Canadian Elections for Naifs and Cynics

A few years ago, I wrote a blogpost in which I described a blunt taxonomy carving political observers into two types.  I suggested that everyone falls somewhere on the line (which is a continuum) between political naifs, at one extreme, and politicl cynics, at the other. My central claim was that naifs believe that politics is fundamentally about devising and implementing good policy. Cynics believe that it is about acquiring and exercising political power.

While virtually no one is a pure cynic or unalloyed naif, I think there is no doubt that the distinction does articulate two clear approaches to understanding how politics does, or ought to, function. I also think that understanding whether a given columnist is coming at things from one side or the other can be a useful heuristic for understanding the argument that is being made.

At any rate, the original post gets tweeted and mentioned on social media fairly regularly by people whose work I respect and admire, so it suggests to me that I’m not the only one who finds the schema useful.… Continue reading

Climate change syllabus

I’m teaching environmental ethics for the first time this coming fall, focusing on climate change. This is a third-year course, which has our second-year general environmental ethics course as a prerequisite. So I’m not obliged to cover the basics. I’ll be using Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach’s book, Climate Change Justice, as more-or-less the textbook, with supplementary readings as I go along. Not everything I assign, I should add, is stuff I agree with, some is just to provoke discussion. Also, it’s not really environmental “ethics” so much as environmental “justice” & “policy.”

Anyhow, any suggestions would be welcome — I haven’t read more than a fraction of the literature that’s out there (beyond the usual suspects Shue, Gardiner, Broome, McKinnon, Moellendorf, etc.), so if I’m missing good stuff let me know. Also, the syllabus may not make sense for those who have not read Posner & Weisbach, because my presentation of topics really tracks their discussion, which seems to me quite well organized.… 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

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

Two interesting tech articles

1. Not sure why this didn’t occur to me right away: It’s time for robot pilots

2. I’ve long noted with amusement the way that veganism has been making it easier for consumers to gain access to many traditional “industrial” cooking ingredients, such as palm oil. It is interesting to see that it is also driving a lot of technical innovation:  Silicon Valley gets a taste for food

 … Continue reading

In which I annoy Margaret Wente

It is true that the other day I referred to Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a “warmonger” in the pages of the Ottawa Citizen. I did follow up this claim with the slight disclaimer that “I don’t mean that in a bad way.” Some people, however, have been having difficulty seeing how you can call someone a warmonger and “not mean it in a bad way.” So I thought I might explain myself a bit.

Margaret Wente, however, took things a bit further in today’s Globe and Mail, imputing some things to me that I didn’t actually say. Here she is:

Is Stephen Harper a warmonger? Some highly intelligent people seem to think so.

Joseph Heath, a leading philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, is one of them. In a piece published in the Ottawa Citizen last week, he wrote that the Prime Minister “is pro-war. He thinks that war is something worth doing.

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I drove 78 miles to the 100-mile store

This could be the title of a country song. I have lots of friends who love to shop at The Hundred Mile Store in Creemore, which is kind of a locavore paradise. I love to bug them about it, just because, you see, they’re all from Toronto. So they drive to The Hundred Mile Store — which is 78 miles from downtown Toronto. Okay, that’s not entirely true, they’re usually up in the country anyhow, skiing or whatever, and they pop in — so they drive more like 10 or 20 miles to get there. The point is that in doing so they violate the most important rule of socially-conscious food consumption, which is the “last mile” principle. If you look at carbon impact in particular, what matters most is the last mile — how the food gets from the store to your home, because that’s the inefficient link in the chain, where the big environmental impact is felt (mainly because the food is no longer being bulk delivered, it is disaggregated, so the social cost of transportation skyrockets).… Continue reading

The Greek finance minister on IR game theory

Yanis Varoufakis, the new finance minister of Greece, on international relations game theory in today’s NY Times:

“If anything, my game-theory background convinced me that it would be pure folly to think of the current deliberations between Greece and our partners as a bargaining game to be won or lost via bluffs and tactical subterfuge.

The trouble with game theory, as I used to tell my students, is that it takes for granted the players’ motives. In poker or blackjack this assumption is unproblematic. But in the current deliberations between our European partners and Greece’s new government, the whole point is to forge new motives. To fashion a fresh mind-set that transcends national divides, dissolves the creditor-debtor distinction in favor of a pan-European perspective, and places the common European good above petty politics, dogma that proves toxic if universalized, and an us-versus-them mind-set.”… Continue reading

Affaire HSBC: la pointe de l’iceberg

Au terme d’une enquête de longue haleine, en collaboration avec 60 autres médias issus de 47 pays, le journal Le Monde vient d’exposer au grand jour un vaste système d’évasion fiscale orchestré par l’institution financière britannique HSBC (qui n’en est d’ailleurs pas à son premier scandale)

La nouvelle fait déjà beaucoup parler, notamment à cause des célébrités impliquées, mais les véritables vedettes de l’affaire, ce sont les chiffres : 180,6 milliards d’euro transférés dans le plus grand secret vers Genève, par l’entremise de comptes HSBC appartenant à plus de 100 000 clients et de 20 000 sociétés. Et cela, uniquement entre le 9 novembre 2006 et le 31 mars 2007.

Il s’agit d’activités illicites, il est donc par définition difficile de connaître l’ampleur des sommes impliquées par les structures et mécanismes de l’évasion fiscale. Cette enquête, basée sur des archives numérisées dérobées à la filière suisse de la Banque HSBC, a donc le mérite de jeter une lumière sur cette réalité, même si ce n’est que de façon partielle.… Continue reading

Vaccination is a collective action problem

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the difficulty many people have grasping the logic of collective action problems — where the outcome of an interaction is bad, but where no individual has an incentive to stop doing the thing that is leading to that bad outcome (here).

I’m reminded of this problem every morning these days, since vaccination has been in the news, first with the NHL players, and now with a measles outbreak in Toronto. The debate over vaccination is a perpetual source of frustration for me, because people insist on treating parents who refrain from vaccinating their children as irrational, whereas in most cases they are not being irrational, they are actually free riding, which is perfectly rational, in at least one sense of the term (i.e. the one used by economists). Thus they should be criticized for acting immorally, as opposed to irrationally.… Continue reading