The pope is not a liberal

That’s the upshot of my op-ed in the New York Times today.

For those who are wondering, these things are really hard to write — you have to cram so much into such a tiny space, there really is no room for nuance. The Times asked for 1000 words, I delivered 1250, they wound up having space for 850, so 400 words had to go!

Part of what went were the sections where I expressed my appreciation for the encyclical, which I actually think is an incredibly positive contribution to the current debate. If one thinks of how much damage the Church has done with respect to the population issue (and it’s important to remember that, back in the ’60s, the Church really could have gone either way on the contraception and abortion question), it’s absolutely wonderful that Pope Francis has positioned the Church on the right side of the climate change issue.… Continue reading

Is this some kind of a joke?

One of the problems that many students encounter, when reading older philosophy texts, is that they don’t get any of the jokes. I was thinking about this with regard to my recent “normative sociology” post, a term that comes from a joke that Robert Nozick made in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I actually missed this the first time I read it through as well, just because one doesn’t expect there to be jokes in serious works of philosophy. (It is my colleague, Arthur Ripstein, who pointed it out to me.)

The “not getting the jokes” problem becomes even worse once a book is more than a century old. Apart from the fact that both humour and writing styles change, making it harder to tell when someone is joking, the mere fact that a book is old seems to lead people to assume that it must be entirely serious throughout.… Continue reading

On the problem of normative sociology

Last week I did a post complaining about how journalists tend to use the undifferentiated term “political correctness” to describe a complex group of behaviours that one can find in contemporary academia. I was trying to make the case that “classic” political correctness – such as language policing – has been on the decline, but that there were other worrisome trends that continue. This week I would like to pursue the discussion, by talking about another slightly pernicious habit, which those of us who like to classify these things refer to as the problem of “normative sociology.”

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one.… Continue reading

Great sentences: Alec Nove

I was flipping through Alec Nove’s The Economics of a Feasible Socialism (revisted) today, looking over my old underlined quotes from 20 years ago. This book is probably one of the dozen or so I’ve read that fundamentally changed the way I think about things. Looking back, this line in particular stands out:

Externalities arise not because of separation of ownership, but because of separation of decision-making units (p. 74).

Tiny sentence with huge implications. This idea is one that, when I read it, I had never seen articulated so clearly or forcefully. The implication is that some of the pathologies of capitalism do not arise because of the ownership structure of firms, or the profit-orientation, but merely from the decentralization of decision-making. As far as I’m concerned, this is something that every environmentalist needs to understand and grapple with, especially those who think that moving away from capitalist firms towards cooperatives is going to do anything for the environment.… Continue reading

More on political correctness

So apparently I’m the go-to guy on political correctness now. I wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen that appeared today (“Why Canadian professors aren’t afraid of their students“). It all started because I get irritated by the number of occasions on which “universities” in general get bad press whenever something outrageous happens at an American college — particularly at a small liberal-arts college, which is a type of institution that barely exists in Canada (outside Nova Scotia). This is not to deny that there are problems at Canadian universities, it’s just that it would be nice to discuss these problems with reference to Canadian universities, rather than just imagining that everything happening in the United States must be happening here as well.

In any case, the narrative I’ve been trying to establish is that, here in Canada, all that “political correctness” craziness blew over a long time ago, leaving behind only serious people, focused on having serious conversations, trying to work out solutions to the pressing problems of the day.… Continue reading

Postscript to “me” studies

An old friend writes to me:

Your recent analysis of political correctness was particularly good in diagnosing the dynamics of how academic discourse in the “critical theory” vein so often ends up getting us for away from anything like the ideal of deliberation. But one line in that post really stuck in my craw:

“In mixed company, using a term like “ableist” provokes a lot of eyeball-rolling, and is generally recognized as a good way of ensuring that no one outside your own very small circle will take you seriously.”

Clearly, the objection made to your use of the word “crazy” on the jacket cover for Enlightenment 2.0 was idiotic. There is nothing ablest about using that term derisively. But what you actually say in the passage quoted put you dangerously close to the “jerk” category. As you know, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time following and even participating in disability studies.

Continue reading

These houses are the source of a great many problems in the world

I was driving by a new housing development in Brampton the other day and I just had to pull over and take a picture. I’ve seen big houses before, but these ones just blew me away. I mean, just look at the size of this thing. It’s more like an institution than a house. (You can look at the double garage in order to get a sense of the scale.) Also, even though you can’t see it very well in the picture, these houses aren’t spread out on one or two acre parcels. It’s a dense development (as these things go), I would guesstimate that they’re building over a hundred of them.

big house

I haven’t written much about consumerism lately, mainly because I have it worked out to my own satisfaction, and there doesn’t seem to be very much new on this front. And yet seeing houses like this reminds me of how central the problem of competitive consumption is, how it lies at the root of so many other problems in the world that we live in.… Continue reading

The anxiety of influence

Several years ago, in Filthy Lucre (or Economics without Illusions) I provided the following assessment of the book Freakonomics:

Levitt and Dubner repeatedly draw an invidious contrast between “morality” – described as “the way we would like the world to be” – and “economics” – the study of how the world actually is. The message is pretty clear. Morality is for girls. Economics is for tough guys, who are able to stare the world in the eye and come to terms with the way things are. It’s for those who are able to look at a homeless man and notice only his expensive headphones. To imagine that morality counts for anything, in the real world, is to succumb to wishful thinking. The economist is wise to the game. He knows that people are all in it for themselves. Machiavelli put it best, when he observed that “in general,” people are “ungrateful and fickle, dissemblers, avoiders of danger, and greedy of gain.”

When push comes to shove, these unflattering assumptions about human motivation are about the only thing that make Levitt’s work count as “economics.” After all, most of it is plain-vanilla statistical analysis, of the sort done by social scientists in a variety of disciplines.

Continue reading

The problem of “me” studies

One can still find journalists these days complaining about the problem of “political correctness” in universities, which always sounds old-fashioned and somewhat out-of-touch to me. I think of political correctness as something that reached its high-water mark sometime in the early 90’s and has been on the decline since then (at least among faculty – students are another issue). Part of the difference in perception may be due to a lack of precision in terminology. I find that people who are outside the academy tend to lump a lot of different stuff together under the heading of political correctness, whereas inside the universities we have different names for various different tendencies. So what I would like to discuss today is just one strand or tendency, that often gets described as political correctness, but that is more precisely known as the problem of “me” studies.

First though, just to explain what I mean by political correctness being on the decline: Often when journalists talk about this stuff, what they have in mind is old-fashioned language policing.… Continue reading