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.

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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.

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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

Loose ends

Apologies for neglect of the blog for the past month or so. I’ve been busy writing a pile of academic stuff. For those interested, I have a review in this month’s Literary Review of CanadaTrading Fair: The Slippery Slope of Industry Self-Regulation

I also wrote an academic piece on the 2008 financial crisis (yes, we are still picking over the bones), which is now on my academia site: Mistakes Were Made: The Role of Catallactic Bias in the Financial Crisis. This “catallactic bias” thing is a meme that I’m trying to make happen, so far without much success. The reference is to the term “catallaxy,” used by von Mises and Hayek to describe market orders. So if you take that stuff too seriously, you wind up suffering from catallactic bias… get it?

Finally, I gave a talk at Dartmouth last week, called “On the Scalability of Cooperative Structures,” that I’m really happy with, but it won’t be in the “working paper” stage for a while still.… Continue reading

One last thought on Jim Prentice

People who are dismayed by the current federal Conservative government, and the fact that they stand a good chance of being re-elected this fall, can at least take comfort from one thing. When Canadians finally get tired of Stephen Harper – which inevitably they will – the Conservative party faces the worst succession crisis of any party in recent memory. Indeed, lack of “depth in the bench” has been one of the defining features of this government, one that may help to explain some of its more puzzling features (such as its ineffectiveness on the legislative front).

The standard narrative on the Conservatives (to be found, for instance, in Michael Harris’s Party of One), seeks to explain the extraordinary concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s office as primarily a consequence of Stephen Harper being an unusually controlling person. This is of course set against a background of a more general trend toward concentration of power in the central agencies, in particular the Privy Council Office.… Continue reading

Our simpering public service

The Pierre Poilievre “vanity video” story is starting to get more interesting. There was an excellent piece in the Ottawa Citizen today that raises exactly the right issue. I think one could reasonably argue that the civil servants who agreed to produce this video, along with those who authorized the expenditure, acted in violation of their ethical responsibilities as public servants. They should probably have refused to do it.

Key quote from Donald Savoie:

If you are an EX-1 or above you should know the importance of the value-and-ethics code and when you see a red flag like this a few months before a general election, live by it. You should be asking if this is appropriate. Values and ethics code covers everybody, not just the clerk.

Those who shot the video, along with the minister, conspired to spend public funds in order to advance an obviously partisan political purpose.… Continue reading

Donner prize nomination

Enlightenment 2.0 has been short-listed for the Donner Prize, which recognizes the best work of public policy in Canada every year. Very different crowd here than the Shaughneesy Cohen prize. The other three books on the short-list are:

Unfortunately I won’t have time to read and review them all this time — results are announced on Wednesday. I get free copies though, so I’m looking forward to plunging in. I am particularly interested in Michael Trebilcock’s — I admire his book The Limits of Freedom of Contract very much, and I often recommend it to students/colleagues (as an exemplar of how one can adopt a broadly “economic” perspective on the world, and yet remain fundamentally humane in one’s orientation).… Continue reading

Alberta becomes interesting

Actually, the Alberta budget and election has been the most interesting thing going on in the country for a while now, but it keeps getting more interesting! Of course, as we know from the last election, polls in Alberta are worth practically nothing. Still, even contemplating the possibility of an NDP government in Alberta is mind-expanding. (For Stephen Harper, this would be like Rob Stark losing Winterfell…)

First, about the Alberta budget. It seems to me obvious that Jim Prentice took the only sensible course of action available to him, which was to go with a mix of budget cuts and tax increases. Let’s be clear: public sector spending in Alberta is bloated. Alberta’s health care spending, for instance, at $6,781 per capita, is the highest of the 10 provinces (Quebec, at $5,616, is the lowest). Alberta’s education spending, at $11,086 per student, is the highest of the 10 provinces (Prince Edward Island at $9,260 is the lowest).… Continue reading

Response to Tabarrok

Alex Tabarrok from Marginal Revolution recently posted a very generous notice of Enlightenment 2.0 as well as a long review at The New Rambler (under the heading “Does Capitalism Make Us Stupid?”) I’ve been an avid reader and fan of Marginal Revolution for over a decade now, so this was very exciting for me. The review also raises a number of interesting issues, which I thought I might take a moment to comment on.

I’ll start somewhat in reverse order, because Tabarrok’s most significant criticisms arise towards the end of his review. There he makes the observation that the final section of my book is the weakest – that’s the part where I try to propose some “solutions” to all of the gigantic problems that I’ve spent the previous 300 pages diagnosing. Many people have pointed out that these chapters – specifically, the last two – seem to lack conviction, and that the positive proposals I make are all small beer, manifestly not up to the task of solving the enormous problems that I previously identified.… Continue reading