Another cheer for postmodernism

The postmodernists have been copping it from all directions lately, mostly in relation to their claimed infiltration of the High School English curriculum in New South Wales and elsewhere. In a post a while back, I pointed out three good uses for postmodernism:
“(i) Therapy for recovering Stalinists
(ii) A harmless target on which right-wing pundits can vent their rage
(iii) Some theoretical content for degrees in “communications”

In a marginally more serious vein, I’d like to say that the ‘old’ English literature curriculum displaced by postmodernism is, in my opinion, no loss. The basic task of students in the old curriculum was to learn to write literary criticism, mainly focused on Shakespeare in drama, and on Dickens and other C19 writers in prose. I object to this on the following grounds:
(a) The resulting literary criticism was very bad
(b) The world has more than enough literary criticism
(c) The favored writing style was ornate rather than efficient, and produced bad habits that universities then had to weed out
(d) Arguments about works of art are almost inevitably sloppy and illogical; and most importantly
(e) The subject inculcated a hatred of literature in the majority of students.
On the whole, I think deconstruction of TV ads and sitcoms is far less harmful and might even be beneficial.
Update Not surprisingly, I managed to annoy both traditionalists and postmodernists (a minority in the world of political blogs, but there are some around) with this post. Read the comments thread, which is great as always, but also check out Jason Soon for a statement of the traditionalist position that’s a lot better than you can find in the newspapers and Don Arthur for a reasoned defence of postmodernism. I think Don’s a bit too charitable to the PoMos, but I agree with his basic point. The problem with postmodernism in High School is that it’s too highbrow. To be done at all well, it requires a level of cultural knowledge and epistemological sophistication that is not feasible for a high school student, very rare in high school teachers and not all that common among postmodernist academics. The big weakness of the traditionalist position is the assumption that critical and analytical skills are best learnt through the critical analysis of great works of literature. This seems inherently implausible, and I can’t say that the old curriculum did much for critical skills. It seems much more reasonable to learn by criticising familiar material with a relatively mundane purpose, like ads, newspaper articles and even sitcoms.

Americans and Australians (Warning: metablogging ahead!)

The human brain is a classifying machine, and its favorite type of classification is a dichotomy, as in, “there are two sorts of people in the world, those who divide the world into two sorts of people and those who dont”. The runner-up is a spectrum. The Left-Right division can either be seen as a dichotomy, as in left-handed vs right-handed or as a spectrum.

In relation to Australian ploggers (this term for political bloggers is due to Ken Parish), there’s been plenty of discussion of the standardleft-right dichotomy/spectrum and the Political BlogMap also distinguishes authoritarian from libertarian. I’ve observed a significant shift on the first dimension in the few months since I’ve been blogging. Whereas ‘Ozplogistan’ was clearly right-wing when I joined it, it’s now much more reflective of the Australian political spectrum as a whole. The pronounced libertarian bias observable on the blogmap remains however.

Another distinction that had a good run was left brain (rational/analytical/verbal) vs right-brain (emotional/figurative). Again I think there’s been a clear shift to the left over time. In Ozplogistan, though not in the ‘real world’, there’s a strong correlation between left-wing and left-brain, so the parallel shifts aren’t surprising.

The gun debate and reactions to Bali made me realise that Ozploggers are divided on a third dimension, which I’ll call “American vs Australian”. ‘Americans’ are basically participants in the American blogosphere (mostly right-wing and right-brain) who happen to live in Australia and may add occasional local Australian color to their posts. James Morrow, who is an American expatriate recently arrived here, naturally falls into this category. So, to a very large extent does Tim Blair – as Tim Dunlop notes all his links are to US blogs. At the other extreme, Ken Parish is very much focused on events in Australia and comments on Australian blogs/plogs. Tim Dunlop is the mirror image of James Morrow: an American resident, but with a major focus on Australian events.

The gun debate was very revealing. Virtually all those I would regard as ‘Australian’ were pro-gun control and virtually all those I would regard as ‘American’ were anti. Of course, nearly all the ‘Americans’ are on the right, but ‘Australians’ with broadly similar views on most issues, like Gareth Parker and Scott Wickstein were strongly pro-control.

In writing this post, I thought about my own classification. I’m very interested in US economic developments, but otherwise would class myself as Australian in orientation. This led me to the further observation that whereas my ‘Australian’ posts get heaps of great comments, nobody much seems to be interested in my observations on the US economy. So I’ve decided to cut coverage of this topic to a minimum. If I get really energetic, I may start up a separate blog on it, just to record things that interest me.

Update: Possibly because I was trolling for compliments, lots of people have said they like the commentary on the US economy. So I’ll keep it up, but I’ll try and give it more of an ‘Australian/international’ angle, explaining why these issues matter to us and the world, and not worrying so much about keeping up with the American economic blogworld.

Great minds think alike

Tim Dunlop and I think alike so often we could be used as an experimental test of telepathy, or, for the more prosaic, of Merton’s theory of multiple discoveries. I regularly start work on a post only to find that Tim’s already written it, and I think the same may be true in reverse. My review of Baumol’s The Free-Market Innovation Machine, soon to be published at The Drawing Board, makes the point that

‘the Internet [was] a technological innovation created almost entirely by the public sector. The architecture of the Internet was set up with seed money from the US department of Defence, the network was built by the universities, and the World Wide Web was a gift from CERN, a physics research lab in Switzerland. The only significant private contribution was Unix, the last important piece of public good research done by Bell Labs before its effective demise.’

And here’s Tim:

[the] Internet was itself the product, not just of government regulation, but of public finance, research and expertise. It was then further “regulation”, under the influence of industry lobbying, that allowed it to move into the private sphere to the extent that it has, and which I presume Bargraz(sic) approves of.

. Tim’s argument elicits the counter from the redoubtable detective that ‘Tim’s presuming that I prefer privatisation over regulation. No so’, which is encouraging.
Of course, the fact that the Internet is a creation of the public sector is well-known except to those whose knowledge dates from after 1997, and to the writers at Wired, who presumably once knew, but have now forgotten. Still the coincidence between me and Tim is striking, especially in the light of another post in which Tim notes the failure of the other Tim (Blair) to link to any Australian blogs. This anticipates a new way of classifying Oz blogs which I was about to announce with great fanfare and will soon announce anyway without so much fanfare.

What I'm reading this week

I’m still going through Trollope’s Palliser novels. Currently I’m reading The Eustace Diamonds. The leading character, Lizzie Eustace, is explicitly compared by Trollope to Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. In both cases, it’s hard for a modern reader not to barrack for these women playing the marriage market for all it’s worth in a society that offered few other choices. Jane Austen’s sympathetic treatment of Charlotte Lucas’ decision to accept the ludicrous Mr Collins is far more sophisticated than anything in Victorian literature.
Meanwhile, I still read quite a few magazines in print format. Both the Scientific American and Prospect (UK) have excellent web sites, but I’m happy to read the print versions. Prospect in particular is excellent, if a little bit Blairite for my own tastes.

The case for a weak (US) dollar policy

American commentators are finally waking up to the fact that a strong currency does not necessarily imply a strong economy. I made this point 18 months ago, here and I think the analysis still stands up pretty well, even if US consumers are still spending.

One interesting point in the article is the idea that even though US investments are unattractive, investments in other countries are even less so. I disagree. If you accept that the $US has to depreciate at some time, then holding bonds denominated in $US, and paying interest rates lower than those obtainable in other currencies, is a dumb idea. Unless you think either that European governments are likely to default on their debt or that euroland is poised for inflation, eurobonds are a better bet, and similarly for Australian government bonds denominated in $A. But I’ve given up even the residual belief in the efficient markets hypothesis that would lead me to try and work out a coherent explanation of perverse asset prices.

Scott Wickstein has moved

Scott says “I’ve finally got a basic MT blog off the ground- It’s certainly not what I hoped it would be from the visual side of things, and I’m sure I will cop absolute HELL for it from some of the people I’ve written about for it being so lame; be that as it may, it’s up and off the ground. There will be certain tweaking of the code- and any feedback that’s not too complex for me to implement is more then welcome!
Thank you for supporting I hope my new site is even more thought provoking and successful.
The associated sites Ubersportingpundit and Oneblog in September will be up in due course. I hope to have Uber up within a week; OBIS might have to wait till next season.”

This looks like an open invitation (or maybe a troll) to visit Scott’s new site and bag out the design, so head on over

The United States of Europe

My column in Thursday’s Fin argued that the future of the world is going to be determined in Europe and not in the fight between America and Iraq. Key points:
“like the embryonic United States of the early 19th century, Europe has both a doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’ and a well-established procedure for expansion. Since the original European Coal and Steel community was established in 1951, with the aim of preventing a recurrence of War between France and Germany, the core of the European vision has been one of a world governed by laws rather than naked force. ”
“European social democracy, and not American free-market capitalism, has ended up as the winner of the Cold War. By 2004, the European Union will have borders with Russia and will incorporate most of Eastern Europe. Under the EU Social Charter, all entrants are committed to a social-democratic system.”
“In the light of recent history, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area must be seen as the precursor to a Greater Europe encompassing the entire classical world. ”
“The success or failure of Europe in integrating Muslim countries, beginning with Turkey, will do more to determine future relations between Islam and the West than any military expedition. ”

Things didn’t look too good earlier in the year, as a string of social democrat governments lost office, mostly to coalitions of the ‘official’ conservative parties and far-right parties opposed to both immigration and European expansion. But now the right-far right coalitions are collapsing and expansion is going ahead at full pace.

A lot of pundits thought that the (expensive and silly) Common Agricultural Policy would prove a fundamental obstacle. But the French have very sensibly agreed to share the subsidies with new entrants, leaving the total cost fixed until 2006, with a commitment to reform thereafter. The NYT headlined this: A Fight Over Farms Ends, Opening Way to Wider Europe. This kind of messy compromise may not be inspiring, but it’s characteristic of the democratic political systems that have repeatedly outlasted and defeated more impressive-looking regimes with imperial aspirations.

Factoids of rich and poor

Arnold Kling presents a range of commentary on economic and technological issue that is always provocative and usually sensible. In
this post, however, he falls for a fallacious argument based on a confusion between price and income effects. He says:

” In my view, it is difficult to dispute that the rich are getting richer. However, it is equally difficult to dispute that the poor are getting richer. For example, W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm in Myths of Rich and Poor have pointed out that in spite of the rise in inequality a poor household in the 1990’s was more likely than an average household in the 1970’s to have a washing machine, clothes dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, stove, color television, personal computer, or telephone. ”

The common feature of all the items listed in this quote is that their price has fallen dramatically relative to to the general price level. This means that even if incomes were exactly the same as in 1970 we would expect to see a big increase in consumption of these items.

Conversely, the income data, which show no significant increase in income for workers with high-school education since 1970, imply that consumption by the poor of some goods and services must have decreased. The obvious candidates ar e those goods that have increased in relative price, such as housing. Although it’s difficult to assess, the proliferation of prefabricated homes (aka mobile homes, aka trailers) supports the view that the poor are worse off in this respect.

Modest proposals

A little while ago, I put forward a modest proposal to promote peace in the Middle East. Now new blogger Gummo Trotsky at Tug Boat Potemkin has put forward what I can only describe as an immodest (but very funny) proposal on gun control.
In keeping with recent discussion of attribution I’ll remind readers that the original Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift was a rather gruesome way to increase Irish exports.
On another topic, I’ve congratulated Gummo on a great choice of pseudonym – I also like “Derrida Derider” who appeared in my comment thread a while back, and I should also mention Mumble. Pseudonyms raise a natural curiosity. Some pseudonymous bloggers have revealed their secret identities to me and I’m pretty sure about some others, such as Stanley Gudgeon, but all secrets are safe with me. But I think Bargarz, whose comments are often serious and sensible, should consider revealing his true identity. I find it rather incongruous to say “I must agree with Bargarz’ analysis of the Iraqi question …” or similar.
Finally, apologies for not updating my blogroll. The number of bloggers is growing daily, and some sort of classification scheme seems to be necessary. I’ll try and link to all ‘Ozploggers’ of any interest, and I may set up a new category for humorous political & social commentary.

I'm sorry Brad, I'm afraid I can't agree with that

Brad DeLong, in hisSemi-Daily Journal writes:

While the rate of advance of computer and communications technologies have vastly outstripped anything I imagined when I was a child … where are the robots?

I disagree with Brad’s premise that advances in computer and communications technologies have outstripped imagination.

We haven’t even got workable voice control, let alone a computer comparable to HAL in 2001. As regards communications, video telephony (a staple of imagined futures since Dick Tracy) is still off in the distance somewhere. I can’t believe Brad’s youthful imagination didn’t run to something more impressive than SMS text messaging.

And while the Internet is great, personal computers in other respects haven’t made more than incremental advances since the 1980s (or, in the case of Windows, since 1995).

Paul Krugman did a piece a while back looking at the technical predictions of people like the Hudson Institute. He found that, like economists with recessions, they forecasted all the main innovations we actually got and a bunch that we didn’t.