Crooked Timber

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Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
Updated: 1 hour 36 min ago

Capitalism and Slavery

12 hours 21 min ago

I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:

Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.


Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.


But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.


What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.


There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.


Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.

Categories: Group Blogs

Job search, 40 times a month

Thu, 2014-07-31 21:25

I got lots of very helpful responses to my recent post on the search theory of unemployment, here and at Crooked Timber. But it has occurred to me that I haven’t seen any answer to one crucial question: How many offers do unemployed workers receive and decline before taking a new job, or leaving the labour market? This is crucial, both in simple versions of search theory and in more sophisticated directed search and matching models. If workers don’t get any offers, it doesn’t matter what their reservation wage is, or what their judgement of the state of the market. Casual observation and my very limited experience, combined with my understanding of the unemployment benefit rules, is that very few unemployed workers receive and decline job offers, except perhaps for temporary work where the loss of benefits outweighs potential earnings. Presumably someone must have studied this, but my Google skills aren’t up to finding anything useful.

And, on a morbidly humorous note, it’s a sad day for conservative politicians when efforts to bash the unemployed actually cost them support. But that seems to be the case for the LNP government in Australia with their latest plans, both expanded work for the dole and the requirement for 40 job applications a month. I’ll leave it to Andrew Leigh to take out the trash on work for the dole (BTW, his new book, The Economics of Almost Everything is out now).

The 40 applications requirement has already been the subject of some amusing calculations. I want to take a slightly different tack. Suppose (to make the math simple) that the average job vacancy lasts a month. There are roughly five unemployed workers for every vacancy, so meeting the target will require an average of 200 applications per vacancy. The government will be checking for spam, so lets suppose that all (or a substantial proportion) of the applicants take some time to talk about how they would be a good fit with the employer and so on. Dealing with all these applications would be a mammoth task. One option would be to pick a short list at random. But, there’s a simpler option. In addition to the 200 required applications from unemployed people, most job vacancies will attract applications from people in jobs. A few of them may be looking for an outside offer to improve their bargaining position with their current employer (this is a big deal for academics), but most can be assumed to be serious about taking the job and in the judgement that they have a reasonable chance of getting it. So, the obvious strategy is to discard all the applications except for those from people who already have jobs. What if there aren’t any of these? Given that formal applications are going to be uninformative, employers may pick interviewees at random or may resort to the informal networks through which many jobs are filled already.

Trying to relate this back to theory, the effect of a requirement like this is to negate the benefits of improved matching that ought to arise from Internet search. By providing strong incentives to provide a convincing appearance of looking for jobs for which workers are actually poorly suited, the policy harms both employers and unemployed workers who would be well suited to a given job.

Categories: Group Blogs

Jean Jaurès, 1859-1914

Thu, 2014-07-31 17:40

Chris Brooke reminds us that today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès.

Categories: Group Blogs

Give It Your All – Then Give Some More

Wed, 2014-07-30 19:17

Everyone’s complaining about the dumbness of the use-100%-of-your-brain premise for Lucy. (Which I expect is a bad movie.) I have an idea for a superhero that I think fixes this problem. Coaches are always yelling at players that they need to ‘give 110 percent!’ out on the field. So: what if someone actually figured out a way for you to do that? (Makes you think, eh!) You could have these amazing scenes where, after the super-sciencey treatment, the hero is being tested. Running on the treadmill, solving math problems, stacking raisins. In each case the guys in labcoats, gathered around the readouts are smiling, amazed. ‘Sir, we’ve done it! He’s using 110% of capacity!’

The point being: this guy (or gal!) is going to be able to beat Lucy, whoever she is. End of story. Mischief managed.

Categories: Group Blogs

Corey arrested

Tue, 2014-07-29 16:22

Our co-blogger and comrade Corey Robin has been arrested at the Israeli mission to the UN, 800 Second Avenue (at 42nd Street), for committing civil disobedience in protest at the Israeli actions in Gaza. Respect to Corey for his courage and we hope he is released and home before too long.

Categories: Group Blogs

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Mon, 2014-07-28 18:46

The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.

I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.

The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.

So, some questions to start off with

First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?

Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?

Categories: Group Blogs

The Higher Sociopathy

Mon, 2014-07-28 12:31

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.


That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”

 

Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it’s now over 1000]—many of these civilian—I find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?


A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide will—as they have for generations—learn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.


And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.

Categories: Group Blogs

Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography

Sun, 2014-07-27 18:37

One of the striking features of (propertarian) libertarianism, especially in the US, is its reliance on a priori arguments based on supposedly self-evident truths. Among1 the most extreme versions of this is the “praxeological” economic methodology espoused by Mises and his followers, and also endorsed, in a more qualified fashion, by Hayek.

In an Internet discussion the other day, I was surprised to see the deductive certainty claimed by Mises presented as being similar to the “certainty” that the interior angles of a triangle add to 180 degrees.2

In one sense, I shouldn’t be surprised. The certainty of Euclidean geometry was, for centuries, the strongest argument for the rationalist that we could derive certain knowledge about the world.

Precisely for that reason, the discovery, in the early 19th century of non-Euclidean geometries that did not satisfy Euclid’s requirement that parallel lines should never meet, was a huge blow to rationalism, from which it has never really recovered.3 In non-Euclidean geometry, the interior angles of a triangle may add to more, or less, than 180 degrees.

Even worse for the rationalist program was the observation that the system of geometry (that is, “earth measurement”) most relevant to earth-dwellers is spherical geometry, in which straight lines are “great circles”, and in which the angles of a triangle add to more than 180 degrees. Considered in this light, Euclidean plane geometry is the mathematical model associated with the Flat Earth theory.

The discovery of non-Euclidean geometry led to the rise of formalism as the dominant philosophical approach in mathematics. The key point of formalism is that axioms like Euclid’s parallel postulate are neither true nor false. They are merely sentences in a formal language that can be combined and manipulated to form new sentences (theorems). A set of axioms may be useful if the theorems it yields turn out to provide a good model for some real world phenomenon, but this is not a mathematical question (though it helps keep mathematicians in work).

Mathematical formalism reached its high point with the Hilbert program in the early 20th Century. Despite the negative results of Godel, who showed that the more ambitious aims of the program could not be fulfilled, it was still dominant when I was taught mathematics in the 1970s.

I believe mathematical formalism has lost some ground since then, but if so, the effects have yet to filter through to economics. Mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics, since its mathematical reformulation by Samuelson and Arrow in the 1940s and 1950s, has been entirely formalist in its approach. Its axioms are not treated as self-evident. Rather the standard justification is that of modus tollens: if the theorems are descriptively false, we can trace our way back to work out what is wrong with the axioms.

The formalist program in economics hasn’t lived up to its expectations. It turns out to be much trickier than was hoped to work out what is important and what is not, and the formal clarity of deductive argument doesn’t necessarily translate into clear thinking. Still, this program is in far better shape than that of the Austrian School, and the methodological failure of a priori reasoning is a large part of the reason.

Having written this piece, I did a better Google search and found, as usual, that much of it is not new and indeed goes back to Keynes. (Mises reply to Keynes seems entirely unconvincing). But the point that Austrian economics is genuinely related to Flat Earth geography (as opposed to the use of this term as simple abuse) seems to be new.

Update The reference to Keynes above was the result of reading too quickly. The “Lord Keynes” in question isn’t John Maynard, but the contemporary blogger to whom I linked. And the weak reply is not from Mises but from one of his epigones, Hans-Herman Hoppe.

  1. As I read him, Nozick is equally extreme. An ethical theory that disregards consequences seems just like an economic theory that disregards data. Nozick seems to me to get more respect from other philosophers than Mises gets from economists. Reader 

  2. Some presentations are more careful, referring to a triangle on a Euclidean plane. But that only shifts the problem one step back. Without the empirical proposition (false for the surface of the earth) that the subject of inquiry is a Euclidean plane, we don’t know (as Russell said) what we are talking about when we refer to Euclidean triangles. And, as Einstein showed, the situation isn’t improved by thinking of the earth as an object in three-dimensional Euclidean space. 

  3. The most famous name here, immortalized by Tom Lehrer, is Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky. 

Categories: Group Blogs

So What Gives? (About Tolerance)

Sun, 2014-07-27 03:10

Philosophically, recent protestations by conservatives that ‘liberals are the intolerant ones now!’ are flim-flam. I say so. Brendan Eich. Hobby Lobby. Same-sex marriage. I get why they have to play it that way, trying to turn the tables. It’s such an obligatory rhetorical gambit it almost doesn’t bother me – well, most days. In each such case the most generous possible response is: no, you are obviously confused about what liberal tolerance is, or religious freedom, or you are confused about the facts of the case, or all three.

So I’m sincerely baffled that Damon Linker – smart guy! – is apparently taken in by this poor stuff. Indeed, he’s been banging on like this for a while now, at The Week [just follow the links in the one I linked]. He dissented from our Henry’s sensible line on bigotry some months ago, in a manner that made absolutely no sense to me.

That post got almost 10,000 comments. (Wow!) So it doesn’t seem likely that Damon (I met him once, so I’m going to call him that) suffers from a lack of people telling him that what he says makes no damn sense.

What to say, what to say, when I’m already 10,000th in line to read him the riot act?

I guess I’m posting about it now because … well, I’ve been wanting to hammer out some thoughts on toleration. (Sorry if it’s long. Talking to myself, really. Go read something else.) Also, in the latest installment, Damon asks precisely the question I’ve been sort of wanting to ask him. “So what gives?”

That is the alpha and omega of what I don’t get about Damon’s recent line. And I find his short answer sheds little light. (Tolerance is always about give in the system, but I don’t get it.)

“I haven’t changed. The country has.”

The issue is a balance-of-power shift, then. But this makes all the stuff about liberal tolerance and religious freedom kind of … secondary. (Not irrelevant by any means, but not the thing.) Damon makes the case that social conservatives are now, for the first time, a true minority.

“Liberals usually pride themselves on defending minority rights against the tyranny of the majority — and above all when the tyranny threatens to become more than metaphorical through the use of the coercive powers of the government. Yet when it comes to the rights of religious traditionalists, many liberals seem indifferent, and more than a few seem overtly hostile.”

This strikes me as, at best, a parody of a bad argument liberals are supposed to love (because we are so dumb!): namely, if it’s a minority, and it wants something, it must be a right! Because minorities are always right. Right?

But seriously: Damon is presupposing his conclusion. Liberals are attempting to deny social conservatives their rights. But that is precisely what is at issue.

So: are their rights to believe and speak and personally practice being violated or not?

I’m tempted to say ‘well, obviously not’ and leave it at that. But that doesn’t seem to have convinced Damon yet, so I’ll try something more indirect. (I really regard him as an interlocutor who is open to reasonable argument, so I am trying to be reasonable about this. I really think he’s just gotten confused about this. I don’t suspect him of trolling, just to get 10,000 comments, or anything like that.)

Not all minorities are powerless or persecuted. (The 1%, anyone?) It’s understandable why social conservatives should experience relative erosion of a former position of great social and cultural dominance as a humiliating reversal of fortunes – as moral persecution. It’s psychologically inevitable that they will feel like miserable underdogs, and it’s rhetorically advantageous for them to pose as such. So here we are. But sensible people should be able to see what’s really going on. Let’s just take up the gay marriage issue. Sometimes liberals say: ‘what’s the big deal if two guys who love each other get married? It’s not like they are hurting you.’ But if you are, say, Maggie Gallagher, that obviously not true in the least. If it’s not a big deal for two guys to get married, then Maggie Gallagher is a person who has devoted her adult life to trying to inflict senseless harm on innocent people. By not hurting other people, those two gay-married guys are, in effect, turning her from a superior sort of person (in her own eyes) to an inferior sort of person (in everyone else’s). The less they hurt other people, the more they hurt her. She doesn’t want to be regarded as a bigot. Who does? All the same, liberal tolerance and freedom of religion are not ‘get out of having been a bigot’ cards you can play at any time. She can go right on believing that same-sex marriage is bad bad bad. What’s bothering her is not that someone is trying to tell her what she can or cannot believe or say. What bothers her is that more and more people think what she thinks is horrible and that, therefore, no one should think it. As is their right. Concluding that ‘no one should think this, because it’s wrong and bad’ is not, as Damon frequently suggests, a violation of liberal tolerance. Drawing that conclusion is not, per se, a coercive act. No more so than saying ‘2 + 2 is not 5’. Indeed, if you were to ask J. S. Mill what he thinks is the relationship between true liberal tolerance and claims of the form ‘x is wrong because y, so nobody should think x’, he would say that the point of toleration is always to allow people to make such claims.

Again (I’m repeating myself, but this seems necessary): I can well imagine how morally maddening social conservatives must find it to lose, culturally. People who say ‘what’s the big deal?’ should at least see that it’s very hard to say ‘well, I waged a moral crusade for decades, but the arc of history bends towards justice and all. Eventually it caught up with me and bit me in the ass.’ Maggie Gallagher is never going to swallow that bitter red pill. Naturally she is going to confabulate a blue pill to this effect: she is a Lost Cause beautiful loser on behalf of religious liberty.

You can object: sez you which is red and which is blue! Well, yeah. The point is: no one is forced to swallow either pill. She gets to pick. That’s liberal tolerance for you.

What is hurting her is not a bitter pill of belief anyone is forcing her to swallow. What is hurting her is, as Damon says, that the country is changing. There was this fight over what to think about homosexuality, and, amazingly, it had this David and Goliath quality. The good underdogs won, and the bad anti-gay bullies lost, and it all happened weirdly fast. That so many people tell the story of what happened in this way is what makes conservatives feel oppressed. But there’s nothing illiberal about this having happened.

Notice how I just slipped into the past tense? That’s sort of weird, since it ain’t over. This is another thing I think Damon gets wrong. Consider this bit from this piece:

Yes, it’s still underway. But at this rate, Nate Silver’s 2009 prediction that gay marriage would be accepted in all 50 states by 2024 is going to prove to be too pessimistic.

And yet, that appears to be insufficient for some gay marriage proponents. They don’t just want to win the legal right to marry. They don’t just want most Americans to recognize and affirm the equal dignity of their relationships. They appear to want and expect all Americans to recognize and affirm that equal dignity, under penalty of ostracism from civilized life.

There’s a weird kind of logic here, akin to certain Marxist arguments about why you don’t need to fight for revolution. (If it’s going to happen inevitably anyway, just sit back and wait.) Damon writes as though, since this will have happened by then, fighting for it now is kind of like always already having hit the poor guy when he’s down. That’s one problem.

Here’s a closely related problem. There just isn’t any way to argue for this thing that is (I agree) surely going to happen by 2024, without arguing that the people who oppose it now are morally in the wrong. The reason why it will be right for gays to have won the legal right to marry in all 50 states, when that finally happens, is that it will have been already right for all Americans to have recognized and affirmed that equal dignity, even in 2014. (Not that they should be sent to re-education camps if they don’t actually affirm it. It’s just that the argument implies that people who don’t get on board with this thing are in the wrong.)

In short, and dropping the funny tenses: there isn’t any way to argue, reasonably, for the eventual result – which Damon himself thinks is a good result! – without making arguments that imply that Maggie Gallagher is sort of a bad person, morally blind at best. Not that it needs to be made personal like that. But, inevitably, it will feel personal, by implication. Gallagher will feel she is being made a kind of pariah. That will feel like illiberal intolerance, I’m sure. But it won’t be. [UPDATE: Gallagher showed up in comments to disavow giving a damn what people think of her. If that’s true, she’s an admirably independent thinker. But the point stands. Most people give a damn what people think of them.]

Consider. If you think taxes should go down 2% and I think they should go up 2%, and you lose and taxes go up – well, that’s the sort of difference and loss that can be played off as ‘reasonable’, hence eminently tolerable. That’s the sort of thing reasonable people can agree to disagree about. Maybe it’s just a technical dispute. Maybe my party will win next time. Fair is fair. I’m not saying people will always be tolerant and level-headed like this, nor that all views about taxes are inherently reasonable. I’m just saying there’s high-stakes and low-stakes, morally, and 2% up or down is low-stakes, probably. Now, high-stakes.

Suppose I think X should regarded as a basic right (for all humans or all Americans, take your pick), such that deprivation of X would constitute a gross and manifest injustice. You think the opposite. Here we get a somewhat paradoxical result. You can presumably be quite tolerant of me. (People get these funny ideas that there are all these rights, which there aren’t! Silly people, but we tolerate them!) But it is harder for me to be tolerant of you. Because, after all, I think you are 1) fighting for an injustice that 2) all reasonable people should be able to see is an injustice. That’s hard to excuse. So if I win, and everyone else pretty much agrees with me, so you are odd man out, you are going to be surrounded by people who think you are a morally bad person. Even though your moral worth, or lack thereof, wasn’t really the issue.

Does it follow that the person opposing regarding X as a basic right is, inherently, more liberally tolerant? For most values of X?

Debates about abolitionism had this odd quality sometimes. Defenders of slavery were often quite intellectually tolerant of abolitionists – so long as they weren’t John Brown-types. (These funny philosophers, with their silly ideas about rights and what is really possible! [UPDATE: one comment has already shown that this is confusing, since it’s also true that abolitionist literature was banned in the South, and abolitionists who showed their noses could be lynched. That said, as I learned while reading an anthology of the stuff, intellectual defenders of slavery did try to turn the ‘bigot’ tables on their opponents in this way.] But it was harder for abolitionists to be tolerant of defenders of slavery. Looking back, we can easily see this for the high-stakes moral issue it was. If you think X is a view that no reasonable person can defend, then you contradict yourself by treating an opponent who defends X as taking a reasonable position. It’s harder for abolitionists to observe the niceties of debate without undermining themselves. Defenders of slavery exploited this, often casting themselves as the good liberals and their abolitionist opponents as intolerant bigots.

Of course, there is nothing that opponents of gay marriage hate more than being compared to defenders of slavery. But the analogy is a good one. Going back up to the abstract level: if you are arguing that X is a basic right, deprivation of which would be a gross infringement of dignity, then you are pretty much bound to regard whoever takes the other side as a moral jerk. This seems like a violation of the norm that you shouldn’t call someone a jerk just because she disagrees with you. But it isn’t. It’s the only consistent view to take. (That doesn’t mean you are bound to send your opponent to a re-education camp for jerks, be it noted.)

Suppose slavery had been abolished, not in the distinctly illiberal manner that it was, but by the persistent application of abolitionist suasion. Eventually everyone came around and stopped owning slaves, because increasingly most people regarded that sort of thing as just beyond the frozen limit, morally. (They watched TV shows about freed slaves, and they seemed like nice people.) It was painful to people to know that everyone thought they were bad people, for owning slaves, so they freed their slaves. Even if they didn’t own slaves, it was painful to know that people would disapprove if they said they wanted to own slaves, so they held their tongues. Some slaveowners argued that, in effect, this was reverse-enslavement – ‘slavery to the bigotry of public opinion! Where once a few were slaves, now all men are! So completely that they do not even know it!’ … But most of their kids didn’t own slaves, and eventually people stopped even saying stuff like that. It was regarded as sort of embarrassing, looking back.

Well, ok. You get the idea. The point is: this would not, in fact, be a flagrant and tragic betrayal of liberalism. Had it played out this way – and surprisingly rapidly! – it would have been the single greatest showcase for the virtues of liberalism in the history of the planet. This doesn’t prove that gay marriage is a good thing, just because slavery was a bad thing. But it does, I think, show how profoundly Damon has gotten turned around, trying to portray the system working like it’s supposed to as some alarming breakdown.

So what gives?

We’ve come to the religious part of the show, I think. I’m going to attempt one table-turn, although I know that’s always rhetorically annoying. Damon wants to say that people are entitled to tolerance, not to ‘recognition’. That is, you cannot mandate positive respect. He says this is what liberals are trying to force:

Recognition … requires much more from one’s fellow citizens — because the end it seeks is far more demanding. Instead of aiming to “live and let live,” as toleration does, recognition strives for psychological acceptance and positive affirmation of one’s vision of the good from all of one’s fellow citizens, including from those whose vision of the good clashes with it. That makes it a zero-sum game.

First of all, there is absolutely nothing illiberal about striving for psychological acceptance and positive affirmation of one’s vision of the good from all one’s fellow citizens. (Best of luck to you, but it’s zero-sum, and a lot of other people are striving, too. It’s a funny old world.) Beyond that: the shoe is on the other foot. The person insisting on ‘recognition’, as opposed to tolerance, is Damon himself. He is insisting on a special sort of status for religious claims. Being religious about it is a kind of get-out-of-being-a-bigot free card. As Henry argued in his post, it’s very strange to think this way (especially in light of the word’s etymology).

This drives Damon into some pretty awkward corners. Consider his case for why liberals should celebrate Hobby Lobby:

Couldn’t racist business owners use the reasoning in the Hobby Lobby case to claim religious exemption from statutes that ban discrimination against African-Americans?

Answer: They can try, but they will fail.

Beyond the meticulous narrowness of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion, there’s the fact that racism is much less deeply woven into the fabric of Judeo-Christian scripture, doctrine, and theology than are traditionalist teachings on sex and gender. For that reason it is far more difficult to craft a religiously grounded case for racial discrimination.

Is it impossible? Since such arguments have been made many times in the past, the answer is obviously no. But at this point in history, they are extremely unlikely to be found publicly persuasive or to prevail before the court.

One thing Alito was narrow about, if memory serves, was not ensnaring the court in judgments about what is theologically deeply or only loosely woven. It’s obvious why we don’t want the government in that business. You can’t really hope to test for theological soundness, above and beyond sincerity. And there is absolutely no doubt that many man and women of faith have sincerely believed that Christianity provided moral support for what were, also, racist worldviews – the bits about slavery can help out with that, for example. It seems to me that, according to Damon’s logic, all such people are to be immunized not just against having to provide contraceptives to employees, or whatever, but against basic sorts of criticism. They can’t be called bigoted against blacks, even if they are flagrantly and openly racist against blacks, so long as they sincerely think the Bible tells them so. Does Damon believe this is the right way to score it? Also, they can’t be called sexists – in a bad sense – should it prove that the Bible advocates sexism. To sum up: it seems to me Damon is (rather vaguely) insisting that anything a religious person thinks is good, and that they believe is supported by their religion, has to be regarded as – if not good, then not bad. That is, we are obliged not just to tolerate certain views – the sincerely held religious ones – but to accord them positive value: recognition, in his terms. To many people, this actually sounds pretty good, I expect. Religion is good and toleration is good. But the view is, on further examination, absurdly strong, really self-defeating. At any rate, highly illiberal. It’s more like distributed, or federalized, theocracy.

And if coercion-by-public-opinion (by what is ‘publicly persuasive’) is fine in the racism case, what’s wrong with it in the gay case?

I’m not going to say any more about this since I am genuinely a bit unsure how he thinks this is supposed to work.

Let me conclude this very long post by making one last point. Suppose we see a big boy call a little boy ‘fag’, and knock him to the ground. I say, ‘we’d better help that poor kid.’ You say, ‘but we don’t actually know the big one is not a serious student of Leviticus 18 and 20, in which case there has to be something good about it. Best not to second-guess private acts of sincere religious practice.’ I trust that Damon would be as quick as I to regard this as a rather inadequate case for non-intervention, to put it mildly. For one thing, it’s absurd to think that there has to be something good about it, so long as it’s religious. But beyond that, it’s flagrantly psychologically unrealistic, and we all know it. No kid does that sort of thing for religious conscience reasons.

But it actually doesn’t get more psychologically realistic as the kid grows, mellows out, starts a family, starts cutting checks to Focus On The Family because it seems like a solid organization. Stigmatization of homosexuality, as a social and cultural norm, is not, in a causal sense, an effect of theology – loosely or tightly woven or any kind of woven. The thing it’s woven into is real social and cultural practice. Everyday life. In a causal sense, the explanation for why people treat and regard gays they way they do is not that they read Leviticus, or failed to read it, but that the people around them treated and regarded gays that way, and they – being people – picked up on it. The Bible, and going to church on Sunday and all that, is one factor among many. It isn’t nothing. For a lot of people, it’s a lot. But for very few people is it the reason for all the rest. Most people aren’t THAT religious.

This is not to reduce religion or freedom to sociology, just to deflate it – a bit. Put it this way: if I really believed some guy really believed that God spoke to him, personally – a real five-alarm IMAX surround-sound mystical vision – and God told him not to bake cakes for gay weddings or else! … I would like to let that guy not bake cakes for gay weddings. Whatever exceptions are on offer, this guy deserves one. The poor couple can lump it and get their cake elsewhere, because it’s going to be just awful to force this guy to go against what he believes. But, for most people of faith, inclined not to bake a gay wedding cake, it would be as psychologically true to say that the motive for refusal is that they are Republicans, or conservatives, or they just vaguely don’t like gays. It’s all tangled up, which isn’t an especially bad thing, but not anything that deserves especial deference.

There’s a kind of tension between our sense of religion as an exceptional thing – it’s revealed! – and a normal-as-houses thing – it’s weirder not to be religious! (It would be kind of funny to give a conscience exception only to atheists on the ground that they are the exceptional ones. Not that I think that would make sense either!) Our sense of how a religious liberty exception ought to operate falls, rather hopelessly, between these stools. It’s just not possible to regard normal, median, modal beliefs, in a sociological sense, as singular exercises of heroic individual conscience. In all seriousness, the only possible reason for privileging them is that normal is privileged.

This is sort of a wimpy note on which to end, but I would hope thinkers like Damon would look at the religious liberty issue like this: it’s hard to get it right. We don’t want people to have to check their religion at the door. But, in a liberal system, religious beliefs are more or less going to count as preferences. And we don’t want to weight them extra, as such. Religious liberty should be an opt-out, a shield not a sword. Of course, just as you can’t devise a shield that can’t be used to push someone, you probably can’t devise a religious liberty exception that can’t be creatively leveraged into a device for semi-nullifying legislation by extra-legislative means, for imposing one’s religion on others. Still, that’s not how it’s supposed to go.

This contrarian view that in these cases liberals are the illiberal ones, conservatives the embattled minority standing up for freedom – nope, I just don’t see the sense of it. I confidently await Damon Linker’s complete conversion to my point of view, in response to my rational arguments. But even if he unaccountably resists, I would like to reiterate my sense that he is perfectly sincere about all this, for what it is worth. I am sure he is not trolling us liberals, even though the slatepitchiness of it might make one suspect otherwise.

Categories: Group Blogs

Sunday photoblogging: bike shadow

Sun, 2014-07-27 01:46

A rarish film shot from me: Rolleiflex T, Ilford FP4+

Categories: Group Blogs

A Gaza Breviary

Sat, 2014-07-26 23:04

1. One benefit of the carnage in Gaza is that it has given people who’ve never said a word about the carnage in Syria an impetus to say a word about the carnage in Syria.

2. On Friday night, there was a fundraiser for “Friends of the IDF” at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. On Shabbat. Which means cessation, stopping.

3. “It’s all but inevitable…that civilians will die.” A law professor defends Israel’s actions in Gaza.

4. Next time someone tells you that an academic boycott is a bad idea because Israeli universities are bastions of dissent against the Israeli state:

Tel Aviv University is giving students who serve in the attack on Gaza one year of free tuition.


“Tel Aviv University embraces and supports all the security forces who are working to restore quiet and security to Israel, including its students and employees called up to reserve duty,” the institution says in 24 July statement on its official website.



Meanwhile, a notice circulated at Hebrew University announces a collection for goods including hygiene products, snacks and cigarettes “for the soldiers at the front according to the demand reported by the IDF [Israeli army] units.”


The notice, signed by the university along with its academic staff committee and the official student union, says “we have opened collection centers on all four campuses.”


5. The world’s greatest expert on overdoing it says that Israel is overdoing it.

6. If only the Palestinians had revolted in April. Then everyone would be supporting this Arab Spring, amirite?

7. Fifty Israeli reservists write against the Israeli way of war:

To us, the current military operation and the way militarization affects Israeli society are inseparable. In Israel, war is not merely politics by other means — it replaces politics. Israel is no longer able to think about a solution to a political conflict except in terms of physical might; no wonder it is prone to never-ending cycles of mortal violence. And when the cannons fire, no criticism may be heard.


8. An oldie but a goodie. Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse writes, “Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery.” Not for nothing is she the “Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature.”

9. All those liberal journos and commentators who are silent on Gaza: you can almost hear them praying for the GOP to launch a new war against Social Security so that we can all get back to business.

10. A group of Jews occupy the office of Friends of the IDF in NYC. Read a list of the Gaza dead killed by the Israelis. A counter-terror unit of the NYPD  shows up and arrests nine of these righteous men and women. There is balm in Gilead.

11. Say what you will about Mia Farrow, she’s been tweeting and retweeting messages like this: “Tell the U.S. to stop arming Israel.” And kudos to the seven other Hollywood celebrities who’ve spoken out on Gaza. Without retracting their statements, as Rihanna did.

12. James Baldwin in 1979, in response to Jimmy Carter’s firing of Andrew Young after Young met with the PLO at the UN:

But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of Western interests. This is what is becoming clear (I must say it was always clear to me). The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ and for Europe’s guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years.


13. The literal othering of Palestine: Washington Post subhead reads, “13 Israeli soldiers, 70 others killed.”

14. If Netanyahu really believes that Hamas’s strategy is to amass “telegenically-dead Palestinians” and display them, why is he being so obliging in his cooperation?

15. “The United Nations estimates that roughly 80 percent of the casualties are civilians, many of them children.” Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that the Israelis aren’t targeting civilians. If you’re getting numbers like these, does it really matter?

16. Nicholas Kristof writes, “Hamas sometimes seems to have more support on certain college campuses in America or Europe than within Gaza.” In support of his claim about support for Hamas on American college campuses, Kristof links to a Washington Post article about the American Studies Association vote for BDS. In which the word Hamas appears…never. Not even in the comments. In support of his claim about European support for Hamas, Kristof links to a New York Times article about Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott of Israel. In which the word Hamas appears…never.

17. When it comes to opposing Israel, everyone always has a better tactic. So many better tactics: it’s a wonder we haven’t won yet.

18. The Senate passes a unanimous resolution—100-0—in support of Israel. (Libertarian hero of the anti-imperialist right/left Rand Paul complains that the resolution isn’t strong enough.) Next time an opponent of BDS tells you that we should be focusing instead on cutting off US aid to Israel, ask them how they plan to scale that 100% wall.

19. I get an email from some religious Zionist group called American Friends of the IDF Rabbinate asking for a donation to support “the necessary funding for the religious needs of the combat soldiers.” After all the murder and mayhem those soldiers have committed in Gaza, I can see why their “religious needs” are great.

20. It’s July 18. First tweet I read this morning is from The New Republic: “’Israel is acting strategically, not emotionally, in Gaza,’ writes Leon Wieseltier.” Second tweet I read this morning is from Alex Kane: “Israeli military analyst: Israeli tanks ‘received an order to open fire at anything that moved.’”

21. A reporter at Vox tweets this: “Israel-Palestine conflict has killed 14 times more Palestinians than Israelis since 2000.” David Frum responds thus: “Never enough dead Jews for some.”

22. Thirty-three Israeli academics condemn the bombing of Gaza. Thirty-three. That’s why we’re not supposed to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Because of these righteous 33. The logic is almost biblical.

23. “It is not just the normal anxiety of airstrikes in a crowded city.” Imagine that phrase—the normal anxiety of airstrikes in a crowded city—applied to any urban center in the United States.

24. Gideon Levy on “our wretched Jewish state“:

The youths of the Jewish state are attacking Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem, just like gentile youths used to attack Jews in the streets of Europe….The Jewish state, which Israel insists the Palestinians recognize, must first recognize itself.


25. Israeli artist Amir Schiby commemorates the Israeli killing of four Palestinian children playing on a beach in Gaza.

 

 

Categories: Group Blogs

Hazlitt, Keynes and the glazier’s fallacy

Thu, 2014-07-24 18:03

I’ve been working for quite a while now on a book which will respond to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson a book that was issued just after 1945 and has remained in print ever since. It’s an adaptation of the work of the 19th century French free-market advocate Frederic Bastiat for a US audience, specifically aimed at refuting the then-novel ideas of Keynes.

My planned title is Economics in Two Lessons. In my interpretation, Hazlitt’s One Lesson is that prices are opportunity costs[1]. My Second Lesson is that, in the absence of appropriate government policy, private opportunity costs (market prices) won’t reflect social opportunity costs. Here’s a central piece of the argument, responding to Hazlitt’s exposition of Bastiat’s glazier’s fallacy.

Here’s HazlittA young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies. After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has its bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate glass window cost? Fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $50 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $50 more to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.
Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper will be out $50 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace a window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $50 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.
The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.
The argument is compelling at first sight, but there’s a subtle problem. Implicit in the crowd’s reaction is the assumption that glaziers are short of work. If (as sometimes happens) glaziers have more jobs than they can handle, then there is no extra window – at best, the shopkeepers order simply displaces some other, less urgent, repair. Similarly, for Hazlitt’s riposte about the tailor to work, there must exist unemployed resources in the tailoring industry, so that the shopkeeper’s suit represents an addition to output. If not, the additional demand from the shopkeeper will raise the price of suits marginally, just enough to lead some other customer to buy one less suit. So, the story seems to imply that the economy is in recession, with unemployment across a wide range of industries.

With these facts in mind, we can tell a different story. Suppose that the glazier, having been out of work for some time, has worn out his clothes. Having fixed the window and been paid, he may take his $50 and buy a new suit. To make the story stop here, we’ll suppose that the tailor is a miser (a vice traditionally associated with the clothing industry, as with Silas Marner), and puts the money under his mattress. So, in this version of the story, the glazier and the tailor are both paid, and the social product is increased by a new window and a new suit.

What if the window had not been broken? Under the assumptions made so far, the shopkeeper would buy a new suit for $50, the tailor would hoard the money and the glazier would remain unemployed. The shopkeeper is better off, since (before the window was broken) he preferred a new suit to a new window. On the other hand, the glazier is worse off, since he gets no work and no suit. For society as a whole, both output and employment have increased.

So, the seeming refutation of the glazier’s fallacy falls apart on closer examination. On the one hand, Hazlitt uses language that implies the existence of unemployment. On the other hand, he is implicitly assuming that private and social opportunity cost are the same. The Second Lesson tells us that this won’t be true in general if the economy is in recession.

None of this means that it’s a good idea to go around smashing windows during recessions. Obviously, the benefit to society in replacing a window is less than that from a new window (for example, in a new shop). Moreover, there’s no reason to suppose that the propensities to save and spend will work out as they have been assumed in the story here. Perhaps the glazier is a miser and the tailor a big spender.

But governments can do much better than this. First, they can spend money on things that are more useful than breaking windows and repairing them (or, in Keynes’ presentation of the same argument, burying bottles full of money in coal mines and letting people dig them up). They can give money directly to individuals and families through benefits or tax reductions. Alternatively, they can create jobs by undertaking public works or by expanding public services.

Second, they can target their efforts towards groups who are likely to spend any additional income (in the economics jargon, they have a high marginal propensity to consume), most obviously low-income families.

The crucial point is that, under conditions of high unemployment, the wage received by a newly employed worker is not a measure of the opportunity cost of their labour; the opportunity cost is the time they would otherwise have spent in idleness.

[^1:] Hazlitt describes his one lesson, in terms derived from Bastiat’s “What is Seen and What is Not Seen”, as The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups. But this doesn’t describe any particular idea about economics; it merely assumes what is to be proven, that a complete assessment of policy will yield free-market conclusions.

Categories: Group Blogs

Severian of Nessus, Amateur Bayesian

Tue, 2014-07-22 14:15

Noah Smith today

Consider Proposition H: “God is watching out for me, and has a special purpose for me and me alone. Therefore, God will not let me die. No matter how dangerous a threat seems, it cannot possibly kill me, because God is looking out for me – and only me – at all times.” Suppose that you believe that there is a nonzero probability that H is true. And suppose you are a Bayesian – you update your beliefs according to Bayes’ Rule. As you survive longer and longer – as more and more threats fail to kill you – your belief about the probability that H is true must increase and increase. It’s just mechanical application of Bayes’ Rule.

Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch

Often their chants sounded so clearly that I could make out the words, though they were in no language I had ever heard. Once one actually stood on his saddle like a performer in a riding exhibition, lifting a hand to the sun and extending the other toward the Ascians. Each rider seemed to have a personal spell; and it was easy to see, as I watched their numbers shrink under the bombardment, how such primitive minds come to believe in their charms, for the survivors could not but feel their thaumaturgy had saved them, and the rest could not complain of the failure of theirs.

Categories: Group Blogs

Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics

Tue, 2014-07-22 10:15

Earlier this year CB sent me an email alerting me to the fact that Richard Thompson was going to perform, soon, in Madison, and recommending him to me. In fact I already had tickets—I am a huge Richard Thompson fan, and have seen him live about as often as I have seen Belle’s relative Loudon Wainwright, over the past 35 years. I went with my wife (who doesn’t like him much), and two friends, one of whom is a fan but had never seen him before, and the other of whom had no idea who he was. I hadn’t really thought about the dangers of taking someone who doesn’t know him to see him: what the effect of seeing him live before having heard any of his music would be. His son was the support act—lovely voice, ok songs—so that, in a way, made it worse. Because Thompson was, in fact, the best I have ever seen him: haunting, crisp voice, one acoustic guitar sounding like an orchestra, a perfectly designed set (occasionally the sets are slightly off, when he plays all-request shows, or picks an album name out of a hat, to show that he’s ready with every song he’s ever written—though I suspect that he doesn’t include Henry the Human Fly in the mix, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play a song from that, my favourite, album live). Simon Mayo, interviewing him on yesterday’s show (around 1 hr 06 mins), recalled seeing him playing solo, and drinking half a glass of water during a song without any apparent effect on the sound coming from the guitar. Anyway, at a certain point, I saw tears running down our friend’s face, and, at the end, she said “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”. Imagine that you’d never heard of Richard Thompson, and the first time you heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was live, when he is at the top of his game. You’d weep.

His new album, Acoustic Classics, so-named because, well, it consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of his classics, is out today. It doesn’t have every song you’d want (“Al Bowly” is a particular, post HtHF, favourite of mine that’s missing, and one that he seemed extremely reluctant to play when it was requested at the live show). I think it contains the best versions of “Bright Lights”,”Beeswing” and “Shoot Out the Lights” I’ve heard. Fans won’t want to miss it; and non-fans could do worse than to start with it. But it is no substitute for seeing him live.

And here he is talking to Aggers about playing cricket in LA —plus about his songwriting process, which is very interesting. He turns out to be a Geoffrey Boycott fan (would it surprise anyone to know that I am too?—the batting, not the commentating I hasten to add), so Aggers introduces them at the end of the interview, and Boycott manages to open with an insult.

Categories: Group Blogs

Incongruous songs

Mon, 2014-07-21 07:59

I guess that few of our readers have seen The Lego Movie. Luckily, I have, so was very surprised to hear my boy’s cohort singing “Everything is Awesome” at the camp’s late night show. The Lego Movie is about the evils of corporate power—a kind of kid’s version of They Live—and “Everything if Awesome” is the song which all the people are supposed to sing to keep them mindless and satisfied. Not something I’d have chosen for a 7-year-olds’ camp song.

Everyone knows that “Born in the USA” was used by the Reagan campaign; evidence either of Al Stewart’s thesis that nobody listens to lyrics, or that political operators believe that nobody listens to lyrics (My “Everything is Awesome” story is evidence that nobody even looks at song titles: how could a song with that title and refrain be anything other than satire?). Fair enough, given the similarly odd use of “Jerusalem” by English conservatives, and the fact that”This Land is Your Land” is an entirely kosher song for American public schoolkids. Slightly orthoganally, I just learned the heartwarming story that as soon as Benny and Bjorn learned that Danish People’s Party was using “Mama Mia” as a rally song they sued (and if you really want to feel good about your guilty pleasures, read down the page to see which party Benny made a 70k pound donation to).

Other, incongruous, uses of songs?

Categories: Group Blogs

Sunday photoblogging: meerkats

Sun, 2014-07-20 01:36

Categories: Group Blogs

The unravelling of the global financial system

Sat, 2014-07-19 02:33

I have a piece in The National Interest, looking at various recent events including the latest round of the Argentinian debt crisis, in which a New York court ruled in favor of a group of ‘vulture’ investors, led by a New York billionaire, and the agreement of the US Department of Justice and Citibank, involving a financial settlement to avoid a lawsuit over bad mortgage deals and CDOs in the pre-crisis period.

My central observation is that while legal forms are being observed, these are obviously political processes, with outcomes reflecting relative political power rather than any kind of neutral application of the law. So, the international financial system is part of international power politics: it matters a lot that Citibank is a US bank, while BNP Paribas is French and so on. This is very different from the picture of a global, as opposed to international, financial system. Suhc a systemt, independent of, and standing in judgement on, national governments seemed to be emerging in the 1990s, but broke down in the financial crisis, when banks ran to their national governments for support.

As an illustration, I found this ad put out by the ‘vultures’. Try interchanging “US” and “Argentina” throughout and assuming an adverse judgement by an Argentinian court against the US government.

Categories: Group Blogs

Why “Ann Coulter” would love cricket

Fri, 2014-07-18 09:23

Somehow I saw this rather lame attempt to parody Ann Coulter yesterday. I don’t mind football, I’ve even come to enjoy watching it a bit as a result of my daughter’s enthusiasm, but I do enjoy the odd rant against it, and have always found it funny that Americans assume that because of my accent I have a favorite team and know the offside rule (I don’t have a favorite team, but I do know the offside rule, though my knowing it is rather like my ability to recall the entire cast of the Love Boat, the result of an unhealthy tendency to remember entirely unimportant things that I don’t care about).

So here are “Coulter”’s objections to football (many of which, btw, suggest “she” has never seen a game), with responses providing evidence that the article is, in fact, an attempt by Geoffrey Boycott to popularize cricket among American conservatives:


1. Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls—all in front of a crowd. When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate. But there’s also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks.

Cricket: wickets, sixes, fours, catches, run—outs; long hops, dropped catches, hit wicket, Alastair Cook’s current form. Anyway, the perfect balance between teamwork and individual achievement/failure.

2. No serious sport is co-ed, even at the kindergarten level.

Cricket isn’t co-ed (whatever that means).

3. No other “sport” ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer.

Cricket: No scoreless ties. On this count cricket is superior to all “American” sports, because even scored ties are almost impossible, and are the most thrilling games of all (33 first class ties since 1948, worldwide). If scoring is what you care about, cricket beats all other sports hands down: the 1st test between India and England last week yielded 1342 runs and 29 wickets!

4. The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport…Baseball and basketball present a constant threat of personal disgrace [sic: I assume from context she means danger—ed]. In hockey, there are three or four fights a game—and it’s not a stroll on beach to be on ice with a puck flying around at 100 miles per hour.

Cricket: The ball is smaller than, and heavier than, a baseball, and it (normally) hits the ground before reaching the batsman: 85-90 miles an hour are not uncommon speeds. The fielders routinely catch the ball at similar speeds. Oh, and none of this wimpy “mitt” business. Bare hands. Sometimes just a few feet away from where the ball is hit. . Oh, and Ewen Chatfield.

5. You can’t use your hands in soccer. (Thus eliminating the danger of having to catch a fly ball.) What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs.

Cricket: plenty of hands (bowling, catching (see above), holding bats, etc)

6. The number of New York Times articles claiming soccer is “catching on” is exceeded only by the ones pretending women’s basketball is fascinating. I note that we don’t have to be endlessly told how exciting football is.

Cricket: NOBODY is telling you how exciting cricket is, or that it is catching on. [NOTE: in fact we are being constantly told how exciting “football” is: it’s constantly marketed, and, incidentally, talent-development is achieved mainly through huge public subsidies in the form of funding for public high school athletic directors, football fields, uniforms, and coaches; at a cost to the actual education of kids in those high schools (not just the opportunity cost of the funds but, worse, principals who knowingly hire incompetent social studies and science teachers because they will be good coaches).]

7. It’s foreign.

Cricket: its existence in the US predates both American Football and Baseball. The first official international cricket match was an all-North American affair, and took place in New York. Cricket was, in the 1840s and 1850s “by far the biggest sport in the USA”.
Oh, also, one of the two greatest books about cricket,Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise, is by a North American Marxist; and the other, Beyond a Boundary, is by a Marxist who lived in the US for 15 years (before, admittedly, being deported).

8. Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it’s European. Naturally, the metric system emerged from the French Revolution, during the brief intervals when they weren’t committing mass murder by guillotine.

Cricket: Actually, I didn’t understand this point, it just seemed like a random stringing together of words, but, whatever cricket is like, it is not like the metric system.

9. Soccer is not “catching on.” Headlines this week proclaimed “Record U.S. ratings for World Cup,” and we had to hear—again—about the “growing popularity of soccer in the United States.”

Cricket: Nobody is telling you that cricket is “catching on”. But it is.

Categories: Group Blogs

Death and taxes: morality versus bureaucratic casuistry

Fri, 2014-07-18 02:36

Killing people is wrong.

People ought to do their fair share.

Both of these seem like plausible but not exceptionless moral principles. Sometime it is ok to kill people. For example, if you need to kill someone who is attacking you to protect yourself from death or serious injury, then you are permitted to do so. But if you can achieve the goal of protecting yourself without killing your attacker, then you should. The things you do to protect yourself should be necessary and should be proportional to the actual threat. In ordinary life, it is only people like Tony Martin or George Zimmerman (or their apologists) who think that a threat or the mere perception of one gives you licence to simply blow someone away.

Likewise people should do their share to contribute towards the common infrastructure from which we all benefit. Public services, maintaining a legal system, filling in holes in the road, stuff like that. Sometimes there are excuses and justifications for not contributing. Some people have no money, some people are even too young, or old, or sick to do so. But most people should do their bit, though there may be disagreement on exactly what that bit is.

These two things—killing and paying taxes—don’t seem to have much to do with one another. But I think there are some interesting similarities. In both cases there are plausible moral principles but alongside them there are detailed public and legal codes that purport to implement those principles. And in each case there are people or bodies who think (and claim) they have discharged their moral obligations when they have complied with the letter of the codes – that the codes encapsulate all the things that they are morally required to do. What is more, in each case, many of the people who take this attitude to the rules expend a lot of effort trying to affect the content of the rules and attempting to find interpretations of the rules (“loopholes” and similar) that work to their advantage.

Take the case of killing, as covered by “just war theory”. People (and peoples) have the right of self-defence. (At least, I assume here that they do.) But under just war theory the thought you shouldn’t kill an attacker unless you really need to is transmuted into rules about necessity and proportionality that simply provide a weak constraint on states pursuing their advantage. So long as a vaguely plausible interpretation of military necessity can be cooked up and enough uncertainty shed on the general requirement of proportionality, the rest becomes public relations. You can kill, just so long as you can gesture in the vague direction of the rules. And people (lawyers, philosophers) can be employed to write stuff muddying the waters. (Some of them will even do it for free!)

A rather similar thing happens for tax. The tax laws define an expected level of contribution, but wealthy people and corporations lobby government for all kinds of exemptions and changes and then employ lawyers and accountants to minimize their own contribution. And when people object to Apple, Google and Amazon using the roads and infrastructure by domiciling themselves in Luxembourg or Ireland to avoid paying for them, they point to their compliance with the letter of the law.

There’s a further parallel too. In both cases, a fiduciary relationship with someone else is deployed by way for moral justification for the policy. In the tax case, companies have a duty to their shareholders that supposedly means the are under an obligation to minimize their contribution. In the case of war, governments pursue the interests of their citizens (supposedly) subject to the very weak constraints that they themselves have helped weaken. And in each case, the lawyers, accountants, philosophers are on hand to lobby, interpret or write op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal.

For both death and taxes, a moral principle that ought to guide a person’s (or a collective’s) actions has been transmuted into a matter of bureaucratic rule compliance and public relations management. Impertinent questions about whether a state is entitled to kill some people or about whether Google is paying its fair share can then be batted away with a gesture towards “the rules”. So it goes.

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