Friday, June 28, 2013

Pop sociology and other stuff

I said "unlikely" to be any posting until after July 4th but not "impossible." (Always leave an out.)

Anyway, a few things. A WaPo piece on "middle-class" protests in various parts of the world was ok until the authors decided to go all pop sociology, declaring:

If the 1960s were about breaking cultural norms and protesting foreign wars, and the 1990s about railing against globalization, then the 2010s are about a clamor for responsive government, as well as social and economic freedom.

Great, glad that's all cleared up and squared away.

Second thing: the excerpt in the current Foreign Affairs from Rick Atkinson's new book (the excerpt is about the run-up to D-Day). I haven't read Atkinson's work, but with several vols. on WW2 under his belt, he is clearly in his element here. Seems to be gated, unfortunately. Btw, DeLong has a book review in the same issue. That might be ungated; haven't checked.

Finally, the U.S. has revoked tariff preferences for Bangladesh across a range of items as a consequence of the garment factory collapses and fires; but I just heard a brief item on this a couple of days ago and haven't sought out the details.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Note to readers

Life has been interfering with blogging, and there is unlikely to be any posting here until sometime after the July 4th weekend.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

'Uses' of the past

Some interesting discussion of this theme going on at the USIH blog. I left a couple of comments on this post but the other posts in the same general discussion are worth a look too.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Moral action in the real world

An ongoing exchange at Duck of Minerva between PTJ (here) and Phil Arena (here) raises some interesting questions about rational choice theory and moral action (among other things).

PTJ argues that "moral action strictly speaking" does not take any account of an individual's preferences or desires and that choice-theoretic models therefore rule out moral action by definition.

I don't want to get deeply into the argument about rational choice theory for several reasons (one of them being that I don't care that much about it one way or another), but I do want to raise another issue -- albeit not that systematically or even coherently, given the hour.

The issue is this: does anyone engage in "moral action strictly speaking" in the real world? That is, does anyone act without taking into account his or her own desires, at some level? To some extent this is a semantic question: one can always say that because X did Y, X wanted to do Y. Mother Theresa must have wanted to minister to the poor of Calcutta (Kolkata), otherwise she wouldn't have done it. But the use of "want" in this way begs the question. More pointedly, one can suggest that of course Mother Theresa acted out of moral and religious conviction but presumably it must also have given her satisfaction, in some sense that can be separated from acting purely out of a sense of moral duty. At least, it's not absurd to think that might have been the case. (And if you don't like the Mother Theresa example, substitute one of your own choosing.)

There are at least a few philosophers who think, as Iris Murdoch remarked, that "every second has a moral tinge," that we are constantly faced with moral decisions. This, I think, is an overstatement: there are large swaths of mundane daily life that do not have a moral tinge. But even if only ten percent of one's existence involves moral questions, that's still a lot. And I think ten percent might be on the low side.

The point I'm trying to get to, though, is that real-world decisions usually involve a mix of considerations, in which one balances what one thinks or knows is the right thing to do, abstractly speaking, against the inconvenience or cost to oneself which doing that thing might entail. After all, if Christians followed Christ's example literally, they would live in poverty and give all their wealth and possessions to the less fortunate. Ditto for Jews and Muslims who followed the relevant scriptural injunctions for them. Of course monks and saints might do that, and the WaPo recently ran an article about some young people in well-paying jobs who give most of their income to charity (having been influenced by, inter alia, the writings of Peter Singer), but most people balance the imperatives of their moral and/or religious beliefs against the practical costs of operationalizing those beliefs. I give a small amount of money each month to an organization that works against global poverty. Could I give more? Yes. Why don't I? Because there are other, mostly less selfless (or more selfish, if you prefer to put it that way) calls on a finite amount of resources.

So, to come back to rational choice theory, even if it does rule out "moral action strictly speaking" by definition, if few people engage in such action in the real world, I don't know that the exclusion-by-definition greatly matters -- especially if you assume that ultimately the point of even highly stylized models is to advance understanding of the real world.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Loomis on Debs

In a post from yesterday, E. Loomis reminds us of the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, his June 16, 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio, and its consequences.

Brooks needs a history lesson or two (right-to-privacy edition)

I make it a point to read David Brooks only very irregularly (i.e., as seldom as possible). But Corey Robin's interesting piece "David Brooks: The Last Stalinist" reminded me of something -- or rather, a  comment attached to Robin's post was the reminder.

Brooks thinks Snowden is a result of an 'atomized' society and that someone with firmer social ties to community, family, etc., would not have acted as Snowden did. But there's a different way of looking at it: Snowden sees himself, I'm sure, as acting to protect, among other things, the right to privacy, and that right -- and here's the point I'm getting to -- has its origins, as far as U.S. law is concerned, in the late nineteenth century, before the 'atomization' Brooks so deplores had become a major trend. It goes back to Warren and Brandeis's famous 1890 law review article in which they said that privacy is the right to be let alone. One can quibble, I suppose, about whether or how deeply the NSA surveillance programs invade that right, but I still think Brooks should devote a column to Warren and Brandeis. If nothing else, it would be a welcome break from the stale Tocqueville, warmed-over Robert Nisbet, and whatever else Brooks usually serves up.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Flashes of anger"

Until now I'd avoided all the articles about Edward Snowden's biography and personal life etc., but the Post has a kind of round-up of it all that I just read.

There's this paragraph at the very end:
Snowden now presents himself as a reasoned protester, a conscientious objector of sorts, but he has also shown flashes of anger and even contempt for some aspects of American society. “Go back to your meaningless consumerist life,” he wrote four years ago in a comment on a YouTube video that poked fun at the ritual of high school reunions.
I know reporters are overworked, stressed-out, and under deadlines, but really. Isn't it possible to be both "reasoned" and show "flashes of anger" at "some aspects of American society"? Anyone who doesn't show occasional flashes of anger at some aspects of American society is probably catatonic.

On the other hand, in some of his online comments quoted in the piece Snowden sounds like an egotistical jerk. But some of those quoted remarks are from his early- or mid-twenties, when a lot of people sound like egotistical jerks.

The interesting biographical question is what the article refers to as his leap from security guard to security clearance, a transition whose details apparently remain murky.    

Wise comment of the weekend

In a thread about Iraq and Syria at Crooked Timber, a commenter observes: "An assassin started WW I."

The relevance vel non (as the lawyers say) of this remark to the debate about Syria is something I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bad optics

Spotted a wire service item in today's WaPo about protests in Greece over the government's shuttering of the country's public broadcasting corp., ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. As the PR folks say (or maybe they don't say it, who knows?), the optics are bad.

Added later: Which is not, of course, to minimize or make light of what Greece has been going through.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mitzen on Pinker

Although I've probably mentioned Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature here before, I haven't previously discussed it at any length, for the excellent reason that I haven't read it. However, Jennifer Mitzen's review of the book in the current Perspectives on Politics is worth a post [the link is to a gated version; I haven't searched for an ungated version but there probably isn't one].

As many will know (including those who haven't read the 800-page book), Pinker argues that all forms of violence have declined since the Middle Ages and have declined especially sharply in contemporary times, with 'the West' being the center of this trend. Mitzen basically grants this, but argues that Pinker's approach induces a sense of complacency about the violence that remains, even though that is not his intent. In her words, while "absolv[ing] modernity and moderns" of responsibility for the violence of the past, Pinker "dull[s] our sense that it is important to care about, much less feel a sense of responsibility toward, the distant others still mired in violence."

It is tricky, of course, to argue about a book's (or any text's) effect on readers' sensibilities and feelings since, in these respects, no two readers will be affected in exactly the same way. Shaw's Heartbreak House, to take one example that comes to mind, might have caused some readers (or viewers) of the play to crusade against the pre-1914 arms race in Europe while at the same time inducing others to consider the prospect of starting their own munitions company. Good art is ambiguous (even when it appears to be preachy, as Shaw often does), and scholarship is also often ambiguous, at least in terms of its effects on the sensibilities of its consumers.

With that said: how, in Mitzen's view, does Pinker's approach induce complacency and a dulling of the sense that "it is important to care about...distant others...."?

Pinker's account of liberalism and modernity is, she writes, "airbrushed and uncomplicated." Thus, according to him, the French Revolution took a wrong turn not because of any tensions or contradictions in the Enlightenment but because, in Pinker's words, "many of the French philosophes from whom the revolutionaries drew their inspiration were intellectual lightweights" (hmm).

Mitzen criticizes Pinker's accounts of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, which he depicts as having nothing to do with modernity, reason or science. I'm not sure exactly where I come down on that particular question. I do tend to think, however, that the legacy of the Enlightenment, although mostly positive, is, to use Mitzen's word, "mixed."

Her key point is that "[t]he mechanisms of Pinker's causal argument suggest that there is not a whole lot we as individual agents can or ought to do about the violence that remains, especially violence outside of the liberal West." Societies, in Pinker's view, will adopt 'reason' and reduce violence when they "are ready" (Mitzen's words) and until then we basically just have to wait. 

This makes Mitzen uncomfortable, and I understand why. On the other hand, I don't think she would be more comfortable with an approach that attempts to spread 'reason' by force. What we are left with is a sort of middle ground, in which societies are mostly left to chart their own paths but with 'the West' offering financial and/or other support to 'liberal,' 'modern' voices within them, while at the same time trying to temper global economic forces that may hinder political liberalization. As a general matter, I suspect that Pinker and Mitzen would both endorse that approach.

Monday, June 10, 2013

IEA report on CO2 emissions

Emissions rose 1.4 % in 2012, putting the world on track for a 9 degrees Fahreinheit temp rise. Emissions fell in the U.S. and Europe, but rose in China (although at a slower rate than in the past) and in Japan, as the latter "imported and burned large amounts of liquefied natural gas and coal to compensate for the loss of electricity production from nuclear plants that have been idle" since the tsunami.

What caused Japan to surrender in 1945?

It wasn't the atomic bomb, Ward Wilson argues.

"They don't make contributors' lists like that any more"

That (i.e., the title of this post) was my comment when someone I know showed me the reprint edition of the first issue of the New York Rev. of Books, which the journal is offering for sale as part of its 50th anniv. celebration: see here. Also, there is a free two-day conference in Oxford later this month in connection with the anniv.: see here.

For a number of years, for most of the '80s and into the early '90s as I recall, I subscribed to the NYRB. Though I eventually stopped subscribing, I think it's clear that the journal has had a good run.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bernanke on beauty

Via Krugman (via Leiter), I glanced through Bernanke's speech at Princeton. Toward the end of the speech, there is this line (quoted by Krugman at the top of his post): "physical beauty is evolution’s way of assuring us that the other person doesn’t have too many intestinal parasites."

It's nice to know that Bernanke believes in evolution, but this line strikes me -- a complete non-scientist, admittedly -- as sort of dumb. First, physical beauty has a subjective component. Second, to the extent that physical beauty is not subjective but 'objective', wouldn't evolutionary pressures of the sort implied by Bernanke result in lots of physically beautiful people? But there aren't lots of physically beautiful people. On the contrary, they're rare. Maybe Bernanke should stick to economics.    

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

NSA dragnet on Verizon records

Via Greenwald (via Wonkblog).

I wonder what NSA has been doing with these millions of records. Feeding all the numbers into some humongous computer and seeing if certain "suspicious" matches appear? As they say (supposedly) in the Valley: riilly. 

Obama nat'l security team changes

S. Rice to nat'l security adviser, S. Power to UN ambassador (link to WaPo story). I haven't read Power's A Problem from Hell and it's not on my already over-long summer reading list.