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Friday, September 25, 2009

On the empty space between my ears

The first time I read Plato's Republic, I hated it. The second time as well. Now, the third time, ditto. That this is probably indicative of a defect of my soul is something I've fairly well come to terms with, though I've tried to mitigate the consequences by liking other Platonic dialogues like the Protagoras and also by spending time on other Greeks. Since it's a defect of soul, I can't fully explain it, but I think in part it has to do with my failure to understand what the Republic contributed to our political tradition since no subsequent political thinkers were able to agree on its meaning, and some of the most important ones, when they gloss Plato in their own work, do so in such unsubtle and unsophisticated ways that it sounds like excerpts of undergrad papers. B. Franky, for example, took from Plato the idea that eristic is an excellent form of argumentation, then later, when he realized that it made him no friends, concluded that metaphysics was too indeterminate to worry about at all. As far as Greek philosophers go, Aristotle's imprint on Western political thought is much clearer.

Anyway, I do still try to read the Republic carefully each time in the hopes that one day, I may come to like it through sheer force of habit, then I will understand it, and thereby overcome my defect of soul. I think such a conversion, though unlikely, is still possible, especially since I am reading the same copy of the book, and judging by some of my notes from my second year of college, I am making progress. For example, the first time I read it, I apparently did not grasp the meaning of Thrasymachus' contention that justice was "the advantage of the stronger." Not just the implication, mind you, the very definition. So the section bears my accompanying note: "Whoever can be punished is unjust, not that what is unjust is punished-->Thrasymachus' definition founded on power [double underline]." This should disabuse us of the notion that people who go to grad school are smart, even in the discipline they claim to study.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Historiographical inquiries

Is it possible that the reason JGA Pocock was able to rise to such prominence was because he was the first person who managed to read James Harrington all the way through since probably Harrington himself? And everyone attempting the same feat before him was simply cut down by fatal boredom?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On egomania

One of my professors has assigned every single thing he's ever written, everything he's contributed to, and even a private email correspondence between him and a politician on the subject of our course. He then spent nearly the entire class talking about his idyllic childhood, the arguments of all his books, how his books were received (badly), why his critics are totally wrong, how unjust it was that he did not win an award for which he was nominated, how the person who did win did not deserve it, and so on. Then, while contemplating what to remove from the syllabus, he came to a week in which all the assigned reading was written by him, paused, and said, "Well, no, we can't get rid of that. What would I get out of the class then?"

For serious.

On top of that, it turns out you have to pay money to switch courses.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Time-tested parental advice to daughters

Accept drinks only from other girls. If a boy peels a fruit for you, do not accept it. When boys come and sit beside you, don't answer their questions...and do not smile at them. When boys happen to come into your bedroom, hide behind the bed and hit them in the face.
--letter from a sixteenth-century German mother, quoted in Ancestors
As to the obvious logistical problem that poses--with a projectile, maybe?

Monday, September 07, 2009

"Laudable effects on American democracy"

From this study, a complex picture of senior participation and policy emerges. One aspect is that, as with many stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in the "greedy geezer" image. To an extent, seniors defend their own programs at the expense of policies benefiting others. Economists have shown for example, that the proportion of elderly residents in a location is associated with a significant reduction in per child education spending. By contrast, there was a positive association between elderly population share and school spending in the early 1900s, before Social Security's enactment. Government policy seems to have shifted seniors' self-interests away from supporting the education of younger people upon whom they were once directly dependent, toward defending the government benefits upon which their livelihoods now depend.

But if this crowding-out effect is not desirable from the standpoint of democratic governance, other age-related policy effects are. Social Security has democratized senior participation, reducing participatory inequality within the senior constituency. Hence seniors' welfare state programs have exacerbated political inequality between age groups, but have moderated it within the senior population. Social Security has both deleterious and laudable effects on American democracy...Over time seniors eclipsed nonseniors in the participatory arena, and now are disproportionately active. At the same time, Social Security and Medicare coverage expanded and benefits grew, with profound effects on seniors' empirical and attitudinal well-being.
--How Policies Make Citizens
In sum, by draining resources, distorting economic incentives, and shortchanging future generations, oldsters have evened out inequalities in political participation and created a happy, healthy, unified and invincible lobby that can effectively drive the state into bankruptcy by destroying any effort to deny or curtail their benefits. Win for participatory democracy!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Oh, so this is why we have quantitative political science

"The underrepresentation of the needy is especially pronounced when it comes to financial contributions to politics. Figure 16.4, which presents data about the effects of the participatory process on the representation of people with actual economic need, clarifies how this result comes about...The amount of money given to politics, we noted, was tightly constrained by the need to have the relevant resource--money."
--Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics
In case you were pondering the inscrutable question of why poor people donate less, now science has your answer.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Guide to premature blindness

Step 1: Go to grad school, preferably one without free printing.
Step 2: Print all your reading two sheets to a printed page and double-sided to save money. If you're really poor, try four to a page.
Step 3: Read.