The hard truth about hard power

I have a long form piece in the Ottawa Citizen, about the tendency certain people have to overestimate the effectiveness of physical force, when it comes to achieving social order. It starts with a little conversation:

(For purists, let me just acknowledge that this scene is not in the book, and there’s good reason for that, since Baelish’s end of the conversation is out of character.)

In any case, the point is not to discuss Game of Thrones, but to provide me with an opportunity to revisit some of the amazingly foolish things that were said in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and how they reveal real misunderstanding of some basic facts about how social order is maintained.

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Those ubiquitous libertarians

Paul Krugman asks a question about the influence of the Koch Brothers in academia. It’s something that I’ve been wondering about as well. After all, given how incredibly expensive American politics has become, investing in academia is ridiculously cheap. I know from experience that philosophers will fall over themselves trying to get donations in the $50,000 range, which is of course peanuts by the standards of political donations.

Anyhow, I got to thinking about this earlier in the year, when I had an “I’m so naive” moment of kicking myself. I was invited to give a talk at an American university, in a series of lectures aimed at engaging both academics and the general public. When I got the list of speakers that they had planned, I was surprised to see that more than half were libertarians. When I was there giving the talk, I casually asked someone, “What’s up with all the libertarians?” “Oh,” I was told, “we got a call from the Koch Foundation.… Continue reading

How to close down a discussion (before it starts)

I must say, I had been looking forward to the release of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. Not so much because I expect to agree with that much of it – if she hasn’t changed her mind about anything since her article in The Nation a while back, then I know that I disagree with much of what she has to say on the topic of climate change. But I’ve been mentally pencilling into my schedule time to read it, and then write something in response to it.

The reason I find it worthwhile to engage with Klein’s work is that the views she articulates are often widely shared on the left, but are usually the sort of thing that you hear people say – like things I hear from my students – but that you don’t often find written down anywhere. So whenever she puts these ideas down on paper, it offers a good opportunity for discussion and debate (and for me, an opportunity to point out what I think is wrong with a lot of conventional wisdom of the left).… Continue reading

It’s that time of year

The goldenrod is blooming. Many people associate this with going back to school. And it is indeed that time of year.

goldenrod

Personally, whenever I see goldenrod I think of Thorstein Veblen. Specifically, The Theory of the Leisure Class, where he makes the following, fantastic observation:

By further habituation to an appreciative perception of the marks of expensiveness in goods, and by habitually identifying beauty with reputability, it comes about that a beautiful article which is not expensive is accounted not beautiful. In this way it has happened, for instance, that some beautiful flowers pass conventionally for offensive weeds; others that can be cultivated with relative ease are accepted and admired by the lower middle class, who can afford no more expensive luxuries of this kind; but these varieties are rejected as vulgar by those people who are better able to pay for expensive flowers and who are educated to a higher schedule of pecuniary beauty in the florist’s products; while still other flowers, of no greater intrinsic beauty than these, are cultivated at great cost and call out much admiration from flower-lovers whose tastes have been matured under the critical guidance of a polite environment.

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La revanche des petites nations?

Lots of eyes turning toward Scotland, with a keen interest in the outcome of the Sept. 18 independence referendum. Meanwhile, an excellent Paul Krugman column, focused on the issue of Scotland keeping the pound. Key point:

In short, everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous. In economics jargon, fiscal and banking integration are essential elements of an optimum currency area…

I find it mind-boggling that Scotland would consider going down this path after all that has happened in the last few years. If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled.

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Upcoming Heath AMA on Reddit

I’m going to be doing an “ask me anything” session this Tuesday, Sept. 9, from 1-3pm (EST) for the folks on the CanadaPolitics subreddit (http://www.reddit.com/r/CanadaPolitics).

For those of you who don’t follow it, CanadaPolitics offers an excellent “curated” overview of Canadian news from multiple sources, and is ruthlessly moderated in order to ensure the highest quality discussion. I check it at least once a day, and so I’m happy to be able to give something back to the community there.

Personally, I’m having difficulty believing that anyone is going to show up for this, so if you have a chance, save me some embarrassment and come ask a question!… Continue reading

Lessons for the left from Olivia Chow’s faltering campaign

Olivia Chow entered the Toronto mayoralty race as the acknowledged front-runner, the only left-wing candidate running against no fewer than four candidates from the right (John Tory, Rob Ford, John David Soknacki and, before she dropped out, Karen Stintz). Chow has star power (as the widow of the late Jack Layton), obvious outreach to visible minorities (who, collectively, are close to being the majority of voters in Toronto), recently had her biography published by Harpercollins, and is well-known to voters in Toronto thanks to her years of service as a city councillor.

According to a string of recent polls, she is now running in third place, behind Rob Ford, a man so demonstrably unfit for office that many of his own supporters would be mortified were they to discover that he had become, say, the principal of their child’s school.

To say that something had gone wrong with Chow’s campaign would be an understatement.… Continue reading

The Harper Government is not serious about fighting crime

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the damnest thing yesterday. Asked whether he would reconsider calling a federal inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women, in the wake of the discovery of Tina Fontaine’s body in Winnipeg, he again refused. The reason he gave, however, was so strange. He said that such cases should be viewed as “crimes,” rather than as a “sociological phenomenon.”

Now I happen to agree with Harper that a federal inquiry would be a bad idea. But my reason for thinking that is the exact opposite of Harper’s. It’s precisely because the problem of violence against aboriginal women is primarily “sociological,” and not primarily a law-enforcement matter, that I don’t think a federal inquiry would be very productive.

To see why, just stop for a moment and reflect upon the statistic that is constantly being repeated in the press, that there are “1,200 murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada.”* This brings up images of Robert Pickton, preying on women in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, accompanied by police indifference to the case of “yet another missing aboriginal woman.” And yet if we stop for a moment and think about what we all know about violence against women, it is easy to see that this is not the typical case.… Continue reading

The problem with criminal justice fees

This post by Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution provides useful context for understanding events in Ferguson, Missouri: Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison.

Coincidentally, it also provides useful context for understanding the recent Ontario Court of Justice decision, striking down the Harper Government’s mandatory victim surcharges as unconstitutional. Justice David Paciocco’s judgment can be found here.… Continue reading

Police shootings are a gun control issue

With the civil unrest that has erupted in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, along with all of the news coverage and commentary that has accompanied it, I am surprised how few Americans see the connection between police shootings and the absence of gun control in the United States. By now it has become fairly clear to everyone that school shootings are an inevitable byproduct of the proliferation and easy availability of guns. But Americans have not been as quick to draw the connection between police shootings and the fact that so many American civilians are armed. There has been a lot of lamentation about the “militarization” of police forces, but surprisingly few commentators have pointed out the simple fact that American police are constantly afraid of getting shot. It may not be at the forefront of their minds, but it is something that informs every aspect of how they interact with the public.… Continue reading