Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cost-Benefit Analysis Is Evil, Illustration # 763

From deep in the darkness of the NYT's piece today on the soaring US prison population, the shallow idiocy of policy wonk calculation shines through:
“The simple truth is that imprisonment works,” wrote Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy Review. “Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of crime. The benefits of doing so far offset the costs.”
Anyone who can look at the US mode of imprisonment and declare that it works, and declare further that this declaration is a simple truth, is an idiot. I have some sympathy for those who don't see any good alternative to our prison system, while acknowledging that it is horrible as it stands. But to say simply that its benefits far outweigh its costs is simply childish.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

From Beneath, It Devours

There's been a sudden resurgence in public references to Marx since Obama's "bitter" remarks. Much of it has been fueled by the perceived equivalence of Obama's claim about small-town voters and Marx's claim in the "Introduction" to his critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right that "religion is the opium of the people." Whatever the merits of such an interpretation (they're slight, in my opinion), a recent post by publius over at Obsidian Wings (following up on this post by Mickey Kaus) has shifted the argument ever so slightly:
To clarify, whatever Obama intended to say, the resulting debate has turned — as Kaus says — Marxist. The debate has evolved into a discussion of whether the cultural preferences of bitter Pennsylvanians stem from a lack of economic opportunity. To put the question in more stark Marxist terms — are Pennsylvanians’ cultural preferences (i.e., the superstructure) determined by economics? If so, then those cultural preferences will presumably shift if people become more economically secure.
Publius goes on to argue that the same logic underlies the Bushies' war on Iraq: "the neocon vision shares some Marxist assumptions. Specifically, it too sees religion and radicalism as superstructure. Change what lies beneath and you’ll change what rests on top, or so the theory goes."

Any argument that produces the conclusion that the neocons are Marxists performs a reductio ad absurdum on itself. So where did this argument go wrong? I think it goes wrong as soon as it supposes that the determination of political and religious life by the economy is a Marxist position. The base/superstructure image deployed by Marx is, I would argue, taken over wholesale from the tradition of liberal political economy going back to Smith and Montesquieu.

The spread of material abundance along the vector of expanding markets is supposed to bring with it civilization, in the sense of non-violence, tolerance, and enlightened self-interest. You can find this thesis defended by Hume, by Kant, by Mill, by Constant--indeed by most every liberal since the birth of liberalism. Determination of the cultural and political superstructure by the economic base is precisely what "political economy" names.

Therefore, while there is a common thread linking Obama's comments (at least as they were received) and Bush's war strategy, it is the common thread of liberal political economy.

Marx's relation to this tradition is complicated (see the post below re: Malthus), but I don't want to deny that there is a powerful strand of Marxism that is consistent with political economy. Kaus mentions vulgar Marxism, and I'd be happy to pin this label on economic Marxism. Economic Marxism draws different lessons from the premise it shares with economic liberalism, but it does share this premise.

Nonetheless, Marx sub-titled Capital "A Critique of political Economy," and there is an equally robust strand of Marxism that takes of this anti-economistic challenge. I would note at least three important theses that differentiate this Marxism from the base-determines-superstructure model of political economy:
  1. The mode of production is not reducible to a mode of distribution. That is, the way we produce is prior to the economic questions focused on by political economy.
  2. The mode of production of capitalism is fundamentally revolutionary and disruptive. That is, the "base" is not a stable foundation upon which economic, political, and cultural institutions might arise. Rather, the mode of production constantly undermines and subsumes whatever seems to aspire to an external or independent existence. From beneath, it devours.
  3. The mode of production does not explain itself, but was brought into being and is continually maintained by extra-economic violence, what Marx calls "primitive accumulation." (On which, see this excellent review of There Will Be Blood by Unemployed Negativity.)

Scene from a Morning Conversation

A: The closet is a terrible thing, and no one should have to live in the closet, but without the closet, Freddie Mercury never would have written "Fat Bottomed Girls."

B: Indeed.

A: How did anyone ever think Freddie Mercury was anything other than gay?

B: It was the Seventies. Everyone looked gay. And everyone was queer: Mick Jaggar, David Bowie. Even straight guys like Rod Stewart looked gay. Rod. Heheh.

A: Rod Stewart is way too gay to be anything but straight.

Monday, April 21, 2008

From Malthus to Marx

People love making fun of Jonah Goldberg, and I think I'm beginning to understand why. In the midst of a meandering back-and-forth with John Derbyshire about, I kid you not, Darwin and Hitler, he makes the following claim:
I think the real villain is Malthus, not Darwin. As I've mentioned here before, both Marx and Darwin believed they were merely standing on Malthus' shoulders, at least when it comes to "bad" parts of either.
Follow that link and you get the following gem:
The idea that economics should be treated as a branch of Darwinian biology doesn't strike me as that new. The founding economists of American Progressivism virtually all believed they were applying Darwinian principles to human affairs, from economics to the law. Indeed, Darwinism and economics have been joined at the hip from the get-go. Darwin himself was for the most part inspired by an economist, Thomas Malthus. The “struggle for existence,” Darwin explained, was simply “the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” Marx, another economist of a sort who was also indebted to Malthus, wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin (Darwin refused). In fact, I've often thought that Malthus doesn't get nearly the blame he should for all sorts of problems. Virtually everything conservatives dislike about environmentalism, leftwing economics and the like can, to one extent or another, be laid at Malthus's feet.
I'm not qualified to speak to the claims about Darwin, but the notion that Marx "believed" that he was "standing on Malthus' shoulders" or was otherwise "indebted to Malthus" is just pig ignorant. I don't know of anyone who had more contempt for Malthus than Marx. (I'll track down some examples later and put them up.) In fact, one of the staple attacks on Marxism during the Cold War was that Marxism was unscientific because it led to the denial of Malthusian population theory! (I'll find a citation for that, too.)

As for the old canard about Marx wanting to dedicate Capital to Darwin: it's a complete myth.

This seems to be the thing about Goldberg: he makes authoritative statements about historical and intellectual connections about which he actually knows nothing at all. Much of his own persona is based on his historical and intellectual patina, but whenever he makes a claim about anything I know anything about, he's wildly mistaken or repeating unsubstantiated rumors as truth.

Some representative comments by Marx about Malthus:
All honour to Malthus that he lays stress on the lengthening of the hours of labour, a fact to which he elsewhere in his pamphlet draws attention, while Ricardo and others, in face of the most notorious facts, make invariability in the length of the working-day the groundwork of all their investigations. But the conservative interests, which Malthus served, prevented him from seeing that an unlimited prolongation of the working-day, combined with an extraordinary development of machinery, and the exploitation of women and children, must inevitably have made a great portion of the working-class “supernumerary,” particularly whenever the war should have ceased, and the monopoly of England in the markets of the world should have come to an end. It was, of course, far more convenient, and much more in conformity with the interests of the ruling classes, whom Malthus adored like a true priest, to explain this “over-population” by the eternal laws of Nature, rather than by the historical laws of capitalist production. (Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 17.4.a, n7)
One cannot fail to recognise that both Malthus’s Principles and the two other works mentioned, which were intended to amplify certain aspects of the Principles, were largely inspired by envy at the success of Ricardo’s book and were an attempt by Malthus to regain the leading position which he had attained by skilful plagiarism before Ricardo’s book appeared. [...] Further, Malthus’s discovery—of which he is very proud and which he claims he was the first to make—namely, that value is equal to the quantity of labour embodied in a commodity plus a quantity of labour which represents the profit; [this discovery] seems likewise to be quite simply a combination of two sentences from Smith. (Malthus never escapes plagiarism.) (Theories of Surplus Value, Ch. 19)
Utter baseness is a distinctive trait of Malthus—a baseness which can only he indulged in by a parson who sees human suffering as the punishment for sin and who, in any ease, needs a “vale of tears on earth”, but who, at the same time, in view of the living he draws and aided by the dogma of predestination, finds it altogether advantageous to “sweeten” their sojourn in the vale of tears for the ruling classes. The “baseness” of this mind is also evident in his scientific work. Firstly in his shameless and mechanical plagiarism. Secondly in the cautious, not radical, conclusions which he draws from scientific premises. (Theories of Surplus Value, Ch. 9)
And, regarding Malthus' influence upon Darwin, Mar wrote this:
I'm amused that Darwin, at whom I've been taking another look, should say that he also applies the ‘Malthusian’ theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr Malthus’s case the whole thing didn’t lie in its not being applied to plants and animals, but only — with its geometric progression — to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society. (Letter to Engels, June 18, 1862)
Here's a bit from The Encyclopedia Britannica that sums things up nicely.
While both Karl Marx and Malthus accepted many of the views of the classical economists, Marx was harshly and implacably critical of Malthus and his ideas. The vehemence of the assault was remarkable. Marx reviled Malthus as a “miserable parson” guilty of spreading a “vile and infamous doctrine, this repulsive blasphemy against man and nature.”
The similarities between Malthus and Marx are precisely as extensive as the similarities between Smith and Marx, and for the same reason. Malthus was a classical political economist, who took himself to be discovering the laws of nature as they functioned in human society. Marx was a critic of political economy, who argued that the laws of nature discovered by Smith, Malthus, et al., were the laws of the capitalist mode of production, and had no historically general validity. Thus, Malthusian population theory does not, according to Marx, reveal the natural laws of population, but rather reveals the specific functioning of a particular moment of capitalist development.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Victim-Heroes, Now and Then

Jonathan Chait, on the hilarity of George Will coming to the defense of the common man:
Blue-collar whites now occupy the same position in American politics that people of color hold in the smaller political subculture of academia: a victim-hero class whose positions (usually as interpreted by outsiders) enjoy the presumption of moral superiority.

The victim-hero class is the object of competitive flattery and the subject of mutual accusations of disrespect. You can't read a Peggy Noonan paean to real America--"a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality"--without thinking of a junior faculty member extolling the dignity of Guatemalan peasant women. Bill O'Reilly's or Tim Russert's endless invocations of their working-class backgrounds are the equivalent of the campus activist who introduces every opinion by saying "As a woman of color . . . ." (The one difference being that the latter really is a woman of color, while the former are multimillionaires who retain only the most remote connection to blue-collar life.)
The academic left, however, has engaged in a 20-year-long self-critique of identity politics. The anti-academic right has attacked the identity politics of the left, but never its own. The junior faculty members and campus activists who appear in Chait's characterization are figures of the past, ghosts of yesteryear.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Can You Spot the Differences?

Frequently Asked Questions (distributed by the administration of McGill University, 4 April, 2008):
1. My TA says that if they go on strike I cannot grade exams and assignments.
That is incorrect. Grading is part of your function. It is not exclusive to the function of TAs.
Frequently Asked Questions (as posted on the McGill University website sometime in the last week--I first noticed it on Thursday, 17 April):

1. My TA says that if they go on strike I cannot grade exams and assignments. Is this true?

That is incorrect, unless you have fully delegated that task to a TA. Grading is part of your function. It is not exclusive to the function of TAs. If you have fully delegated that function to a TA, please bring the matter to the attention of your Chair.

I sense trouble for the University's legal argument...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

It's Scientifically Proven

You will hate this song.

I think the Komar and Melamid shtick is pretty interesting. That's all.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Bio-Politics: An Object Lesson

A commenter over at Megan McArdle's (don't ask...):
"a certain floor of compensation for work"

That sentence summarize the problem with how work is conceived of in neo-classical and, for that matter, marxian economics.

Work is something that is not a good in and of itself, it is a negative that someone has to be "compensated" to do. Presumably because the person who is not working for wages have something better to do.

My fundamental objection to this view of work is that work is by no means a negative for an individual, but an intrinsic part of our "social being" in a society where most of us do not have activities like subsistence farming, etc. to keep us alive.

If you take the position that it is an intrinsic good to have people at work for a certain wage rather than to sit home and collect the identical sum doing nothing, then having as many as possible of the population at work is in fact, a collective good.

My argument is that to pay for idleness (Welfare, Unemployment "compensation", charitable handouts, etc.) fundamentally undermine the importance of work as a socializer, an activity that keeps people from doing things that are potentially harmful, deviant, or otherwise undesirable should they be not employed.

Look at most of continental Europe, where tight controls on hiring and firing, unionization, etc. have created an underclass of permanently unemployed, much like the underclass of mostly black ghetto dwellers in the US that is nearly permanently unemployable for different reasons.

To me, the danger of this underclass goes far beyond undermining the work ethic, incentives to work, etc. It goes to the heart of social stability in that persons who are idle at the margins of society and kept alive by handouts with no obligations are at high risk of doing things that upsets social order even more, like drug dealing, petty crimes, etc. because they are not occupied most of the time at a job.

So having said that, I am for a minimum wage, and at the same time, for the elimination of handouts without a reciprocal obligation to be at "work".

Count me in for eliminating programs like Social Security, disability payments, etc.

I lost track in there: We shouldn't compensate people for work because we shouldn't compensate people for idleness? If people would rather be idle than work, then doesn't compensation make perfect sense as a term? If people would rather work than be idle, then unemployment compensation makes perfect sense as a term and as a policy. Whatever.

Anyway: I just gave two closing lectures with the same punch-line. I said of both of my classes that my fondest wish is that they made my students a bit more useless. This wacko's idea of social engineering only makes my wish more fervent.

CFP: Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy

Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy
La société canadienne de philosophie continentale

Call for Papers

The Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy will hold its annual conference on October 30 – November 1, 2008, at the University of Montreal, Quebec.

We invite papers or panels on any theme relevant to the broad concerns of continental philosophy. Please submit complete papers (no more than 4500 words) and a brief abstract (150 words). If you are submitting a panel proposal, send only a 750 word abstract for each paper. Please prepare your paper for blind review as an attachment in Word.

All submissions (in French or English) must be sent electronically by June 1, 2008, to:
Diane Enns, CSCP President, I

f you are a graduate student, please identify yourself as such in order to be eligible for the graduate student essay prize. The winner will be announced at the annual conference and considered for publication in the following spring issue of Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Philosophy as Ur-Job Training

Philosophy got a write up in the NY Times on Sunday. Apparently, enrollments are way up at lots of places. My old department chair, David Schrader, gets quoted in his new capacity as executive director of the APA.

This is all good, but...

My one concern with the article is that--except for a nod to the romantic possibilities of existential depth at the end--philosophy is presented largely as a way to do well on the LSATs and/or as a way to bone up on all-purpose skills in a post-career era. This can be given a more congenial spin, also:
Frances Egan, a Rutgers philosophy professor who advises undergraduates, said that as it has become harder for students to predict what specialties might be in demand in an uncertain economy, some may be more apt to choose their major based simply on what they find interesting. “Philosophy is a lot of fun,” said Professor Egan, who graduated with a philosophy degree in the tough economic times of the 1970s. “A lot of students are in it because they find it intellectually rewarding.”
I like the emphasis on the fun to be had. Nonetheless, I tend to be of the opinion that philosophy, far from preparing you to do everything, renders you incapable of doing anything. Philosophy makes you useless. That is precisely why it is enjoyable, and why I think students should pursue it.

Strike On

AGSEM strikes! Refuse work!

Here's AGSEM's announcement--PDF!

Freedom Isn't Free

Glenn Greenwald, responding to Megan McArdle and Dan Drezner's Alfred E. Newman impersonations:
It can never be the case that there is anything profoundly wrong -- fundamentally wrong -- with the American political establishment. Why not? Because the McArdles and Drezners both support it and are part of it, and they are Good and thus can't possibly be responsible for things like "war crimes" or "torture regimes" or illegal wars of aggression. That's why the political establishment is so desperate to stay in Iraq until we "win" and to convince everyone that the public supports them again. They are desperate to wash their hands of that which they enabled so they can pretend they never did.
One of the fundamental operations of the modern state is to effect a division of labor between those who kill and those who don't. I just taught Lucio Castellano's essay, "Living With Guerrilla Warfare." Castellano writes:
The arming of the state guarantees the disarming of society; the fact that one part of society--the repressive and military apparatus--erects itself as a separate body and functions according to the laws of 'war,' guarantees that the rest of society lives in 'peace.' 'Peace' means only that 'war' has become the private matter of a few men who thrive on it (the police and the military), or of those private men who take command over all others, demonstrating through fact that they--being the guarantors of the peace of all--also govern it by being a ruling part of it.
The peace we love is just the flip-side of the war machine, but we would rather not face that fact. The outbreak of a hot war--and a war of aggression, too, like our war in Iraq--unsettles our own denial, and precipitates three aggressively virulent attempts to shore up our clean conscience.

First, there is the classic chicken-hawk response: mental and emotional identification with the war machine, coupled with an absolute avoidance of all bodily danger.

Second, there is the dissociative disorder characteristic of Versailles. This seems to be McArdle and Drezner: Marie Antoinettes of the digital age. That's over there and I'm over here--and never the twain shall meet.

Finally, there is the beautiful soul of the pacifist, who reassures themselves that, if they had their way, none of this bad stuff would happen.

Greenwald's straight ahead rule-of-law liberalism tends towards the third response at times, but I am beginning to sense a process of radicalization. I don't expect him to start recommending "learning to use violence, so as not to have to delegate it, so as not to be blackmailed by it" (as Castellano does), but...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

For Posterity

John Yoo's infamous torture memo is available here (Pt. 1) and here (Pt. 2).

TA Strike at McGill?

AGSEM, the TA union here at McGill voted overwhelmingly (79% in favor) to authorize strike action in their ongoing contract negotiations with the University. Obviously, with only a week and a half to go in the semester, this is a point where a strike might be highly effective. Still, since the union has to give 7 days notice (I believe), the window for a strike is fairly narrow. If we get through the next week or so without hearing that a strike is happening, then I would guess there won't be one--a strike that doesn't start until the middle of finals period has only marginal leverage. Therefore, I presume (hope) AGSEM is right on the verge of a breakthrough with the administration. Strike authorization should be enough to tip the scale by itself, and if it doesn't, then the union leadership has to be willing to move very quickly and decisively.

UPDATE: Never mind on the 7 day notice. I have just heard that this is not required. That makes the situation much more flexible. The union could declare a strike anytime before the first couple days of the finals period and have a pretty big stick. We've got up to two weeks of pins-and-needles.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Carrie Brownstein's Got a Blog!

I had no idea!

S-K was and remains one of the formative experiences of my post-collegiate youth. Their albums and concerts chart my coming of age. They are, in my opinion, the greatest self-referential band of all time. What I mean is that many of their best songs are precisely about the passionate experience of their music (and of music in general). They sang about themselves, not in a narcissistic way, but in such a way that their songs were like worlds unto themselves, perfect articulations of the experience of listening,

Self-defeating Strategy

Matthew Yglesias:
Initially, we invaded to depose Saddam and destroy his WMD programs. So when at first the programs weren't there, we had to keep some troops in the country to look for them. What's more, some kind of new government had to be created. But then, contrary to what the Bush administration had expected, an insurgency started against our presence. The insurgents were killing our troops. Then beating the insurgents became the goal. Our troops had to stay in Iraq and risk their lives in order to kill the people who were trying to kill them to force them out of Iraq -- we couldn't leave until all the people who wanted us to leave were dead.
This captures the essential thirteen-year-old mindset of the Republican approach to this war: "I'll go as soon as you stop asking me to leave. So there!"

Defeat would be being perceived to do something that our enemies want us to do. In other words, we have no desire of our own, only the resentful desire to frustrate the desires of our enemies. If they want (or seem to want) x, then we want not-x. This is paradigmatic stupidity.