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Why read political economy?

Well, if you’re a Very Bad Person, the kind who presses traffic light buttons repeatedly in the hope the lights will turn red faster, then sitting down to bore through a thick hardback on politico-economic analysis is a relatively cost-effective way to punish yourself.
‘Boring through’ is an apt description of my recent effort in completing Politics, Economics and Welfare by Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, published originally in 1953. Considered a classic upon arrival, it is five hundred and fifty-seven pages of more than I ever wanted to know about union bargaining, details of the command-and-control economy during wartime, the virtues and vices of the price system as a coordinating mechanism and a whole lot on marginal costs.
What made reading the book to the end worthwhile is the same for what makes reading all (ideologically inoffensive) books on political economy worthwhile, which I hope to elaborate briefly below.

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Political economy I believe represents the peak of how …
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Knowing things, with strings attached

The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains make us not one jot the more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was science is in us but opiniatrety. 

This line from philosopher John Locke has been quoted in two (relatively) recent books I’ve read, with opposing interpretations of its legitimacy.

In both books, The Internet of Us and How Do You Know?, the passage from Locke assumes critical importance in assessing both the desirability and the costs of knowing and understanding in today’s information-saturated world.

In The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data, Michael P. Lynch, a philosopher from the University of Connecticut, quotes Locke in his attempt to summarize one of the dominant currents of Enlightenment thought, that of cognitive self-reliance. One of the accomplishments we credit the Enlightenment with is the downplaying of tradition, custom, hearsay and rumour when it comes to forming our world-views. Nullius in ver…

Dwight on YouTube

As far as I am aware, this video of the critic and activist Dwight Macdonald debating William F. Buckley on an episode of Firing Line is the only video of Macdonald on YouTube. 

This is not so remarkable a fact that it demands an intense analysis, but a few observations do I think follow from it (I won’t go too deeply into the video itself).
Firstly, the fact that this forty-eight-minute clip from a television episode first broadcast in May 1967 is available to view for free in its entirety on a website known mainly for cat and prank videos, is remarkable. It speaks to the surprising element of YouTube that among its line-up of flashy-but-meaningless material, a great amount of serious intellectual content can be found.  
Speaking for myself, I’ve benefited enormously from the hundreds of lectures, debates, conversations, interviews and documentaries featuring scholars and academics uploaded to YouTube. These videos have constituted an education in their own right, providing of cours…

Notes on The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

It is often the case that non-fiction books with apocalyptic titles turn out to be a ruse. When China Rules the World (2007, 2012) was a title that was attention-grabbing and scary, in addition to being untrue. Its author Martin Jacques had to at some point in the book make the qualifier that he didn’t mean that China would in a literal sense rule the world. His less dramatic thesis was that it would exercise more influence in the coming decades, tempered by the U.S. and the E.U. and other regional powers. Only in private moments at book tours would Jacques no doubt make the ‘Who Knew?’ confession that his publishers dreamt up the title.

In The Death of Expertise: The Case Against Established and Why it Matters (2017), the qualifier comes in the first few pages. Tom Nichols, former policy wonk in the U.S. Senate and a teacher at the U.S. Naval War College, reassures us that experts are still alive and well. But they are in dire straits.

Like so many titles  beginning with ‘The Death o…

Getting utopia right

As the second millennium came to a close, a time when many were pondering humanity’s past and prospects, historian Russell Jacoby was fretting over our inability to imagine a utopian future.
In a book that saw itself as bucking the trend of anti-utopian polemics that populated the post-war world, The End of Utopia was itself sharpened with a polemical edge. Looking at the intellectual state of the left in his home country of America and abroad, Jacoby saw a scarcity of dare and originality in the one area where historically it had enjoyed a monopoly: imagining society in a vastly different state than it is now.
Jacoby’s argument in The End of Utopia began by taking seriously a thesis few other leftists did, Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history upon the wrapping up of the Cold War. Jacoby credited Fukuyama with indirectly hitting upon the staleness of a political scene robbed of utopian visions (the final paragraph of Fukuyama’s original essay). 'Today socialists…

Politics without Ideas

Everyone has their favourite explanation for the left/right divide. Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio had an especially pithy summary by invoking the difference between Rousseau and Nietzsche: the former believes people are born equal and made unequal by society, the latter believes people are born unequal and artificially forced into equality by society.

My own favourite summary was provided by Dwight Macdonald at the beginning of his essay The Root is Man (1946). Macdonald assumes the years between 1789 and 1928 as the time when everyone knew what the terms left and right meant. Casual readers can grasp why the story starts in 1789 (French Revolution, separation of the Jacobins and the Girondins). But why end in 1928? Because this was the year Stalin formally expelled Trotsky from the Soviet Union.

You can tell immediately that Macdonald’s take bears the imprint of its time. Trotsky’s expulsion, according to Macdonald, triggered the era of ‘Bureaucratic Collectivism’, an amorphous…

Profile: Nicholas Rescher

Usually the statement that you’ve read nine books by a single author is read as a boast. Not so if the author in question is philosopher Nicholas Rescher, whose list of published books exceeds one hundred and sixty.  Allow me to repeat that in case you think it’s a typo. Nicholas Rescher, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, approaching his eighty-ninth year, has written a hundred and sixty books (a conservative count that excludes his own translations of other work and compilations of collected works by others). In 2010 alone, when he was eighty-two years old, Rescher published thirteen books. In 2016 he let down the team by only publishing four books. Loser. 
This prodigious, perhaps insane, productivity is I think casually passed over by commentators as an interesting anecdote to inoculate them from tearing their hair out. His Wikipedia page contains the joke that is passed around about Rescher that he is not one person but a committee. Or maybe f…