan in response to a colleague’s request that he justify his decision to name names? “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [the head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.” (12)



(1) According to Jan Gross, the word “collaboration” first took on this negative connotation—as opposed to the more neutral notion of two parties working together—with the Nazi invasion of France, whereupon it was used to refer to natives of occupied countries who colluded with the Germans. Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 5, 205-6.

(2) Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism (New York: Vintage, 1995), xiii.

(3) Herbert A. Philbrick, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, ‘Communist,’ Counterspy (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1952); Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little Brown, 1998), 310-13, 344-349.

(4) Gross, 97-100; Lawrence Weschler, A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, 1998), 44.

(5) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope (New York: Modern Library, 1970, 1999), 42; Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), 19.

(6) Weschler, 126.

(7) Levi, 33.

(8) Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (New York: Vintage, 1993), 17, 20, 23, 50, 59.

(9) Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 77-82; Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Penguin, 1980, 1991), 3-69; Gross, 37-40, 60-62, 65, 91, 123-125; Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992, 1998), 162, 177, 180, 196-200, 202.

(10) Weschler, 76, 127.

(11) Browning, 1-2, 55-77, 169-170; Bauer, 37.

(12) Stefan Kanfer, A Journal of the Plague Years: A Devastating Chronicle of the Blacklist (New York: Atheneum, 1973), 173. Even if Kazan had refused to testify and been penalized by Hollywood, he undoubtedly could have had a thriving career as a Broadway director—a point he affirmed before his death. Bernard Weinraub, “Book Reveals Kazan’s Thoughts on Naming Names,” New York Times (March 4, 1999), E1.

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Gobrey, Smith, Hume

Tue, 2014-10-14 21:19

I wanted to note this disagreement between P.E. Gobry and Noah Smith because it allows me to pull out my favorite underappreciated David Hume quote.


Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different. … Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers.


One way of systematically understanding the world is just to watch it and write down what happens. “Today I saw this bird eat this fish.” “This year the harvest was destroyed by frost.” “The Mongols conquered the Sung Dynasty.” And so on. All you really need for this is the ability to write things down. This may sound like a weak, inadequate way of understanding the world, but actually it’s incredibly important and powerful, since it allows you to establish precedents. … A second way of systematically understanding the world is repeated observation. This is where you try to make a large number of observations that are in some way similar or the same, and then use statistics to identify relationships between them. … The first big limitation of empirics is omitted variable bias. You can never be sure you haven’t left out something important. The second is the fact that you’re always measuring correlation, but without a natural experiment, you can’t isolate causation. Still, correlation is an incredibly powerful and important thing to know. … Experiments are just like empirics, except you try to control the observational environment in order to eliminate omitted variables and isolate causality. You don’t always succeed, of course. And even when you do succeed, you may lose external validity – in other words, your experiment might find a causal mechanism that always works in the lab, but is just not that important in the real world.


Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them.

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There’s got to be a better way to prepare for class

Mon, 2014-10-13 21:35

There’s got to be a better way to prep for class. First I read the assigned text, taking notes while I’m reading either in the back of the book or, when space runs out, in a little pocket notebook that I carry. Then I read through those notes, highlighting specific passages or commentary that might be relevant for lecture and discussion. Then I re-type some (hopefully more coherent) version of those highlighted notes in a Word file, organizing them in some kind of thematic fashion or outline. (Sometimes I divide that step up into two: first, I retype all the highlighted notes in a Word file; then I organize those notes into outline form in a new Word file.) Once I have some basic sense of the themes I’ll be talking about and the passages I want to focus on, I prepare my lecture (whether it’s a grad seminar or an undergrad class, I always do some interwoven combination of lecture and discussion). All the while I’m trying to do some secondary reading to help me figure out what the hell is going on in or around the text. There’s got to be a better way to prep for class.

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r > g

Mon, 2014-10-13 00:44

A standard piece of advice to researchers in math-oriented fields aiming to publish a popular book is that every equation reduces the readership by a factor of x (x can range from 2 to 10, depending on who is giving the advice). Thomas Piketty’s Capital has only one equation (or more precisely, inequality), at least only one that anyone notices, but it’s a very important one. Piketty claims that the share of capital owners in national income will tend to rise when the rate of interest r exceeds the rate of growth g. He suggests that this is the normal state, and that the situation prevailing for much of the 20th century, when r was less than g, was an aberration.

I’ve seen lots of discussion of this, much of it confused and/or confusing. So, I want to offer a very simple explanation of Piketty’s point. I’m aware that this may seem glaringly obvious to some readers, and remain opaque to others, but I hope there is a group in between who will benefit.

Suppose that you are a debtor, facing an interest rate r, and that your income grows at a rate g. Initially, think about the case when r=g. For concreteness, suppose you initially owe $400, your annual income is $100 and r=g is 5 per cent. So, your debt to income ratio is 4. Now suppose that your consumption expenditure (that is, expenditure excluding interest and principal repayments) is exactly equal to your income, so you don’t repay any principal and the debt compounds. Then, at the end of the year, you owe $420 (the initial debt + interest) and your income has risen to $105. The debt/income ratio is still 4. It’s easy to see that this will work regardless of the numerical values, provided r=g. To sum it up in words: when the growth rate and the interest rate are equal, and income equals consumption expenditure, the ratio of debt to income will remain stable.

On the other hand, if r>g, the ratio of debt to income can only be kept stable if you consume less than you earn. And conversely if r < g (for example in a situation of unanticipated inflation or booming growth), the debt-income ratio falls automatically provided you don’t consume in excess of your income.

Now think of an economy divided into two groups: capital owners and everyone else (both wage-earners and governments). The debt owed by everyone else is the wealth of the capital owners. If r>g, and if capital owners provide the net savings to allow everyone else to balance income and consumption, then the ratio of the capital stock to (non-capital) income must rise. My reading of Piketty is that, as we shift from the C20 situation of r ≤ g to one in which r>g the ratio of capital to stock to non-capital income is likely to rise form 4 (the value that used to be considered as one of the constants of 20th century economics) to 6 (the value he estimates for the 19th century)

This in turn means that the ratio of capital income to non-capital income must rise, both because the capital stock is getting bigger in relative terms and because the rate of return, r, has increased as we move from r=g to r>g. For example if the capital-income ratio goes from 4 to 6 and r goes from 2 to 5, then capital incomes goes from 8 per cent of non-capital income to 30 per cent1. This can only stop if the stock of physical capital becomes so large as to bring r and g back into line (there’s a big dispute about whether and how this will happen, which I’ll leave for another time), or if non-capital owners begin to consume below their income.

There’s a lot more to Piketty than this, and a lot more to argue about, but I hope this is helpful to at least some readers.

  1. Around 20 per cent of GDP is depreciation, indirect taxes and other things that don’t figure in a labor-capital split, so this translates into a fall in the labor share of all income from a bit over 70 per cent to around 50 per cent, which looks like happening. 

Categories: Group Blogs

Sunday photoblogging: reflection

Sun, 2014-10-12 03:37

Categories: Group Blogs

The World Is Squared – Episode 3: The Greek Calends

Sat, 2014-10-11 06:08

My travelogue continues … By the way, check out friend-o-the-blog Sam Bikinoraion’s blog – he is also going round the world this year, and seems to be visiting a load of my favourite places, which I didn’t fancy taking the kids to. This episode takes me through Greece, and is posted a bit in arrears, as I headed off to the desert after the events described herein …

1.Pomegranates by the roadside

It is one of the strangest things, to a Northern European at least, to see a pomegranate just growing there on a tree. I thought they were apples for a while, but there they were – all red and exotic and just hanging there, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to have in your front garden. And of course it is – and lemons, and quinces and figs too. The urge to just reach up and pick one, then continue to walk along the road eating it, was almost irresistible. But I presumed that would be bad manners and I really didn’t want to give a bad impression of myself.

2.The politest man in the world

I’ve met the politest man in the world, and he was Greek, from Thessaloniki. It was a few years ago and we were going to the wedding of another friend, in FYR Macedonia. We’d made some complicated arrangements to stay in his apartment on the way up to Skopje, and when we were arrived we found a bottle of wine, some cakes and a heartfelt note of apology that he wasn’t there himself to greet us; this had never been the arrangement, he just apparently felt a bit bad about letting us stay in his apartment without also looking after us in a dozen other ways. We met the next day at the wedding and … well, it’s hard to describe, if you haven’t experienced something like it. It is an extraordinary sensation, to be caught in a focused beam of high-intensity good manners. The rest of us try to go about our day without giving needless offence, and perhaps occasionally doing someone a good turn if we can, but for some people, politeness is a positive presence rather than an absence of uncouth. It’s worth seeking out, I can tell you. He’s a professor of Byzantine philosophy these days, at the university in Crete, I think.

The other thing I remember about that trip (apart from the wedding itself, and the horrific mouth ulcer I had at the time, and many other details of limited relevance to this piece) is that it took place in 2004, at exactly the time when Greece was playing in the European Championship finals for the first time in decades. For the first week of the championships, the Greek guys were all at pains to tell the British, Germans and other members of the party that the football was really not that big a deal and that basketball was a much more popular sport in Greece. This made sense; the Greek national team was a collection of journeymen from the lower halves of the top tier of European football, and not expected by anybody to go anywhere. But then they started winning.

Of course, this meant that for the second week of the trip, the relative popularity of basketball and association football took a sudden and pretty emphatic reversal, and the entire country went football mad. So we watched every game, planning travel around the need to be in a bar by kickoff time. And the Greeks kept winning. There never seemed to be any star turns or particular pieces of skill and beauty, but they passed the ball, defended doggedly and went on rolling over much more prestigious teams. And then they only went and won the whole thing! It was a great day for the Greeks. And to think, this came in the same year as the Athens Olympics, another massive success that they had pulled off in the face of the whole world telling them they weren’t good enough. Can you blame them, however badly things went in retrospect, for going into the formative period of the European credit bubble with something of a feeling that the wind was in their sails?

3.The proverbial taxi drivers

I never got ripped off once while I was in Greece. In fact, technically I got ripped off a negative amount, as a railway clerk told me that my son looked like he was only just twelve, and sold us an under-twelves ticket for him. On more than a couple of occasions, though, I was warned in graphic terms about the dishonesty of taxi drivers, and in one case told straight up that I had been charged double the rate for a short ride. Which interested me, because I had been paying attention to the meter and this simply wasn’t true; I’d been charged exactly the correct amount, but the person I was talking to had forgotten about the (clearly displayed) extra charge for the vast amount of luggage I was shifting about the place.

This is my Thomas Friedman moment of epiphany, and like the great New York Times pundit, it of course involved taxi drivers. Greece isn’t a place where people act out of dishonesty, but it’s a place where people’s perception of the venality and untrustworthiness of their compatriots is a weird source of national pride. Greeks love Greece, but they’re not too keen on the Greeks.

I found myself, as I often do, using the north-west of England, and specifically Merseyside, as my benchmark for indicators of a low trust society and I didn’t see them. The booze in the supermarkets was mostly on open shelves in the tourist towns – in Athens, there were locked cabinets for imported rum and Scotch whisky, but the beer, wine and ouzo were all within hand’s grasp. Try finding an off-licence in Liverpool which doesn’t keep its stock under lock and key. I walked past two or three filling stations which had clearly stopped trading a while ago – the windows were intact, and you could see cigarettes behind the counter. Whatever is structurally wrong with the Greek economy, and despite a few quite indicative behavioural economics experiments which pupport to show it’s the lowest trust society in Europe, I don’t think it’s quite that. There’s something more complicated going on. After all, if Greece is characterised by low levels of trust, how come they do so well in shipping, an industry in which there is absolutely legendary levels of reliance on gentlemens’ agreements and binding handshake deals?

4.The columns of Corinth are topped with rusting steel

The signature architectural detail of Greece, Turkey, some parts of southern Italy and more or less the whole Middle East is visible wherever you drive – four sticks of rusting iron rebar sticking out of the top of every concrete column. In the good old days of 2000-2005, we used to tell each other that this was a fantastic sign of growth potential – when you see a building that’s in use, but has rebar sticking out of the top, what you’re looking at is a building that’s being put up one storey at a time, as the owner manages to save up enough money to put up another level. And therefore, that this denotes an under-served financial service market, where in the long term it will be possible for people to borrow money up front and build the whole thing, more efficiently, in one job. I don’t know whether the theory had anything to it or not, but photos of hotel developments of this kind were a staple of bullish presentations back in the go-go years. It doesn’t carry quite the same connotation now, of course.

5.Alexander the Great

Someone more desperate for a subject than me in writing about Greece can always create a moment of taxi-driver epiphany by finding anyone of Greek descent and engaging them on the subject of either a) the correct nomenclature of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or b) whether Alexander the Great was a Greek or a Macedonian. You only need to pick one of the two, as any conversation on one will invariably tend to shade into a disquisition on the other and back again.


I can work out Greek words phonetically, as long as they stick to using letters that are also the names of important physical constants or option pricing parameters. And once you’ve worked out the transliteration, most of the stuff that’s on billboards or menus is going to sound like either the English word or the French one or the Italian one. I could occasionally puzzle out some of the graffiti too; I have to say that the usual slogans about Israel aren’t any less unattractive when there’s a sigma as the second letter rather than a Roman S. There were a lot of these on the walls, as far as I can see; wherever you go in the world among dispossessed or economically disadvantaged people, the one constant thing you can expect is that they know which side of the Israel/Palestine conflict they’re on.

7.Floating down the Adriatic

The ANEK Lines ferry goes from Venice to Igoumenitsa, and then on to Corfu. It departs from the freight terminal at Fusina rather than the cruise terminal in the city, which means it is kind of a drag to get to – the way we did it was to take a water taxi to the port, then draw up so close to the ship that we could practically touch it, then get shouted at excitedly by a group of Italian stevedores that we were attempting a definitely illegal and possibly suicidal maneuver in climbing up a ladder that wasn’t meant to be there. Then we went to the waterbus stop and schlepped two kilometres to get back to the ferry port and queued up.

It didn’t used to be like this; when we booked the tickets, the ANEK boats departed from the cruise terminal downtown in Venice. But when we booked the tickets, the boats were more like cruise ships; they had swimming pools on them. Those boats are gone, unfortunately (although they remain on the ANEK website as of time of writing); sold as the company tries to keep its finances from taking on too much water. They’ve been replaced by roll-on/roll-off lorry carriers, which is why they go from Fusina.

There are still some passengers, walking round the cabins and sitting in deckchairs up on the helipad on the top deck, but it’s mainly lorry drivers from Greece, Turkey and the Balkans, taking it easy for 24 hours on their way to and from the big roads of Europe, delivering agricultural produce. They do their best to live up to every possible comic stereotype, wandering round with cups of strong coffee in hand, constantly smoking cigarettes and sitting round tables for endless and noisy games of backgammon. I left them to it, climbing up to the top deck to watch my children run endless circles round the helipad. Even on what is basically a jumped-up container lorry ferry, you can kind of see the appeal of ocean cruises – sitting doing nothing and watching the sea is a perfectly pleasant way to let the time pass by, and if I get to the age where I can’t do anything, I’d just as willingly do nothing on a boat as anywhere else. ANEK Lines also boast in their onboard restaurant that they have their own olive oil, an example of vertical integration that I am not sure will be entering any business school textbooks.

Igouminetsa rather depressed me. It’s a port town, with all that implies, and I am not quite so innocent as to be able to look at a building with a pink frontage sign saying “Cafe Amour” with a picture of a cocktail glass and a female silhouette, and mistake it for a cafe. I wonder at the level of optimism and self-delusion that makes a brothel-owner bother with these attempts at glamour and sophistication; I doubt that his clientele of matelots and lorry drivers are really all that familiar with the bright lights of Montmartre, and even if they were, I think that would make them less likely to seek similar pleasures in a sauna two streets back from the docks, not more. I didn’t stay there for long – just long enough to amble down to the bus station, realise that I had been caught out once again by the one hour time difference between Greece and CET, then amble back to the ferry terminal and pile my family into a taxi.


This is mainly about Greece, but the last episode finished in the Italian lakes, and it really would be remiss of me to fail to mention that Venice, like the Aiguille du Midi cable car, has to go into the category of “terrible tourist traps that are really, really worth it”. Because I worked for a French bank, I’ve never really been able to get my mind round the idea of Paris as a city of romance; I navigate my way around it with reference points that are the offices of fund management firms, banks and government departments. But Venice is perfect; tourism is the industry there, and the city has more or less made its peace with that, although there is a hell of a lot of manufacturing that goes on in the suburbs. It’s quite perfect, and it grows on you really quickly – after three days staying there, my children were shouting “Our Campo Is The Best Campo Of Them All”, unintentionally rediscovering the literal concept of campanilismo.

9.What happened here?

You can’t write about Greece, at least not at the present time, without making some kind of stab at the question of “What the hell happened here?”. I guess my theory, which is heavily shaped by “Greece’s ‘Odious’ Debt by Jason Manolopoulos , is just as simple as “same thing that happened everywhere else, but Greece was in worse shape to bear it”. Everyone, Europe, USA, everywhere, went a bit debt crazy between about 2000 and 2007. The German consumer didn’t, much, but their banking system did it on their behalf.

Does this mean it wasn’t Greece’s fault? Yes and no. Should we instead blame the irresponsible banks who lent them the money? Also yes and no. But all the yesses and noes are really covering up the underlying correct answer to that sort of question which is that “questions of praise and blame don’t really match up well to the thing we’re trying to analyse here, because it’s at its heart an engineering and control system, not a system of ethics”. I think I am going to have to go to a digression here …

10. A disquisition on the nature of debt

What is debt? It’s a promise to pay back a specific amount of money at a specific time. Why is it so popular – why do people always seem to end up getting into it? Why, for example, don’t people make more equity investments, buying a share of someone else’s profits and sharing their risks in the way in which Islamic banking is meant to operate?

Basically, because debt has one big advantage, and it’s the same advantage that market economies have over command economics – it’s really really efficient in terms of the amount of information that people need to gather about each other. If you’re lending money under a debt contract, all you need to think about is Do I think this guy is good for the money?, and all the borrower needs to think about is Can I pay this back?. If you’re trying to make an investment and share the risks, all sorts of other questions come into play: How much could this be worth in a really good outcome? What further projects might grow out of this one? What effect will the sharing of the upside and downside have on the way the thing is managed? Am I selling my shares too cheap?.

If you’ve ever watched “Dragons’ Den” (the format was broadcast as “Shark Tank” in the USA), you’ll note that the real human drama in the series is not really when the entrepreneur is pitching his or her new invention. What people come to watch that show for is the bit where one of the investors makes an offer. The guy has said he wants £200,000 for 10% of his company, and Duncan Bannatyne or equivalent says he’ll give the money, but he wants 40%. And the entrepreneur sweats on the spot. This, in microcosm, is the stuff that gets cut out of the process when you’re dealing with debt rather than equity. David Graeber wrote a whole gigantic book, one of the messages of which was that from an anthropological view, debt contracts denatured exchange relationships and took them out of their context of cultural human interactions, but in my review, I noted that Graeber didn’t seem to appreciate the extent to which this is a collossal time saver. Having a debt relationship with someone means that they don’t really care all that much about your project as long as you pay them back, but that’s a good thing; it makes investing much less intensive in time and effort.

And this even extends into credit analysis. I once calculated, to win a bet with a client, that given the volume of banking transactions, if banks were to carry out a full credit assessment on all of their counterparties, every time they incurred a new exposure, then this would take up all of the time of every Chartered Financial Analyst ever to have got the qualification, doing nothing other than these credit checks. It’s literally impossible for the system to work without a degree of blind faith that most credits are money-good.

The conclusion of this sketch of the nature of lending is that it really is that there’s a limit to the amount of work which it was ever sensible to ask people to do in terms of imagining the kind of outcome that actually occurred. From both the banks’ and Greece’s point of view, these weren’t bad loans – they were good loans which went bad. And to be honest, even if banks and the Greek government had decided to be super cautious and ask themselves if it was really sustainable for a country to have a normal European-scale welfare state on the back of a normal US-style tax take, they would still not necessarily have got it right. Because everyone believed that when push came to shove, Greece’s debts were backed by the EU as a whole, which means they were backed by Germany.

Why did people believe this? Because the permanent government and the political system of the EU very much wanted them to. Even while promises were being made for rich-country political consumption that there was no “transfer union” in the euro, and no mutual guarantee, the financial markets were being given the fair old nod and wink that yes there was. Well into 2011, the official line from the Eurogroup was that it was “inconceivable” that any euro member state would be allowed to default, and two or three Big Schemes of varying degrees of legal and institutional ropeyness were cobbled together to try and prevent it happening. People were fooled because a lot of effort went into fooling them. Even the notorious Goldman Sachs transactions which had the effect of moving Greek obligations off balance sheet – well, people did notice them at the time. Eurostat cried bloody murder about them, and got told to shut up, in almost so many words, because they were making it more difficult to achieve Economic and Monetary Union. The real fault for the state the Greek economy is in has to be laid at the door of all those European politicians who decided, for the sake of their places in the history books, to launch a single currency well ahead of any real democratic support for doing so, and to paper over the obvious economic problems – like the lack of a lender of last resort, or the lack of a mechanism to balance the internal current account – by a combination of ignoring them, and claiming that the Stability & Growth Pact would have effects that would be literally miraculous.

11. Back to “what happened here?”

All of which isn’t to say that the banks deserved to get paid back, quite the opposite. Just to say that the 70% writedowns that they took should probably be regarded as them having done their stir and received just punishment for the extent to which they were culpable. The fact is that, as I say, everyone went a little bit batty in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War and the passing of the Millennium. Finland, a country which really has no obvious reason to be in the euro at all, joined it out of sheer relief about not having to worry about being invaded by Russia any more, and more or less admits the fact today.

Everyone made decisions just as bad as the Greeks, but as I say, Greece was less able to deal with the consequences. We’re talking here about a society that was torn in two by the Second World War, further damaged by the massive ethnic cleansing that created the modern boundaries of Greece and Turkey and further damaged by the years of military rule. It’s easy to start reaching for the phrase “low trust society” to describe Greece, but that isn’t quite the flavour of it – I’ve travelled in genuinely low trust societies and they’re different. Greece is a society of tight, small networks of trust, and one in which lots of groups of Greeks seem to regard each other as enemies, for reasons that reach back fifty years and which outsiders can’t hope to understand, or even identify the groups.

What’s happened here is that if England hasn’t managed to get past the Second World War culturally yet (and, my god, we haven’t), how do you expect Greece to? France dealt with Occupation at the level of the national psyche largely by repressing and never talking about it. Germany dealt with its role basically by doing nothing but talking about it. Other European countries coped in their own ways, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see that one or two of them didn’t cope. That’s what happens with big traumas; some patients get better quickly and some don’t get better at all. Georgia has recovered from the American Civil War, but Alabama hasn’t, and that was a hundred and fifty years ago. The problems in Greek society which led to its deeply dysfunctional economic model are very deep seated and aren’t going to be solved easily, and if it hadn’t been this crisis which brought them to a head it would have been something else.

And the biggest emnity within Greek society is between the population and the state, as far as I can see. That’s why I don’t see much of a future for SYRIZA in the long term, although I might be wrong in this prediction, and if I am it will be because of the personal abilities of Kostas Tsipras, who is a genuinely gifted politician. The SYRIZA coalition draws its support from public sector workers, and from the young. In other words, from people without jobs, and the people who are keeping them out of the jobs. As long as there is Germany to blame, it’s a viable coalition, but that won’t last forever..

12.Alpha, Piraeus, NBG

A good mate of mine – one of my best clients and best friends in the industry, with whom I’ve sadly lost touch – began to wax philosophical on the occasion of his giving up the active management of money. He had an excellent track record for beating the market, during a period when that wasn’t an easy thing to do. He told me, over a glass of wine, something that’s stuck with me, and which will certainly go into my commonplace book of market proverbs, when I write one.

“Danny”, he said, “I’ve looked back over my performance, and I got three things really right, as far as I can see. I was a believer in the French banks in 1998, when everyone thought that they were broke. I believed in Fred Goodwin and the Natwest acquisition. And I was early in spotting the Greek banks. More or less everything else I’ve done, I’ve destroyed value

And to reiterate, this was someone with a really good track record. This is what it’s all about – getting the important things right, not sweating basis points on marginal quarterly returns. Careful observers will notice that out of the three big successes, two of them turned out to have been built on sand, but that’s another important one for the book of market knowledge – stock market reality is true for a time, not true for all time. So are a lot of other things.

The Greek banks struggle on, although any shareholders’ money put into them before the bailout is long since gone. The ATMs of the Alpha Bank network advertise that you can use your Alpha Bank card to pay your debts to the government in nine easy payments at 0% APR. It says something about where we are in the cycle that this is a selling point.

13. Swimming in the rain

The island of Levkada has two sides to it – an Ionian coast, where there are big waves and steep beaches, and an inland side (I forget the name of the straits) where the water is shallow and utterly still. There’s nothing quite so heavenly as swimming in a still ocean during a rainstorm. The droplets bounce up with every splash, so it looks like you’re moving through a field of dewdrop pearls, and the air you breath is filled with salty mist. I must have stayed out there for an hour before the lifeguard came to tell me to go in, because of an alleged danger of lightning. There was no lightning of course. As far as I can tell, he had come back from a lunch break and realised that if there was one idiot out there swimming, he would have to sit out on his high chair in the rain. Fair enough to the guy, I walked back in.

14.Oligarchs new and old

We were staying in a place with a view over a short stretch of sea to the archipelago which contained Skorpios, which was once upon a time the island retreat of Aristotle Onassis. I never met any Onassises when I was a Swiss banker, or any Latsises either, but I did meet a couple of representatives of investment companies which, apparently, at some point way up into their ownership structure, blended imperceptibly into one or other of the big Greek shipping fortunes. I also once had occasion to point out to a few people that the corporate structure of the Latsis fortune (basically the way in which they controlled EFG Eurobank) was distorting the entire BIS lending statistics and making it look like the Swiss banking system was hopelessly in over its head to Greece; shortly after this call, the Swiss supervisor stopped panicking and the Latsis family obligingly transferred ownership of EFG to something which didn’t show up in the statistics. The island is apparently now owned by some Russians, although you would not guess this from the mainland town which services it.

Later, we moved into another villa, in a nice little artists’ community in the mountains. The Greek islands have lots of mountains that have probably never been climbed at all – they’re not particularly difficult as works of Alpinism, it’s just that given that they’re hot, inaccessible and surprisingly dangerous because of the friable dry rock, they’re high enough or spectacular enough to be worth the trouble.

15.Into the land of the chucked cheek

I haven’t mentioned my family much in these pieces so far (apart from my wife occasionally), but I have three children. Seeing their reaction to the new places in the world is always a joy, but it’s also occasionally incredibly amusing to see the world’s reaction to them. I should possibly post a picture here, otherwise it’s quite difficult to understand what I mean, but the thing is, two of my children look like their mother, and the youngest one looks like me. So my twelve-year old boy, Joe, is perfectly fine-featured and handsome, with a developing adolescent chest and shoulders, looking alarmingly like one of the illustrations in that Germaine Greer book that caused a stir a few years ago. My ten-year old daughter, Poppy (who was clever enough to use her full name, Penelope, while we were in Greece, a decision which was much appreciated by the locals) is just a raving beauty – all green eyes and freckles and broad smiles and long hair which turns a lighter shade of brown every week. But then we have this utter little poppet called Rosie.

Rosie is five years old, and she is blue-eyed, strawberry blond haired, chubby-cheeked and generally the very idea of a storybook illustration. Because her elder sister is addicted to the “Hairstyles For Girls” YouTube channel, Rosie tends to favour either Shirley Temple curls or elaborate French-plaited pigtails, which tends to add to the effect. And the overall effect is catnip to old ladies, even back in England. Once you get outside Northern Europe, and the blue eye/blonde hair combination is exotic enough to be noticeable, she can barely walk down the street for having her cheeks pinched, asked her age, asked if she wants to stay and join a new family, and so on. God alone knows what it is going to be like in Asia; when I went to Vietnam ten years ago there were enough people wanting to rub my head for luck then, and I’m six feet tall.

This is the very definition of “white privilege”, by the way – my little girl is going to be chucked and tickled by the old ladies of multiple continents, because she’s so exotic, but I’m in a position where I can regard this as cute and amusing, because my ethnic identity is not one that tends to cause you trouble, quite the reverse. I suspect that we’ve already been getting a certain amount of special treatment on this trip, as my height and colouring marks me out pretty clearly as someone who might cause a hell of a fuss if asked for bribe, and someone who people will notice and listen to if he starts to complain. Society really has to break down very badly indeed in a developing world country before it reaches the point at which people will hassle big white foreigners with loud voices, and we’re not visiting any of those kinds of countries. It does mean that you have to get used to paying full tourist rates everywhere, but I can live with that.

So anyway, I hadn’t been expecting much in Switzerland (although my other two children tend very much to draw wistful glances from grandparent-age Germans and other low birthrate countries), and we were in some pretty rural places in Switzerland. But in Greece, the cheek-chucking and general fussing over Rosie has begun. I think it will be non-stop until we reach New Zealand.

16.Overheard conversations

A snatch of conversation, overheard as I was walking back from the shops to our house with some food. A starry-eyed young lady was talking to a blond, tanned, long-haired type of roughly her own age, with a full complement of surfwear logos on various items of his clothing. They’d clearly been talking a while, as he balanced on his moped and she cast occasional glances toward her parents at the beach bar.

“But what about money?”, she asked.

“I don’t worry too much about money. If I need some, I earn some”.

Clearly braggadocio of some kind or other, and I don’t believe it for a second; maybe he gets a regular stipend from mum & dad back home or maybe he spends half his life hustling to keep body and soul together. But it’s an attractive fantasy while it lasts, and it seemed to be doing him some good with the girls. In many ways I hope that me-laddo ends up in pinstripes or Dockers, taking the train in from Penge to the City and paying monthly into a Standard Life pension plan; the alternative is to gradually mature into the decidedly less romantic creature which is the aging beach bum. For the meantime, though, good luck to him. If you need some, earn some. To be honest, it’s a more sensible strategy for financial management than ninety per cent of banks and treasury ministries have been operating on for the last ten years.

Categories: Group Blogs

Legal reasoning

Fri, 2014-10-10 02:22

Not surprisingly, the US Supreme Court’s non-decision on equal marriage has caused plenty of debate, including John H’s smackdown of NR’s Matthew Franck.

The discussion got me thinking about the broader problem of legal reasoning, at least in its originalist and textualist forms, and also in precedent-based applications of common law. The assumption in all of these approaches is that by examining (according to some system of rules) what was legislated or decided in the past, lawyers and judges can determine the law as it applies to the case at hand. There are all sorts of well-known difficulties here, such as how words written a century ago should apply to technologies and social structures that did not exist at the time. And it often happens that these approaches produce results that seem unacceptable to most people but for which a legislative or constitutional fix is impossible for some reason.

It’s always seemed to me, though, that there is a much bigger problem with this approach, namely the implicit assumption that “the law” actually exists. That is, it is assumed that, if the appropriate procedure is used to interpret the inherited text, and applied to the problem at hand, it will produce a determinate answer. But why should this be true? The same law might contain contradictory clauses, supported by contradictory arguments, voted in by different majorities, and understood at the time of its passage in contradictory ways. Most notably, the same constitution might grant universal freedoms in one place, while recognising slavery in another.

At a minimum, such contradictions mean that there is no determinate law on the particular points of difference. But the problem is worse than this. The law rarely prescribes an exact answer in a specific case. The standard view of legal reasoning is the principles can be extracted from case law, then applied to new cases. But contradictory laws and contradictory cases produce contradictory principles. The ultimate stopping point is the paradox of entailment: a contradiction implies anything and everything.

I don’t have a fully worked out answer to this problem but I think it underlies a lot of the disquiet so many people feel about legal reasoning (apart from the ordinary disappointment when the answer it produces isn’t the one we want).

Categories: Group Blogs

Because what the hell were we thinking all that time, that’s why!

Tue, 2014-10-07 23:18

Matthew Franck advances a number of arguments for thinking the Supreme Court taking a pass on gay marriage is similar to the Dred Scott decision. I think he missed one that is at least as good as several of the ones he offers.

The Supreme court took a pass on October 6, 2014.

Dred Scott was decided on March 6, 1857.

Do you see the pattern?

If two things can be decided on the 6th day of the month, imagine what further atrocities might be in store! The Supreme Court might decide, on the 6th day of some month, that little babies should be able to get married. Or that dogs should own all the money.

(I know what you are thinking. You thought the point was going to be that 2 + 0 + 1 + 4 = 7. And 1 + 8 + 5 + 7 = 21. And 21 is divisible by 7. They’re both divisible by 7? Where will it end?)

Right. Continuing my wildly popular series of ‘let’s salvage at least something worth thinking about from the wreckage that is NR’ posts, consider what I consider to be Franck’s least obviously bad argument, from his previous post.

The courts in these three circuits wrote various forms of rhetorical twaddle to justify their imposition of a spurious constitutional right on those states. What is the ground of the right to same-sex marriage? Is it the equal protection clause (as the Seventh Circuit seems to believe)? Or the due process clause (which the Fourth appears to lean toward)? Or some penumbras-from-emanations “fundamental right” that partakes equally of both (which seems to be the view of the Tenth)? Who knows? The judges want a result, and legal reasoning is such a nuisance.

Not that it’s a good argument, mind you. But it is interesting that there seems to be an emerging legal consensus that the pro-same-sex-marriage position is rather overdetermined. Franck concludes that therefore the arguments must all be twaddle, devoid of reason. But, if you actually read them, they obviously are not. So how should we think about this?

Consider an analogy. Suppose we got up tomorrow morning and noticed, for the first time – somehow we just hadn’t been paying much attention, I guess – that people born on the 6th day of the month have always been legally forbidden to marry. But now cases are making their way through the courts, and decisions are coming down, mostly strongly in favor of the get-married-on-the-6th side, but they are kind of a mixed bag. One court says forbidding this thing is a violation of equal protection. Another says forbidding this thing is a violation of due process. Still another hints that maybe people have a ‘fundamental right’ to marry, even if they are born on the 6th, even though the Constitution totally doesn’t say that they DO have that right, in so many words. Some judges seem rather impatient with the whole business, like they know what the right answer is, and are just finding any old convenient, colorable reason for getting it done already. Surely, if it’s so obvious as that, we should be able to agree on WHY it is obvious, legally!

In short, we are facing a farrago of fallacious fancies, as activist judges seek to legislate their politically correct diurno-relativistic beliefs, from the bench. How can the Republic remain strong? (Outside the courthouses, protestors kneel, despondent; their ‘Sixth Day, No Way!’ signs damp in the rain.)

My analogy is rather extreme. But it gets at an important point about the really staggering degree of moral shift we have experienced, culturally, over the same-sex marriage issue. A critical mass of people now see no moral sense, whatsoever, in opposing same-sex marriage, legally. No matter how you slice it, it’s arbitrarily harmful discrimination. (If Franck is genuinely curious what people’s moral – as opposed to legal – reasons are, he can ask them. There are lots of moral arguments, and people now find them overwhelmingly convincing. I do.) This isn’t a legal argument, of course. But it sufficiently explains why, suddenly, not just one but several lines of legal argument seem basically plausible. People haven’t suddenly lost the ability to reason legally. Rather, they have a new moral framework in which old abstractions about rights and equality carry fresh implications.

Basically, Franck’s argument is this: if it was so damn legally obvious, why didn’t anyone notice before? This just reduces to: if it was so damn morally obvious, why didn’t anyone notice before? And the answer is: it’s actually kind of mysterious why so few noticed before, then suddenly so many did. But it’s not illegal that this happened. Hence there isn’t a legal objection to the implications of it having happened.

Conservatives like to complain about ‘living constitutionalism’. I think that’s mostly silly. But it’s also largely beside the point, at least in the same-sex marriage case. If several legal lines appear out of nowhere, it might seem that the legal tree must have grown. So if you don’t think the law is a tree, something bad has happened to the law. Anyway, it needs to be pruned back to its original shape.

But consider another silly argument. Suppose tomorrow we all decide that dogs are self-evidently people, in all morally relevant senses. Any attempt to treat dogs morally differently from people would be arbitrary. We’re sure of it! (No, I have no idea what we are thinking. Just go with it.) Well, that has huge legal implications. Suppose a few heroic souls want to fight against this moral shift by resisting all accommodations to it on the legal front. They don’t want dogs getting all the rights that, until now, ‘people’ have enjoyed. The only way to accomplish this, legally (as opposed to morally), is to change the law so that ‘people’ are not so equal any more, in principle.

It’s a classic conservative witticism (Leopardi, The Leopard, isn’t it?) that sometimes, in order for things to stay the same, they need to change. In the case of same-sex marriage, given the moral change, the thing that needs to change, to keep there from being change, must be the law. If you can’t convince people that there’s a moral problem with same-sex marriage, the only way to preserve traditional marriage, as a legally exclusive form, would be radical judicial activism about due process, equal protection, maybe some other things. I trust Franck has the stomach for it!

Categories: Group Blogs

Yesterday’s enemies, today’s allies … and tomorrow ?

Tue, 2014-10-07 03:50

When a militarily powerful country tries to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, we shouldn’t be surprised that chaos results …

That’s of the grab from my latest piece in Inside Story, commenting on the utter incoherence of US (and therefore Australian) policy in the Middle East. An extended version:

How could it be otherwise? A rich and militarily powerful country has taken it upon itself to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, of whom it knows nothing. Its emissaries routinely elevate particular individuals, ethnic groups, religious sects and political parties as favourites, then just as quickly dump them in favour of new friends. Its tools vary randomly from overwhelming force to plaintive exhortation, with no clear or consistent rationale.

The key observation is that, with the exception of slavish obedience to the whims of the Netanyahu government, the US has switched sides on almost every conflict in the Middle East in the space of a couple of years.

My policy recommendation to the US is an announcement that, from now on, the people of the Middle East would be left to sort out their problems for themselves. In particular, it would be useful to state that the United States has no strategic concern with Middle Eastern oil, and that energy policy is a matter for individual countries to determine according to their own priorities.

Inside Story doesn’t appear to take comments so read there (lots of other interesting stuff) and comment here.

Categories: Group Blogs

My dear Mr. Quiggan …

Mon, 2014-10-06 01:23

… so begins this comment on a recent thread. I don’t have to read any further to know that the subsequent comment will be both hostile and silly.1

My surname is mis-spelt fairly often, reasonably enough in the case of people who’ve only heard it and have to guess at the unstressed vowel. But it happens surprisingly often when all that is needed is to transcribe the text in front of them.

Likewise, I occasionally get people addressing me as “Mr” because they feel the need for a title and choose the default.

Neither, by themselves guarantees hostility and stupidity. But in ten years of blogging, I’ve never seen an exception to the rule that together, they imply exactly that.

Is this just me? Do other bloggers and commenters find that particular forms of address predict the content of comments? And, if so, which ones?

For anyone who is really worried about how to refer to me, I’m happy with JQ, John (or John Q for clarity), Quiggin (in the third person), and Prof Q (to my friends).

  1. I’ve seen some silly comments, but presenting Ayn Rand as a co-thinker of Tolstoy and Gandhi is beyond bizarre. 

Categories: Group Blogs

Kirby Copyright Case

Sun, 2014-10-05 03:40

A couple weeks back the estate of Jack Kirby reached a settlement with Marvel, the day before the Supremes were set to take the case. This was a surprise, as the Kirbys were 0-2 in the courts, to that point. I hadn’t paid attention but I figured their case was weak, although they had my sympathy. I had read stuff like this from early NY Times articles:

WHEN the Walt Disney Company agreed in August to pay $4 billion to acquire Marvel Entertainment, the comic book publisher and movie studio, it snared a company with a library that includes some of the world’s best-known superheroes, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four.

The heirs of Jack Kirby, the legendary artist who co-created numerous Marvel mainstays, were also intrigued by the deal. Mr. Kirby’s children had long harbored resentments about Marvel, believing they had been denied a share of the lush profits rolling out of the company’s superheroes franchises.

Marvel made out like bandits, treating Kirby badly. But that’s not a legal argument.

What made Marvel blink at the last minute? The terms of the settlement can’t be revealed, so it’s hard to say.

I kind of hoped Marvel/Disney had actually decided to do the right thing, if only as a result of some bad press they’ve gotten in recent years about their treatment of Kirby. Wouldn’t that have been something? A corporate person with a conscience?

Turns out the Kirby case was much stronger than I thought. A pair of postings (one, two) by Kurt “Astro City” Busiek at CBR, explains this quite clearly.

Assuming Busiek has got it straight, and I haven’t seen anyone argue otherwise, all the stuff I read that made it sound like the Kirbys were basically shooting the moon was totally off. (If you’ve got a one-in-a-million shot at billions, why not take it? Especially if Marvel/Disney might pay you to shoo.)

The case comes down a clause in the copyright extension Congress passed in the 70’s. Basically, if Kirby was working as an independent contractor in the late 50’s and early 60’s, his estate should be able to – and has applied to – revert copyright. On the other hand, if he was a proper employee, then it was work-for-hire, and that won’t work. Thing is: it kind of looks like Kirby was an independent contractor. His side can provide a lot of evidence: he worked from home for piecework pay, bought his own supplies, didn’t get health insurance, didn’t have taxes withheld by Marvel. He didn’t get paid for work Marvel didn’t like, and they didn’t object when he shopped that stuff to DC instead. Marvel had to fall back on arguments like: Stan Lee is pretty sure he remembers Kirby got paid for everything, although there’s no paperwork to back that. That’s kind of weak. From the appeals court decision: “the record suggests that Kirby and Marvel were closely affiliated during the relevant time period. Lee assigned Kirby, whom he considered his best artist, a steady stream of work during that period. … And Kirby seems to have done most of his work with Marvel projects in mind.”

Even if true, that’s not really sufficient to establish that Kirby creations were work-for-hire, under the law. It would seem rather reasonable to grant Marvel copyright over specific existing works – specific issues of the Fantastic Four, say, which Kirby was instructed by Lee to write and draw (the good old Marvel Method). But not reasonable to grant Marvel copyright over the characters themselves. Lee never told Kirby to go think up the Fantastic Four. Rather, Kirby – an independent contractor, not an employee – thought up characters and pitched them.

Amicus briefs were filed on behalf of the Kirbys by various parties who apparently didn’t want the Supreme Court saying the kind of work Kirby did was the kind of work Marvel has to insist it was. Apparently this group includes one of the original drafters of the 1978 copyright extension.

Unless I’m missing something here, what’s shocking is not that Marvel settled but that they didn’t settle earlier, since the Kirbys had a strong case.

Anyway, file this as yet another piece of evidence that copyright extension is all messed up. But this time the good guys won one.

If only there were some similar procedure by which the public could complain that we had a deal – protection of copyright in exchange for limited terms – and copyright extension breaks it. So we ought to get something back! And a pony, while you’re at it.

Categories: Group Blogs