Saturday, May 03, 2003

Light blogging

Light blogging for the next couple of days, as I get ready to migrate over to Movable Type. Did the hard stuff yesterday, getting it up and running; today, I'm just goofing around with templates, rss etc, while I wait for my new domain name to propagate properly. Improved service shortly.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Ethnic discrimination

Eugene Volokh links to a piece on Francis Boyle at the University of Illinois, who complains that he's been discriminated against because he objected to a "sacrilegious" pub-crawl organized by the Ph.D. students every St. Patrick's Day. Funnily enough, I experienced precisely the opposite form of discrimination during my grad school days in Washington - nobody, nobody was prepared to buy me a drink for being Irish on St. Patrick's Day, despite 100% authentic Republic of Ireland passport, brogue, and all of the other Hibernian accoutrements that one could possibly ask for. Not fair at all, if you ask me.
Dictionaries of Imaginary Places

The Volokhs (most recently Jacob Levy) have been blogging about maps of imaginary places. Which is a funny coincidence, as I've just started to read a book that Maria gave me for my birthday last year, Franco Moretti's Atlas of the European Novel. Moretti takes inspiration from the Annalistes and Benedict Anderson in his rather nifty exploration of the geographies of 19th century novels, with maps showing the relationships between places in novels by Jane Austen and others. This not only shows us the places that novels describe, but also the terra incognita (spaces that are ignored in these novels), as well as the relationship between geography and plotline, and between the places described and the contemporary marketplace for these books. I have some way to go before I finish the book - but it looks like being a bit of a tour de force. Will probably stick up a review on the blog sooner or later. Simultaneously, I'm reading Edward Carey's new novel, "Alva and Irva," which shows an exemplary degree of care in constructing an entirely imaginary city - apparently the author modeled his city in clay (with eponymous protagonists as giant figures dominating the landscape) before starting to write about it.

Update: Looks like Cosma Shalizi beat me to the punch on reviewing Moretti.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Megan McArdle has a lengthy - and rather silly - post on economics as a fortress built upon the solid foundations of the Real Scientific Mindset, as opposed to political science and sociology, which are shoddily built outposts of the humanities. In so doing so, she shows us yet again that Economics 101 and "Atlas Shrugged" is a dangerous combination. Not that I'm opposed to economic methodology - far from it - unlike Chris Lawrence I'm one of those political scientists who uses economic theory quite a lot. But I'm continually surprised at how often people who don't necessarily know all that much about economics tend to overestimate its "scientific" validity, especially if their politics are libertarian.

Daniel Davies, as usual, gets it right in the comments section for McArdle's post - the kinds of economic theory that McArdle etc are interested in are partial equilibrium models, whose general scientific validity is precisely diddly-squat. Unfortunately, McArdle doesn't seem to know what the difference between partial and general equilibrium is. Donald (now Deirdre - long story) McCloskey has a lovely little book called "The Rhetoric of Economics" which shows how dependent partial equilibrium models are on their initial assumptions - by jiggering these a little, you can get whatever result you want, more or less. Models of this sort are little more than "Just So" stories with nice differentials. While there is such a thing as general equilibrium analysis (the Arrow-Debreu model), that provides more general results, it relies on hopelessly unrealistic assumptions (as its co-creator, Ken Arrow cheerfully admits), and thus is perhaps more interesting as an abstract result in social choice theory, than as a specific contribution to our scientific knowledge of how markets work. Game theory - don't start me on game theory. A notorious little result called "the folk theorem" means that pretty well everything goes in the infinitely iterated games that are needed to model moderately complex social interactions - the best that economists and game theoretic social scientists can do is to show that whatever particular constellation of strategies that they're interested in is an equilibrium, happily ignoring the fact that there are umpteen billion other possible equilibria out there which are equally plausible from a game theoretical point of view. Game theorists have been engaged in the search for convincing equilibrium refinements that would get rid of this problem for decades; Ariel Rubinstein (a very distinguished game theorist) rather rudely dismisses this as analogous to the quest for the Holy Grail.

Not only does McArdle overestimate the scientific power of economics, but she underestimates the contribution of political science and sociology. James Joyner is right on the nail - the problem is that the subject matter of political science is vastly more complicated than that of economics. And it's not only Joyner who says this. The late Mancur Olson, who straddled the division between economics and political science rather nicely, talks of how politics involves goods that are "indivisible", and thus vastly more difficult to measure - politics is more complicated than economics because it doesn't involve goods that can be divided up into neat and discrete little bundles. Doug North, who has a Nobel Prize in economics says that an unthinking extension of economic theory to political science is a Very Bad Idea, precisely because politics is so much more complex. Instead, he advocates a transaction costs approach based on the assumptions of costly information, of subjective models on the part of actors to explain their environment and of imperfect enforcement of agreements.

As I said, there's something a little strange about the marriage of economics (particularly public choice theory) and libertarianism - Julian Sanchez described it quite well in a post that doesn't seem to be available anymore, where he talks about how public choice offers a kind of legitimating scientific ideology for libertarian ideas. And it is an ideology - and not all that much more than that. Which isn't to say that economics can't be used quite well to illustrate libertarian concepts - but it can be used to illustrate other views of society very nearly as easily, and with precisely as much "scientific" validity. Which is to say, none at all. Where economic and rational choice approaches to explaining human behaviour have their value is not in scientific validity in any general sense of the word, but rather in logical consistency. Constructing a game theoretic model forces you to be precise about what microfoundations you are employing, what preferences actors have over outcomes etc, and if it's done right, it allows you to be sure that the outcomes of the model are consistent with the premises. And that's it. Lousy arguments will still remain unconvincing, even if they're tarted up as sub-game perfect equilibria. Good arguments will still be good - for reasons that can't be reduced to a constellation of actors, strategies and outcomes. Partial equilibrium models and game theory provide us with a good language for describing certain kinds of social and economic relationships, and for testing the internal consistency of the arguments that we make about these relationships. They don't provide us with much of a scientific foundation beyond that.

Update: Kieran Healy fillets McArdle with savageness and style.

And Dan Drezner (temporarily compering with the Volokhs) physically winces at McArdle's post.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Bloggered links

Just a quick note prompted by the continuing Emergency - lots of people seem to be unaware that bloggered permalinks can be unbloggered by republishing your archives. Me - I've been trying to move to Movable Type - but encountering technical difficulties with the university server - will probably be shifting to TypePad when it's up and running.
On the bookshelf

Eugene Volokh blogs about Sean McMullen's "Souls in the Great Machine," and "Voyage of the Shadowmoon," both of which he evidently liked quite a lot. I've only read the former, but couldn't see the attraction myself - tolerably well written, and nice background, but I thought there were problems in plotting, and various SF tropes that didn't quite come off as believable. I find China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station," and "The Scar" much more to my taste - splendidly written, and -open- in a way that most science fantasy isn't - they give a real sense of a very complex world, which works according to its own peculiar logic, rather than being custom-built to fit the constraints of a bog-standard trilogy. John Holbo is also a Mieville fan, and is promising a post on the relationship between Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar, Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork (which as the similarity of names suggests, started as a parodic version of Lieber's city), and Mieville's New Crobuzon. But Mieville comes about dangerously close to Real Literature (although it's still fun) - if it's splendidly written trash that you want, you can't go far wrong with George R.R.Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. Jacob and Matt can keep their Robert Jordans and Brian Herberts - for guilty pleasure reading, Martin just can't be beat. Complex politics (borrowing liberally from the War of the Roses), decent writing, and best of all Martin's willingness, which is entirely uncharacteristic of the genre, to kill off sympathetic characters at unexpected moments. The covers on the US editions are pretty awful - the first book, "A Game of Thrones" has a Fabio look-alike staring broodingly into the middle distance - but the contents are quite addictive. The only problem is that book number four in the series -still- isn't out, nearly two years after it was supposed to be published - causing extraordinary angst to me and a legion of other George R.R. Martin junkies. Expect an extended blogging silence from both me and Maria (also a fan) when it finally hits the shelves.

Update: moving onto the sublime, Patrick Belton displays excellent taste in touting John McGahern's new saga (link to Oxblog - permalink bloggered) - which I'm still waiting on myself, but have heard wonderful things about from friends. Apparently it's one of those books where not much happens in plain, but very beautiful prose. McGahern is now a sort of elder statesman of Irish literature, but used to be denounced by bishops from the pulpit; Ireland has changed a lot in the last thirty years.
Markets and spontaneous order

Lynne Kiesling has an interesting post up about "slugging" in the DC area; local "High Occupancy Vehicle" rules say that vehicles travelling on certain highways have to have three individuals inside, in order to limit congestion. This has led to a self-referential little social world in which people who would otherwise drive into work on their own, pick up strangers in order to meet the requirement. A whole informal social infrastructure has built up around this, with focal points (places where drivers know that they can find potential passengers and vice versa), informal rules and the like. I remember a friend telling me of similar arrangements that have sprung up in San Francisco. As Lynne says, this is a nice example of Hayekian spontaneous social order; however, I disagree when she describes this as evidence of "market processes in action." Sure, it's exchange - but as economic sociologists tell us, not all forms of exchange in the absence of the state are markets. More to the point - should we necessarily and always celebrate "spontaneous order" as providing superior results to more politicized forms of exchange, as libertarians would tell us? Apart from the fact that the example at hand, "slugging," happens in the shadow of state regulation, there are sound theoretical reasons to believe that spontaneous order can involve persistent, and substantial distributional inequalities. This is the main subject of a book by my friend, Jack Knight, Institutions and Social Conflict, which gives a nice game-theoretical illustration of the mechanisms whereby power inequalities between actors can lead to informal institutional rules that persistently skew distributional outcomes in favour of more powerful actors, even in the absence of the state, standard politics, or centralized bargaining. A cut-down version of the argument is available here in a paper that Jack and I have cowritten.
Scholar bloggers

A whole lot of recently discovered scholar-bloggers have been added to the blogroll, many of them courtesy of Andrew R. Cline's list of "professors who blog." I reckon that the blogroll now has a reasonably comprehensive list of the social sciences, with holes in the humanities and big gaping chasms in information technology and the hard sciences. Anyone who knows of other scholarly bloggers who meet the criteria, let me know!

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Weber and academic discourse

Timothy Burke has started off a fascinating debate (although Matt Yglesias isn't as enthused) on the circumstances under which academics can or can't have serious intellectual conversations; Kieran Healy, Invisible Adjunct and Chris Bertram all weigh in. Kieran channels Max Weber (and specifically, Weber's wonderful essay,"Science as a Vocation") as an alternative to Burke's Nietzche. As Weber says, there's an inevitable impulse towards specialization in modern science, and it's by no means necessarily a bad thing. But there's another relevant argument in "Science as a Vocation" that Kieran doesn't mention, which leans heavily on Nietzche, and thus supports Burke's view of academic life. Weber makes it clear that there simply isn't much scope for scholarly discussion between individuals espousing different world views. The most that science can do, in Weber's account, is to ensure that world views are "responsible;" that is, that each view is rationally articulated, so that its consequences and implications are fully understood. Except within these very narrow limits, science has no business telling anyone which world views they should or should not adopt; that's the business of prophets. Each world view, in the end, rests on a set of priors that are not themselves open to scientific explication or analysis. In Weber's understanding, individuals must choose a view of the world and act upon it, but they also must remain aware that their choice is radically contingent; there is no underlying basis for determining whether they are "right" or "wrong" in their choice, and no way to determine whether their choice is better than that of someone else who has made a completely different, and radically incompatible one. As Weber describes it;

"So long as life is immanent and is interpreted in its own terms, it knows only of an unceasing struggle of these gods with each other. Or speaking directly, the ultimate possible attitudes toward life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion. Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice."

In other words, Weber thinks that serious debate among different viewpoints is highly unlikely to result in agreement; one simply can't convince someone else that their world view is flawed on rational grounds; a theme that he develops further in "Politics as a Vocation." In PaV, Weber contends that cannot define an ultimate "goal" of politics, or even weigh the respective merits of different policies or political outcomes. There are as many versions of the politically good as there are world views, and there is no ultimate benchmark against which the validity of these world views can be tested. His view is a tragic and individualistic one; politics, in its richest sense is not about reaching consensus so much as it is about the heroic individual taking a stand, and following it through, even though she knows that there isn't any fundamentally grounded justification for the stand that she has taken. "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders" and so forth. If Weber is right, then the lack of real debate among academics that Burke deplores may be unavoidable. Academic debate (or other kinds of debate) may simply not be much good at resolving the vital issues of life that people disagree on. Of course, I think that Weber is much too pessimistic in his account of science and politics, but his argument is rich, nuanced, and important.
Zapp's revenge

John Holbo is taking a break from Stanley Fish-bashing; or more precisely, he's decided to write it up as an academic paper instead. As Matthew Yglesias says, there's a trade-off between blogging and tenure-worthy activities - something I should be paying more attention to myself; I've got a book to write this summer. But anyway, John's posts remind me of a Stanley Fish story which I heard from a friend who also teaches in the humanities in Duke. Apparently, there's a door in the Duke University English Department, with a rather elaborate brass nameplate, inscribed in flowing italics with the words "Professor Morris Zapp." Now, as evry fule kno, Morris Zapp is a fictional character in David Lodge's academic comedies, a fictional character who is, moreover, rather transparently based on Stanley Fish. So hipper-than-thou first year Ph.D students arrive in Duke every year- they all know about the Fish-Zapp connection, and assume that Stanley Fish is demonstrating that he can take a joke, by putting this nameplate on his door. And they all line up outside so that they can talk to the Great Man, and inveigle him into becoming their Ph.D. advisor. However, the door in question is a broom closet that is perpetually locked, so that they wait in vain, until some kindly passer-by lets them know that they've been had. It's called "Zapp's Revenge" in the Department.
The Semantics of ugh!

Caveman linguistics courtesy of Caveat Lector. It's splendid horse-flop, impossible to resist from its opening line on, "Linguistics is a rich and efflorescent field, being enriched and fertilized by the day."

Monday, April 28, 2003

Who was drunk as a rule

A new addition to the blogroll, that I've been meaning to put up there for months, Slugger O'Toole. Indispensable if you've any interest in what's happening in the peace process (and otherwise) in Northern Ireland. It's doing some particularly fine reading of the tea-leaves at the moment; murky maneuvrings between Unionists, Nationalists, Republicans and the UK and Irish government over an IRA statement that gives everyone else most (but crucially, not all) of what they've been looking for.
Multilateralism and democracy building

Via Oxblog, this very interesting WP op-ed by Rachel Belton. Belton argues that international coalitions do a lousy job at democratizing countries: they tend to get caught up in infighting among different countries, are bad at seeing the big picture, and tend to overwhelm local governments. In contrast, she argues that the US military has overseen the only two successful democratizations post WWII - Japan and Germany*: it can be trusted to see what's needed, give leeway to local authorities, and get out as soon as it's succeeded. Belton has some good points - but also (as is probably inevitable in an op-ed) gives a pretty one-sided account of things. She elides the distinction between international coalitions (ad-hoc, necessarily fractious) and international organizations (rather different creatures, with their own benefits and drawbacks). International organizations can - and have - played a very important role in bedding down democracy - in a variety of cases that Belton doesn't consider. Successful democratizations with substantial outside intervention aren't just limited to Germany and Japan - they include Portugal, Spain and Greece (where the EU played a key role) and Central/Eastern Europe in the 1990's. In both cases, as I've argued before, the EU played a key role; it helped support pro-democracy forces within these countries before democratisation, and then provided these countries with a set of external institutions that bolstered democracy once it had taken root. Something similar happened in the three Baltic countries - Estonia and Latvia in particular - which faced a serious risk of imploding in the early-mid 1990's due to ethnic tensions. With EU support, the OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities brokered a set of democratic compromises (changes in institutions and laws) which provided the basis for solid and flourishing democracy in these countries; something that few would have predicted at an earlier juncture. The reason that these multilateral organizations have been successful in these instances is that they were able to portray themselves as relatively disinterested - genuinely committed to supporting democratic norms rather than in it for the money and power. In specific instances such as instability in the Baltics, they could legitimately broker compromises that weren't liked by all the domestic actors in question, but that were perceived as genuine efforts to promote and sustain democratic institutions.

The basic point is a simple one - there's something important about the relationship between "thick" multilateral institutions and democracy that isn't captured by Belton's arguments. Broadly based multilateral organizations provide a degree of legitimacy that single countries, such as the US, simply don't have, especially just after they've told most of the rest of the world to go shove it. Any regime which is set up by the US is likely to have enormous problems of democratic legitimacy with its own people, with neighboring countries, and with the world in general. International organizations such as the UN may be poor substitutes for genuinely legitimate international actors in some ways, but they're what we've got. And they have (at least potentially) the capacity to act as neutral arbitrers, in a way that invading unilateralists don't. US actions will inevitably be perceived to stem from the narrow and selfish interests that America has in the region - oil, geo-strategic positioning etc - rather than any heartfelt concern for the well being and wishes of the Iraqi people. Bluntly put, this will almost inevitably mean that any regime installed by the US will be regarded as a puppet regime, will be unstable, and will thus have to resort to all sorts of nasty behavior to stay in power. The US couldn't have chosen a worse way to set about creating democracy in the region - and contra Belton, its biggest problem is precisely that it has rejected any serious role for multilateral organizations.

*NB that the French and English had a role in building democracy in Germany post WW-II as well as the US.
bloggers in the news

Am sitting down watching NewsHour on PBS, waiting for the special report that they're doing on blogging, but scholar-blogger Juan Cole has already made an appearance in an unrelated segment, talking about the prospects for democracy in Iraq. The revolution is underway ...
Crying wolf

A lot of people have been blogging about this ABC News article, which suggests that the administration was being, shall we say, a little disingenuous in hyping up Iraq as a clear and present danger to US citizens. Not exactly news, but interesting that sources within the administration have now confirmed it. It's worrying though, to see how the administration's policy on Iraq has fed into the current, very serious problems that it's facing in North Korea. The administration has sought to use Iraq as a chastening example that might chasten other regimes that might be interested in supporting terrorism or developing WMDs. But it may have directly the opposite effect. In North Korea, as my U of T colleague David Welch has suggested, action against Iraq, and rhetoric about the "Axis of Evil" has been perceived as a direct threat of invasion, very probably helping to push the North Koreans into hastening their nuclear program. Iran, similarly, has clearly been signalling that it may have nukes too, in the presumption that this makes it less likely that the US will invade. The US invasion of Iraq has been perceived as beating the bejasus out of a rather toothless tiger; if Iraq had a successful post-sanctions regime nuclear weapons program, we've yet to see evidence of it. But the US has approached North Korea much more gingerly, precisely because of the worry that Pyongyang has a nuclear missile or two salted away. This gives a clear message to any dictator with half-way serious ambitions of threatening world peace. If you don't have nuclear weapons, but are perceived by the US as someone who might develop them at some indefinite point in the future, then you run the risk of invasion. If you do have nuclear weapons and delivery systems, you probably don't have anything to worry about. Therefore, if you can, you should develop nukes in short order, creating as much informational ambiguity as possible about whether you do or don't have them in the interim. In short, a more aggressive and threatening US posture may encourage rather than discourage nuclear proliferation, at least among states that are already close to creating weapons.