Saturday, December 26, 2009

What to make of Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice?

One of my projects planned for 2010 is a study of Amartya Sen's new The Idea of Justice. I'll be reading it along with a discussion group made up of economists, political scientists, and philosophers from Hillsdale College, a rather mixed group that's likely to have quite disparate views on the subjects Sen addresses.

I'm familiar with Sen largely from his work in development economics, plus a little of his work in social choice theory (particularly his Paretian Liberal paradox, which I've critiqued here). The Idea of Justice is a fairly weighty treatment of the concept and pursuit of justice, and -- judging from the reviews -- quite thought-provoking. I expect this to be quite stimulating, and hope some of this will be reflected in Unforeseen Contingencies. Any of my readers interested in virtual participation are hereby invited to join me.

I'm posting below -- first of all so that I don't misplace them -- a few interesting reviews of this book...including one by Sen himself (the first link). Enjoy.

Amartya Sen: The Idea of Justice | SOA World Magazine

Amartya Sen’s wrong idea of justice | The Acorn

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen review | Non-fiction book reviews - Times Online

Amartya Sen's "The Idea of Justice" (Law and Other Things Blog)

Amartya Sen Shakes Up Justice Theory: Chronicle of Higher Education

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen: The Guardian

Friday, December 25, 2009

Seek a healthy, upturn festival cultural flavor and a warm and affectionate human kindness.

That's Unforeseen Contingencies' wish to all our readers for the Christmas holiday.

OK, actually we cribbed this from a PRC government website that showcases China for foreigners. We came across the site while looking for photos of Friedrich von Wieser. (They have one, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.)

They also had this rather unsettling article about Christmas for convicts in Chinese prisons. (You might need to fiddle with the sidescroll bar at the bottom of the page to get the articles.)

Regardless, we wish all our readers a Merry Christmas, Western and Orthodox, as well as a happy Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Solstice, and any other winter holidays we've overlooked.
The real Santa!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

UC weighs in: "Reconfirm Ben Bernanke!"

"We" at Unforeseen Contingencies are endorsing Ben Bernanke's re-appointment as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and we hope that the Senate reconfirms him. We've been harsh critics of him and his performance, and we don't predict he's going to improve. But UC genuinely hopes for him to have a second term. Here are our reasons:

1. There's no prospect of getting someone better if Mr. Bernanke's term is not renewed.

2. He claims he can finesse an exit from the massive expansion of money and credit he's directed. We believe he cannot. The question ought to be put to the test. If Bernanke is right, let him be there to earn the credit. If he's wrong, let him be the one left holding the bag. If he's replaced, and his policies fail, there'll always be the defense that replacing Bernanke was the source of the failure.

Bernanke's critics think that his leadership has been destructive (I concur), and therefore oppose a second term for him. But points 1 and 2 together are sufficient to refute the conclusion that Bernanke should not be re-appointed.

And so to the Senate...please reconfirm Ben Bernanke.

As of press time we were unable to determine whether this is Chairman Bernanke asking the Senate Banking Committee to approve his renomination, or demonstrating how he proposes to "withdraw the extraordinary policy support" of umpteen trillions in liquidity he's created.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Francophilia Encore!

I know I risk losing my most faithful and beloved readers by continuing with this "vive la France" theme, mais neanmoins...

Two nights ago I saw "Man on Wire." It's a wonderful film that portrays the realization of an extremely beautiful dream. It's the story of Philippe Petit, a young Frenchman who happened to read a newspaper story announcing that the World Trade Center would be constructed. He immediately began dreaming of walking a highwire strung between them. The tale is captivating, the film gorgeous and gripping. More importantly, there's Philippe's dream and its realization. For me, these capture what life is about. I'm reminded of my own adventures in ultrarunning, mountaineering, triathlons, and the like. There are these things in life that you do, and when you do them, you don't worry about inane questions like "what is the purpose of life," because in the experience you’re fully alive, and that's enough.

This is something that is not at all foreign to the French. The French invented adventure racing. At every major American marathon I've run, the biggest contingent of foreign runners has been the French (mostly back-of-pack runners, the ones with the truest spirit of adventure). Paris-Dakar, Tour de France, world class mountaineering, parkour... I won't try to list all the French contributions to adventure, it's too long. Suffice it to say that there's something in the French sense of life that I really appreciate, and that we all should adopt.

Or as Robert Heinlein put it, vivamus, dum vivimus!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

America's deficits: any hope?

Maybe a little. Barack Obama seems to understand what we're up against. From the recent Q&A at the "Jobs Summit:"
Robert Kuttner: "You know, most of the things that have been proposed today cost money. And there is this concern about the federal deficit. I hope that your administration will recognize, as I know you will, that it's possible, first of all, to reduce the deficit over time and sometimes in the short run realize that you need to increase the deficit. I hope the concern about the deficit in the long run doesn't crowd out the need for additional spending in the short run."

"And I also think that some of these programs that increase jobs and increase GDP are probably the fastest way to get the economy back on a track that will reduce the deficit over time. It's certainly a better way to reduce the deficit than putting ourselves into a debtor's prison, and assume we can deflate our way to recovery."

THE PRESIDENT: "Well, I think this is an important point. We have been talking a lot about specific initiatives. There is a macroeconomic element to this whole thing, and so let me just amplify what was just said. We have a structural deficit that is real and growing, apart from the financial crisis. We inherited it. We're spending about 23 percent of GDP and we take in 18 percent of GDP, and that gap is growing, because health care costs -- Medicare and Medicaid in particular -- are growing, and we've got to do something about that.

"You then layer on top of that the huge loss of tax revenue as a consequence of the financial crisis, and the greater demands for unemployment insurance and so forth. That's another layer. Probably the smallest layer is actually what we did in terms of the Recovery Act. I think there is a misperception out there that somehow the Recovery Act caused these deficits. No. I mean, we had -- we've got a 9-point-something trillion-dollar deficit. Maybe a trillion dollars of it can be attributed to both the Recovery Act as well as the cleanup work that we had to do in terms of the banks.

It turns out, actually, TARP, as wildly unpopular as it has been, has been much cheaper than any of us anticipated. So that's not what's contributing to the deficit. We've got a long-term structural deficit that is primarily being driven by health care costs and our long-term entitlement programs. All right, so that's the base line.

"Now, if we can't grow our economy, then it is going to be that much harder for us to reduce the deficit. The single most important thing we could do right now for deficit reduction is to spark strong economic growth, which means that people who've got jobs are paying taxes, and businesses that are making profits have taxes, are paying taxes. That's the most important thing we can do. We understand that in this administration. That's not always the dialogue that's going on out there in public, and we're going to have to do a better job of educating the public on that.

"The last thing we would want to do in the midst of a -- what is a weak recovery, is us to essentially take more money out of the system either by raising taxes or by drastically slashing spending. And frankly, because state and local governments generally don't have the capacity to engage in deficit spending, some of that obligation falls on the federal government.

"Having said that, what is also true is that unless businesses and global capital markets have some sense that we've got a plan, medium and long term, to get the deficit down, it's hard for us to be credible, and that also could be counterproductive.

"So we've got about as difficult a economic play as is possible, which is to press the accelerator, in terms of job growth, but then know when to apply the brakes in the out-years, and do that credibly. And we are trying to strike that balance, but we're going to need help from all of you who oftentimes are more credible than politicians in delivering that message, because we want to leverage whatever public dollars are spent, and we are under no illusion that somehow the federal government can spend its way out of this recession. But it is absolutely true that any of the ideas that have been mentioned here are still going to require some public dollars, and those are actually good investments to make right now."
Unforeseen Contingencies: "We" strongly disagree with Obama re the effects of ARRA, TARP, and the like, and think they're destructive on net. These disagreements arise because we use fundamentally different economic theories.

But that's not the point here. Obama is indeed right on target in his claim that the deficit problem is primarily structural. And it is not Obama's doing, primarily. George Bush is a much more important contributor, and even without Bush's horribly mistaken fiscal policy we'd have a long term structural problem. The unsustainability of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security predate Bush.

Obama is also right about economic growth; it's crucial. But it is not sufficient -- we'll not grow out of this, we just cannot grow so fast. Keep in mind that those CBO projections that show the debt swallowing the national economy assume that we have reasonable annual economic growth forever, i.e. that the growing debt service and tax burden don't have negative consequences. (CBO is required by law to make these unrealistic assumptions, BTW.)

And there's a grave danger, too, that "temporary" spending measures under ARRA -- which would be cyclical if ARRA were just Keynesian stimulus -- will become permanent. Recipients will clamor for continuation of spending programs, and if Congress complies with their wishes, these become structural components of the deficit.

It amazes me that these sorts of concerns about exit strategies are dismissed by Keynesian economists, when the evidence is that this is exactly how temporary government programs operate, almost always.

The bottom line is that without cuts in federal spending, there's no solution.

Anyway, Obama's comments are more sophisticated than what we are used to from politicians. Let's hope he really understands this, and is dead serious about fixing it. The time for this has long since passed.

Honduras, encore

Great news! It appears that Honduras might yet win in its struggle to keep the United States and OAS from imposing Manuel Zelaya on the country.

Exactly why so many foreign powers, beginning with the U.S., want to impose Zelaya has never been clear to me. The usual claim is that he was victim of an illegal coup d'ètat, but that claim has been thoroughly disproven. In particular, the U.S. Government's own study carefully examines the issues and finds that Zelaya's removal from office was completely constitutional and legal. (Read the, it's quite good!) While NWO theories would account for international support for ex-president Z., a kneejerk reaction driven by ignorance and kept alive by path dependence seems at least as plausible.

Well, UC salutations to those Hondurans who are holding the line against Chavez-ism and international pressure. They may well succeed, and the Western Hemisphere will be safer for it. We thank them!


Honduran flag gif courtesy of Wilson Free Gifs & Animations. I'm hoping this flag will have fewer readers trying to storm UC's Bastille than the previous one we flew did.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Vive la France!

It's not been mentioned here much, but Unforeseen Contingencies is, to paraphrase the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Trinity Church, "unapologetically Francophile." "We" have a variety of reasons, not the least of which are France's crucial contributions to libertarian thought, to economics, to the American Revolution, and to higher civilization in general. And we're well-versed in things French, having lived in the City of Lights for some short time. So when a good friend and fellow Francophile was subjected to some embarassment by a conservative colleague, we were only too happy to provide the following answer to the absurd claim "The French never won any war or battle."


France (or the French) was on the winning side in many wars. Perhaps that shouldn't be the standard. Avoiding wars would be a better one. Nevertheless, here are a few examples:

Early 700s: Charles Martel (Franks) beats just about everyone imaginable in multiple wars – the Saxons, the Frisians, and various other Europeans...more importantly, multiple victories against the Moors, who were trying to impose Islam on Europe.

Late 700s: Martel’s grandson Charlemagne also defeated Saxon, Frisians, Moors, plus Lombards, Slavs, and Avars. Everyone else became scared and simply surrendered to the Franks w/o fighting. (I exaggerate, he had to clobber a number of other upstarts, conquering Sicily and Corsica in the process.)

Norman invasion 1066

100 Years War ca. 1340-1450

30 Years war 1618-1648 (actually a mass of confusing wars & fights, but France certainly won several of them and emerged a victor)

Franco-Dutch War 1672-78

American Revolutionary War 1776-1781 (w/o France, the Americans would almost certainly have lost) (e.g. Americans won the war at Yorktown only because the French beat the Brits in the naval Battle of the Chesapeake)

Many of the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars (again, a confusing mess of fighting, but the French stopped the 1st and the 2nd Coalitions from invading and restoring the French monarchy...the Coalitions were of European monarchies trying to destroy the revolution, and thankfully they failed

Franco Spanish War 1823

Franco Mexican War 1838

World War I 1914-18

World War II 1937-45 (I use the Chinese dating for this one)

Conservatives always rattle on about "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," but why did Libya’s Colonel Khaddafi suddenly stop trying to take over Africa? France beat him in a war. It’s hardly ever publicized, but in the middle and late 1980's the Libyan Army was devastated in a war with Chad, losing thousands of soldiers killed, and nearly 1,000 armored vehicles. Nominally the war was the Chadians doing, but they were proxies for the French, and the French Air Force and Foreign Legion were heavily involved. The two biggest Libyan defeats, Ouadi Doum and Faya Largeau, involved French airstrikes, artillery, and troops. The French wouldn't let Chad invade Libya itself, but apparently the Chadians would have happily done so (assuming the French would continue the fight). This war substantially weakened the Libyan Army, reduced Khaddafi’s power in Libya, and scared the heck out of him as he realized that he could be eliminated.

Col. K. lost substantial power in Libya as a result, and shares power with other political players there. But also, when he recently announced he had no interest in pursuing WMDs (after Bush invaded Iraq), conservatives crowed in victory, claiming it was all Bush & Reagan, not realizing that it was actually the French who made Col. K. realize he could be invaded and toppled by the west.

So...thanks to French victories we aren’t Muslims, we speak a pleasant language whose words have mostly French-Latin origins instead of Germanic grunting (no offense meant, NV), we live in a world where the Westphalian system is the one thing keeping international gov't at bay (100 Years War), we live under the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights instead of the U.K surveillance state, we're rid of monarchism (sorry, Herr Hoppe), and we don’t worry about Kahddafi any more.

On the other hand, what contributions can conservatives show for themselves? The only things I can think of were some of Reagan's policies, but the valuable ones were those that arose from his libertarian instincts.

Oh, those conservatives! I wonder if they realize that general Patton’s favorite country, after the U.S., was France.

Notice who is in the lead here. Those aren't M-4s. (Click on photo for a closer view.)

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