Thursday, 25 August 2011

How rich do you feel?

If there is one thing the public school system should be able to achieve, it is to produce adults capable of simple arithmetic. So why are so many of us, including so many with professional degrees and 6 digit salaries, awash with debt? We know how to add up - the costs of our consumption - and we know how to subtract that total from our income and see whether the result is positive or negative. But we just don't do it. Rather we spend according to how rich we feel.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Against lazy claims against democracy in development

The 'Africa analyst' Michelle Sieff  has recently argued in The African Lions: An Authoritarian Challenge to Development Theory* that democracy is not necessary for development. She identifies  three 'African Lions' - Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia - that are not democracies but are achieving good development results. Therefore Development Theory must be overthrown? I think not.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Welfare State Requires Immigration Controls

Immigration controls by rich countries are mean. They close out the poor and vulnerable who only want the chance to make a better life. They are characterised by arbitrary rules whose effects can be inhumane - breaking up families, locking up children, deporting good people to uncertain futures in godforsaken countries, etc. So the left is quite comfortable blaming conservatives for the whole idea. But in reality, social democrats need immigration controls for their cherished welfare state to function. They're just happy to let the conservatives take the rap.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Truth in the news

The clerisy are the 'intellectual' department of the bourgeoisie. We're the people who went to university and now work in non-manual jobs as corporate or government functionaries, subscribe to the New Yorker (or local equivalent) and read proper books (or at least book reviews). We tend to have intellectual pretensions and liberal political inclinations. We tend also to have strong enlightenment values, in particular a respect for  truth and a demand for rationality. Despite, or perhaps because of, our intellectual pride we are continually astonished to discover that the rest of the world doesn't think like us. Consider the tabloid press.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Bad Arguments from History: The Case Against Free Trade

Ha-Joon Chang argues that there is a paradox at the heart of free trade economics: if it's so great why didn't the countries who are now rich do it when they were developing? My answer: because governments have always been willing to listen to protectionists like Chang who flatter their vanity and give intellectual cover to their venality.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Academic ethics under competition

Competition is all the rage. When properly set up it is supposed to channel the passions of self-interest via the mechanism of rivalry into increased performance that benefits everyone. The model was developed in sports and then applied to business (it is the essence of Adam Smith's invisible hand) and has now well and truly arrived in academia. Competition is usually evaluated in terms of  efficiency or, if you're lucky, justice, but here I want to focus on the harms that intense competition may do to the ethical character of individuals. In particular, how do the characteristic academic virtues of industriousness, honesty, and curiosity fare under competition?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Elections are about more than counting votes

Democratic elections are generally characterised as a competition between political parties for votes, and hence power. Supposedly 'the people' are presented with a menu of options by the politicos and make a single choice from that menu depending on what they prefer on election day. Social choice theory is the academic discipline most concerned with elections and it focuses on analysing the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of counting votes in terms of fairness. But something is missing from its analysis: elections are about more than counting up votes. Elections are also an extended strategic engagement between the voters and the politicos to decide what goes onto the menu of the ballot card.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Philosophy and happiness?

Taken all together how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life as a whole these days on a scale of 1-10?

Me: I literally have no idea what that question means.

Sociologist: Yes, we find that philosophers say that quite a lot. But ordinary people seem quite capable of understanding it and giving a sensible answer.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Human nature and the human condition

Aspects of human nature - like our capacity for language, reasoning or emotions - are amenable to scientific analysis that looks at where they come from and how they work, using tools like evolutionary biology, genetics, or neuroscience. But not everything about us that is important is innate. Many deeply entrenched features and characteristics of human life are contingent not essential. They come from our human history, not our human biology. Such aspects of the human condition - like marriage, sports, and war - resist scientific analysis and must be studied in a more humanistic way.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Is America a civilised country? A view from Europe

Sometimes it's hard to see your own society objectively when you're living inside it. So, America, this post is about how you look like from outside, at least from Europe. It's an unflattering picture of the achievements and direction of your country on three important dimensions of civilisation: democratic government, criminal justice, and social mobility. I suggest that you are not only falling behind the rest of the civilised world, but also falling short of your own standards.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Criminals are Masters of Moral Anthropology

It is often said that criminals lack a sense of morality. If this is taken to mean that criminals don't understand the difference between right and wrong this is demonstrably false. In fact a great deal of successful criminality – I mean the profitable kind rather than say drunken violence on a Saturday night – depends on a nuanced appreciation of moral norms that is often much more sophisticated and thorough than their targets, together with a willingness to ruthlessly exploit them. They are accomplished moral anthropologists and parasites upon morality. Consider the con-artist and the extortionist.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Morality vs Ethics: the problem with trolleys

"Aha" says the Moral Philosopher triumphantly, polishing his monocle ferociously with a large handkerchief. "You have contradicted yourself! If you say yes to the first case you should say yes to the second, for you have already revealed your acceptance of the principle that one person should be sacrificed for the many."

Sunday, 5 December 2010

‘I bring good news about our bourgeois lives’: Why business is good for your soul

Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce is a bold attempt to rehabilitate the much maligned bourgeoisie as the focus of a positive inter-twining of capitalism and ethics. Who are the bourgeoisie? People with middle-class values, temperament, and position.  People like us.  McCloskey argues, building on her extensive reading in economics, history, philosophy, religion and ethics, that we should recognise and embrace our bourgeois identity. For it is an ethical way of life that is not only instrumentally successful (showing up in our ever increasing wealth and freedom), but intrinsically valuable (showing up in the meaningfulness and richness of our middle-class lives).

Monday, 15 November 2010

A Critique of the Modern University part II: Research

I previously argued that universities fail at education, partly because academics are so committed to the life of a scholar: they want to learn, not teach (see part I). So perhaps the real contribution universities make to society comes from their research? On the one hand universities do produce a lot of it; on the other hand it is rarely useful to the rest of us. The struggle for real and important knowledge requires - surprise surprise - more than just setting up an academic bureaucracy and giving it money.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A Critique of the Modern University part I: Education

Universities have become an increasingly significant part of the economy and modern life, affecting the lives of millions of people. But what do they really do for us? The most important arguments for the social value of the contemporary university system are its contributions to education and research (see part II). Unfortunately universities currently fail at both.