Thursday, April 01, 2010


This entertaining Gawker post (via Jonathan Chait) about frequent google searches for celebrities-- and the constant recurrence of one in particular-- prompted a few minutes of fooling around to come up with the following about prominent academics.

First of all, I think it's noteworthy what google gives you when you just type in the word "is" . Try it and see.

But on with the show. Google's suggested questions:

Is Cass Sunstein

Is Cornel West
wife white
married to a white woman
a Christian

Is Larry Summers

Is Milton Friedman
still alive

Is Henry Louis Gates
married to a white woman

Is Paul Krugman
a liberal
a democrat

Is Rawls
a utilitarian

Is Tyler Cowen

Is Weber
a functionalist
a jewish name

Is Michael Ignatieff

Is Michael Sandel

and, best of all:

Is John Mearsheimer

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Books in political theory

Good news: Cambridge is bringing Judith Shklar's Freedom and Independence: A Study of the Political Ideas of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind back into print. It's been hard to find for a long time.

Other books of interest, either newly released, about to be released, or newly learned about by me:

Fonna Forman Barilai, Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy: Cosmopolitanism and Moral Theory, from the Cambridge "Ideas in Context" series;

my colleague Christina Tarnopolsky's Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato's Gorgias and the Politics of Shame, Princeton;

Melvin Rogers, The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy, Columbia;

(The above three books will all be discussed at author-meets-critics roundtables at the CPSA meeting in June)

and Ryan Hanley, Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue, out last year from Cambridge but for some reason I only learned about it last weekend.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I've been known to complain...

I've been known to complain about Phi Beta Cons, the uninteresting National Review blog about higher education. I can easily imagine a place for a website filled with smart and well-informed conservative commentary on the academy, and I think it'd be a useful thing. But it would have to not consist of endless complaints about all forms of affirmative action save for alumni preferences and football admits; whines that Very Serious Studies by National Review freelancers aren't making it onto college curricula; jokes about political correctness that were the state of the comedic are in 1990 or so; and griping that the kids these days are having the sex.

There's lots of talk about the student-loan reform at PBC right now, little of it enlightening in the slightest. But at least it's not PBC, but rather The Corner, that came up with this gem. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander issues a bunch of dull talking points about the reform, and how it turns everything over to the government. He predicts that it will lead to something
more like a Soviet-style, European, and even Asian higher-education model where the government manages everything. In most of those countries, they’ve been falling over themselves to reject their state-controlled authoritarian universities, which are much worse than ours, and move toward the American model which emphasizes choice, competition, and peer-reviewed research. In that sense, we’re now stepping back from our choice-competition culture, which has given us not just some of the best universities in the world, but almost all of them.

So: "Soviet-style" is clearly in there for polemical value. But The Corner headlines the post "Alexander: Obama's 'Soviet-Style' Takeover of Student Loans." Alexander's comparing the predicted system of higher education to the Soviet system. But the headline makes "Soviet-style" into a description of the "takeover"-- i.e. a violent nationalization without compensation.

Notice that banks would be free to continue to make student loans. And they're not having their existing assets taken. All they're losing is the ability to make publicly subsidized student loans in the future. A comparison with Soviet nationalization is just nuts. And it's not even what Alexander said.

Anyway, the headline-post gap wasn't what first struck me about this. Neither was the surrender of National Review to being the microphone handed to current Republican office-holders. Rather, it was this:

Back in the days of the Savings and Loan crisis, and again in the days of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, we saw lots of commentary from the right that the problems couldn't be blamed on the free market. After all, in both cases massive moral hazard had been created by federal guarantees underwriting the debts, eliminating market discipline. Pains were taken to piously distinguish the free market from corporatism and corporate welfare (a distinction I take very seriously, I might add).

In the last two weeks, I haven't seen any Republican official or Republican-leaning intellectual make the slightest reference to the problems with a system in which private lenders make risk-free profits by lending on the back of a federal guarantee. The indictment of corporate welfare has been nowhere to be found. The view that there's something distinctively unproblematic about private lenders with public guarantees has been completely lost. And the (misleading) headline, the reference to a Soviet-style takeover, crystallized this for me. Since there's been no crisis in student lending, no collapse of the system, the status quo ante has been naturalized; there are people on the right who think that the subsidized revenue streams to which lenders had become accustomed were a kind of property that has now been seized. The ex post commentaries on FSLIC and Franny and Freddie have been forgotten.

Update I missed this post from the estimable and independent-minded Reihan Salam.