Friday, 1 August 2014

Uganda's laws against homosexuality - America's fault?

John Oliver, and numerous others, attribute Uganda's new anti-gay laws to the influence of shadowy or fringe American evangelical organisations.

Yes, on the one hand, members of those organisations seem to have had close contact with Ugandan parliamentarians, been on TV  etc. But so what? Any good plot requires a motive as well as bad guys. Where is it?

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Art for the people

If the value of visual art lies in the subject's aesthetic engagement with it then the originality and uniqueness of the object is irrelevant. Art should be copied. Great art should be copied more.

If great art belongs to us all, to humanity in general, then it shouldn't be locked up in museums in our capital cities. Collections serve art nerds as historical archives serve history nerds. They are an exclusive and exclusionary approach to curating art that hasn't made sense for the last 100 years, since we invented modern techniques for reproduction.

If art is an important part of civic life, training us in critical judgement and giving us an experience of beauty against which to measure the rest of our lives, then art should be free and it should be part of everyday life. Reproductions of great art works should be displayed in public libraries, bus-stops, schools, subway cars, providing all of us with windows into the deepest kinds of human experience that put the functional sign posting and dreary meretriciousness of commercial advertising in their place.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Is SCOTUS racist?

Recent US supreme court rulings against significant parts of the voting rights act and affirmative action by public universities have been interpreted by the Democratic left as supporting the segregationism these laws/policies were designed to overcome. But I think the Republican commentators on this issue have a point when they say that America has moved on from its Jim Crow past. It is the Democrats who are acting like conservatives here, wedded to decades old positions and rejecting any need to revisit their reasoning and justification.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Market prices require the unpaid labour of consumers

When governments talk about liberalising sectors of the economy, such as the household energy or health insurance sectors, they always talk about the efficiency gains of having more competition between companies. Because consumers will be free to move between different 'providers' companies will have a strong incentive to reduce prices/improve quality to attract and keep them, thus increasing total welfare (what economists call 'efficiency'). But this all depends on consumers doing a lot of unpaid work as the new regulators of the market. Whether or not this work will be recompensed by the gains consumers make in terms of lower prices is an empirical rather than an a priori theoretical question.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

How can America have too much politics and too little?

I'm not American, but I find American politics weirdly fascinating. One of the stranger things about it is that there is an apparent contradiction between the extent and fervour of political contestation and the general apathy with which the majority treat it. Perhaps both phenomena are related.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Business ethics can't escape the black hole of prudence

Business ethics should be a fascinating and important field of applied ethics. But as an interdisciplinary field it has no natural home in either philosophy and business faculties. Since business schools have the money, that is where nearly all research and teaching on business ethics takes place. But the result is the philosophical impoverishment of field - all business and no ethics.

The bottom line rules: 'ethics' must pay its own way.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The destruction of indigenous peoples: sin of history or historical inevitability?

The destruction of indigenous peoples by Europeans, perhaps most dramatically in the colonisation of the Americas, is or should be a point of shame in many countries today. In many cases frankly genocidal policies were embraced whose evil was on a par with the horrors of the twentieth century, and which many at the time condemned with the resources both of moral theology and the secular enlightenment.

And yet, even if the colonists had refrained from evil - indeed, even if they refrained from colonising those new lands without the consent of their indigenous residents - would contact really have worked out much better for those indigenous peoples in the end? There are at least two reasons to suppose that they would still have suffered immense disruptions and probable destruction.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Does Washington need to bring back pork barrel politics?

The trend to extreme partisanship in American politics may have diverse origins and causes going back several decades, but at least one recent change has made it worse: the 2010 moratoriums on earmarks by the Senate and Congress.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Another reason to study philosophy: better professors

There are many reasons to study philosophy that are to do with its intrinsically more interesting content. For example, whatever the academic discipline, philosophy can go one or more levels up and ask deeper questions. But suppose you are considering different university programmes and your main concern is the quality of the faculty: you want to get a real education and you think that the opportunity to interact with really brilliant minds is an essential part of that. In such circumstances you should definitely choose philosophy.

A university is not a corporate entity, not a marketplace. One consequence of this is that compensation for academic staff tends to be relatively egalitarian rather than reflecting what those people would receive 'in the market' (I draw all this from Joseph Heath's fascinating book, Filthy Lucre). It follows that how much academics get paid will be very different in the university that outside of it. In particular, academics with skills in high demand elsewhere, such as financial economists or engineers, will often have to take a pay-cut to work for the university. In contrast, academics with skills that are in almost no demand elsewhere - philosophers, but also lots of the other humanities - will get a massive pay rise if they manage to get a job at a university.

The result is fairly obvious. For people trained in philosophy a job in academia is the best job they could ever have hoped for, while for business economists etc it is at best a fall-back position if nothing else they do works out. Thus, the number of highly qualified candidates applying for each tenure track job in philosophy departments is in the hundreds or thousands, while the number applying for jobs in financial economics is a mere handful. So philosophy departments can afford to be very picky and only hire very good philosophers, while other departments will have to make the best of the poor selection they have. Therefore, philosophy departments will have better professors than say business economics and you should choose philosophy.

Caveat. Of course, the very reason philosophy departments (and the other useless humanities departments) are so damned good is that there are no jobs in these areas outside the university! So if you are concerned with living the good life in terms of making a good living, you should go to the worst departments and study econometrics or some such soul destroying muck.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The principal-agent problem in modern science

A recent article in The Economist repeats what many have known for some time. The scientific academic establishment is at risk of intellectual collapse. The central reason for this is not that science is difficult to do well (though it is) but that many scientists no longer seem improperly motivated to do good science. And that has to do with the principal agent-problem in academic research and the main tool developed to address it: publish or perish.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

In a democracy, who decides what national security requires?

Should the state be allowed to keep secrets from its own citizens. Obviously, yes. There are at least some facts that would present a genuine national security risk - and thus undermine the security of every citizen -  if they were generally known and hence available to the enemies of the country. Facts about military strategic planning, weapon systems weaknesses, diplomatic communications protocols, for example, as well as the counter-espionage methods used to secure those facts from hostile governments. Society as a whole can prettily easily agree that the public interest is served by the government keeping some things secret, and that it is even a duty of governments to do so. That is why democratically elected legislatures pass and uphold laws enabling and protecting government secrecy.

But there is a second and much more contentious question about government secrecy: who should decide what should be kept secret? (This relates to the core question of politics: who decides who gets to decide?) Here things get more difficult. This is where we get the Snowden problem.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Reconsidering the inter-personal criminal justice system

I've been reading a fascinating book - The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington, an historical biography of Frantz Schmidt, a 16th century German executioner and judicial torturer who kept a journal of his work. This kind of work:

It's very well done and I'm not surprised to see it positively reviewed everywhere. Among other interesting points, Harrington's description of Schmidt's public examination by members of the guild of executioners at the end of his apprenticeship reminded me of my doctoral defense! (Not so surprising, perhaps. University means guild, after all, and the rituals of public accreditation as a journeyman haven't changed so much.)

Let me focus here on another insight into this vanished early modern world. The context of Schmidt's career as the official executioner at Nuremburg - a full-time, well-paid civil service post - was a transition in the system of criminal justice from an ad hoc inter-personal system to the rationalised state system that is still with us. This move increased the consistency - especially the procedural consistency - of the criminal justice system. But it also dramatically increased the number of crimes, and the number of punishments.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Education is sacred; deception is its product

One of the strange things about education, and one that blinds many people who work in it, is that education is supposed to be intrinsically valuable for everyone involved. That is, children, and later young adults, are all supposed to come to love education for its own sake. This is even seen as the metric of successful teaching. The great teacher is one who manages to bring her students to appreciate and enjoy knowledge and the process of learning, to infect them with the passion for knowledge she is presumed to hold. (That's certainly what I try to do.)

There is a problem with this model - actually many problems. On the one hand, education is supposed to increase people's human capital (including the social/cultural capital that parents are anxious to create in their children to help them make their way to the top of the tree). This is why governments and parents pay for it and force children and young adults into it. On the other hand, students are supposed to feel that chemistry, geography, math, etc are all deeply wonderful in their own right. If they do not at least pretend to like what they are studying then the people who run education are apt to become deeply offended. (Never ask, "Is this going to be on the test?")This clash leads to a fundamental incoherence in the education system, of which students themselves are all too aware.

Monday, 7 October 2013

US Government Shutdown 2.0: Are the Republicans acting legitimately?

Yes and no.

On the one hand, the Republicans are making use of a legitimate power granted by the constitution. The US constitution is famous for its checks and balances to mitigate the risk of tyranny. Hence its separation of powers between the three branches of government. These measures were intended to protect the integrity of the republic, for example by protecting those who lost the contest for power from being tyrannised over or excluded from future electoral contests. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Canadian multiculturalism and identity politics

There is a general impression that multiculturalism is a liberal idea. A recent trip to Canada brought home to me how far that is from being the case. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The security state cannot provide freedom from fear

Whether or not the security state is effective in countering terrorism with projects like PRISM is questionable. It is certainly highly debatable whether it is cost-effective in terms of the money it costs and the civil liberties it usurps. But there is another argument against the security state besides its inefficiency, which is that it is a fundamentally incoherent project. Its justification is to provide citizens with freedom from fear, yet in order for the security state to gain the powers and money it considers necessary to achieve this it must relentlessly terrify the public with claims about how real and significant the terrorist threat is! Thus, the security state is constitutively unable to achieve what it is supposed to do, and itself becomes a greater source of public fear about terrorism than terrorists themselves could hope to be. 

Friday, 19 July 2013

Market failures in the media industry: the case of the pregnant princess

Vast numbers of journalists from around the world appear to be gathered around the home and hospital of princess Kate. One cannot help thinking that this is rather inefficient. Especially since all they are really doing is waiting for something to happen, at which point they will all see and report the same thing as each other. Given the waves of cost-cutting that have swept through journalism, especially foreign news coverage, in recent years, this concentration of remaining resources must be coming at the expense of other - dare I say more important - news events. Like the UN's war in the Congo, Venezuela's political crisis; the Arab Spring's complications; etc. If one takes the social purpose of the news media to be to inform the public of significant domestic and world events (rather than merely to entertain us) then this presents an extreme example of how that industry fails.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Do straight lines really cause civil wars?

Part of the legacy of colonialism is a lot of straight lines on maps, especially in Africa and the Middle East. The colonial powers drew up those lines for administrative convenience and geopolitics, and didn't care that they often split up ethnic groups or stuck different ones together. The countries which eventually claimed their independence were established within those arbitrary boundaries. 

The claim one comes across again and again is that these colonial boundaries have done tremendous harm by creating unstable societies prone to sectarian conflict, as in Rwanda, Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, and now Syria. These countries never had a chance to succeed as modern nation states because they were never really nations. And that's our fault. Really?

Monday, 24 June 2013

Is Snowden a traitor? Not if America is still a republic

Some Americans have accused Edward Snowden of treason for revealing state secrets. But in a republic treason is defined not as betrayal of the government but as betrayal of the state. It is a foundational principle of republicanism that the state should not be confused with the government, and the interests of the state should not be confused with the interests of those who rule it. That is how monarchies and totalitarian regimes like to operate. 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Love cannot be compelled

Laurie Shrage recently published an article in the Stone questioning, Is Forced Fatherhood Fair? She extends the feminist argument against coercing women into motherhood to the case of biological fathers. Yet one should not only consider whether the assignment of parental obligations is fair, but what kind of obligations one is talking about. Specifically, what is it that children need or deserve, and are those things that can be considered as an obligation on particular people?