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Jim Henley’s nice post appreciating the concept of “social insurance” moves me to provide this link to, if not its original definition, then its early full definition, from I. M. Rubinow’s invaluable Social Insurance, (1916; orig. 1913):

… social insurance is that policy of organized society to furnish that protection to one part of the population, which some other part may need less, or, if needing, is able to purchase voluntarily through private insurance. … The term “social insurance” is as yet very little understood by the vast majority of English-speaking nations. … All insurance is a substitution of social, co-operative provision for individual provision. Technically, this substitution of social effort for individual effort, is known as the theory of distribution of losses and the subsequent elimination of risk. … There is an individual advantage is substituting a very small definite money loss for the possibility of a very large financial loss. … It has sometimes been argued, however, that while there is the individual gain, socially insurance brings no such gain, for the amount of total loss is not decreased, and that inasmuch as in actual practice the cost of combined insurance is much higher than the actual loss, socially insurance represents a waste…. But can human happiness or misery be measured so easily by the simple addition of dollars and cents? … Thus, the social advantages of distribution of loss are equally applicable to all forms of insurance. …

It may have occurred to many of the readers, especially those who have some personal knowledge of the life of the vast army of wage-workers and people in similar economic conditions,—that to them the payment of an insurance premium, no matter how small, is not a matter of slight discomfort, but a very serious financial problem. … [They face] a selection between a possible deprivation in the future and a certain serious loss in the present which a payment of the premium requires. … [I]n the vast majority of cases, interruption of the wage-workers income soon leads to serious economical distress. … Sickness, accidents, invalidity, premature or normal old age, premature death, and finally unemployment,—such are the economic risks which stare in the face each and every workingman. Their economic consequences are very much more serious in his case, than in the middle classes. … But why necessarily insurance? … [T]he assertion that, in the case of the wage-earning class, individual saving may solve the problem of poverty, necessarily presupposes the existence of a surplus in the budget of the average wage-earner’s family. There was a time when that assertion could be glibly made for lack of accurate scientific material to contradict it. That time is fortunately gone. … [S]aving for all possible future emergencies must necessarily mean a very substantial reduction of a standard already sub-normal. …

Here, then, is the social problem underlying the need of insurance of the wage-earning millions. Their economic condition is precarious; the economic dangers threatening them many; and the degree of risk in each case is very high. Individual provision is insufficient, social provision through distribution of loss is necessary but costly, often much too costly. … Thus the state may begin by simply providing a safe insurance organization, devoid of the elements of profit. … It may take the next step and assume part or the entire cost of administration of the insurance institutions, and thus further reduce the cost. … It may take still one more step and directly subsidize insurance, thus assuming a part of the true cost, or it may impost such assumption of cost upon other elements of society, such as the employing class. … And it may finally counteract the unwillingness of the working class to pay even a small subsidized premium by making insurance compulsory. All this the modern state may and does do to develop social insurance, to furnish protection to those in need and are unable to purchase it in the open market.

Still quite depressingly timely, no?

Thanks to everyone who voted Dana’s treatment of Leibniz and Spinoza for the Quark; she came in fourth and is a semifinalist. Next,

The daily editors of 3 Quarks Daily will now pick the top six entries from these, and after possibly adding up to three “wildcard” entries, will send that list of finalists to Professor Dan Dennett on September 11. We will also post the list of finalists here on that date.

Cross your fingers.

On this day in 1974, Gerald Ford granted Richard Nixon an unconditional pardon for all federal crimes that he had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” while serving as president. Ford justified his decision, as you can see above, in several ways: Nixon and his family had already suffered enough; Nixon’s trial wouldn’t begin for months or years, and might not be fair even then; the country would remain bitterly divided throughout the intervening period; Ford had the power to act, his conscience told him that he should, and so he did.

Nixon greeted the news by noting that he was “wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate.” Ford, meanwhile, having announced the defining act of his presidency, traveled to Bethesda, Maryland, where he played a round of golf at the Burning Tree Country Club.

(By request, the parody of this beloved book that originally appeared in the historical novel thread.)

What do I know about tweeting bloggers? Well . . .

Read the rest of this entry »

Interesting: like Stuff White People Like, but narrower. I couldn’t believe this one, but a waitress friend assures me it’s all too true.

I’m not crying; it’s sand in my eye.

Jim Henley correctly describes this as the end of the internet.

No, really, WTF?

In Pat Buchanan, there seems a mind at work, one capable of actual investigation, thought, and contemplation. That the result is so twisted is, in a way, even more terrible than if not. And then, at the opposite end of the thinking spectrum, we find Glenn Beck.

Beck, a radio and television show host, specializes in ultra-paranoid rantings for the right-wing. He has a book coming out, Arguing with Idiots, which I assume will explain that everything wrong with America and the world today has to do with liberals and possibly the French. I don’t know; I haven’t read it. I have, however, looked at the cover and had much the same reaction that I have to hope everyone looking at it had: what the hell is he wearing?

I mean, really. What the hell is he wearing? It’s a uniform of some sort, obviously. Seems vaguely Germanic; perhaps Nazi get-up? Yes to the former, no to the latter: it seems to be an East German uniform, stripped of some of the piping and the crest on the hat.

Now, I think we should pause for a long moment, to wonder at the impressive stupidity of this. An East German uniform? The German Democratic Republic was not a success by any measure, and its military had no victories to its name, unless you count the shooting of folks attempting to defect, or the invasion of an ally.

I suppose that there’s an explanation. It could be an invisible high-five of some sort. It could be an “Obama is going to turn us all into Socialists and make annoying right-wing show hosts dress up in embarrassing uniforms” thing. There are the darker ones: “I wanted to dress up in a Nazi uniform, but didn’t have the courage” or “what do you mean the East Germans weren’t any good? Have you seen their results in the Olympics?”

When you get down to it, though, any possible explanation is irrelevant. There is no thought-process that led to Glenn Beck dourly wearing the dank and musty relic of a failed example of a failed movement that is not moronic, and unworthy of even the words ‘thought’ and ‘process.’ I said about Buchanan’s piece on Hitler that it was a coherent narrative; coherent but entirely disconnected from reality. Beck’s statement in wearing that uniform, on the other hand, is simply gibberish; gibberish, I now realize, that resembles his malign rantings pretty well.

In the comments to Eric’s post about underrated historical novels, I pointed out that there is a problem with talking about the “historical novel” as a self-evident genre. I did not, however, go into much detail as to why, because I covered the topic on my qualifying exams and the less said about that experience the better. But since Eric asked so nicely, I will oblige and show you why this discussion’s so painfully tangled.

Short version: Its knots all sport thorns.

Long pedantic version:

Read the rest of this entry »

Actually, do neither of those things.

Vote by September 7th, and vote only once….. for me!

Here’s the deal. 3quarksdaily is running a contest for the best philosophy post in 2009.   Eric kindly nominated my SpinozaLeibniz meeting series from last November.

The contest works like this: first, the Internet gets to vote for their top 20 favorites, and then philosopher Daniel Dennett gets to pick three winners.

So, if you’d like to vote for me, go here.   Since you can only vote once, and my series is split up into three entries, I ask that if you’re voting for me, vote for the first post (and maybe we can ask them nicely to read the other two, if it makes it to the next round.)

It is shameless to post, but it’s the only way I will get Ari to vote for me.

Plus, I think if I win, I can probably convince Eric to let me pimp the blog.  Maybe with little racing flames or a giant squid in the banner or something.

I apologize for being a bit late to the party, but if you haven’t already read David Grann’s reported essay in this week’s New Yorker, you really should. Grann looks at the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed by the State of Texas in 2004, though he very well may have been innocent. It’s a beautifully reported and written piece, and one of the most terrifying explorations of the state’s power that I’ve read in many years. Seriously, set aside an hour or so — it’s a long article, and you almost certainly won’t be able to stop once you start — and begin reading.

(The title of the post, by the way, is a quote from Sandra Day O’Connor.)

It’s almost the weekend, right? And the end of back-to-school week.

So why not a cute song about the crushing of a young child’s soul. I always did like Harry Chapin.

Only they aren’t: they’re critical.

The word “skeptical” functions as a subject complement in this clause.  The particular complement here is a predicate adjective: the adjective “skeptical” describes an attribute of the subject “critics.”  But hidden beneath that grammatical nicety is an utter falsehood.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “critic” is “one who pronounces judgment on any thing or person; esp. one who passes severe or unfavorable judgment; a censurer, fault-finder, caviller.”  Someone who is “skeptical,” however, is “inclined or imbued with [an] attitude of doubt or incredulity as to the truth of some assertion or supposed fact.”  Because a critic has already pronounced a severe or unfavorable judgment, he can no longer be considered an honest skeptic because he has ceased doubting by acting upon truths not in evidence.

Dishonest skeptics, then, would be those who act upon their doubts because there exists no fact powerful enough to compel them to shuck their skeptical posturing.  They are critics for whom skepticism is a convenient prop employed in the service of their criticism; and because they only doubt those truths uttered by those they criticize, their skepticism is not dispositive but tactical.  They are not “disposed” to doubt so much as they doubt all statements of a political nature made by those they oppose irrespective of the truth or falsity of their claims.  So:

“Critics are skeptical of the President’s claim that it is raining.”

That won’t be heard because the content of the statement is apolitcal, so dishonest skeptics will accept it on its face.  However:

“Critics are skeptical of the President’s claim that it has rained more this year than last.”

This statement will compel dishonest skeptics to disbelieve its content, not because it is true or false, but because it could be implicated in a larger political discussion about global warming or the progress of stimulus-aided improvement to the capital grounds.  However, had that second statement been made by someone who is himself a dishonest skeptic, his fellows in skeptical dishonesty would concur because, even if it were implicated in a larger political discussion, it would be speaking on behalf of their agenda.

These dishonest skeptics are not skeptical: they are unabashedly and unashamedly critical.  By predicating an attribute to them that they do not actually possess, news organizations mask ideological rigidity behind a scrim of cautious deliberation.

All of which is only to say that if I don’t stop watching the news in the morning, these papers will never be graded, that cover letter will never be written, this writing sample will never be revised . . .


In the wake of George Wallace’s June 1963 “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” — when the recalcitrant governor made good on his campaign pledge to “Stand Up for Alabama” by attempting to block two black students from enrolling at the state’s flagship university — Wallace began entertaining dreams of greater glory. Unlike certain young, recently-elected, revanchist governors in our own historical moment, George Wallace believed he would be better positioned for a run at the presidency if he were actually sitting in office at the time of the campaign; with 1968 in mind, he asked the Alabama legislature to amend the state constitution so that he might win a second term in 1966. While he waited — fruitlessly, as it would happen — Wallace began considering an intra-party challenge to John Kennedy. (He would eventually announce his intentions in Dallas in November 1963, not far from where Kennedy would die less a week later.)

Urged on in this illusion by telegrams and letters he received from whites outside the South, Wallace seems to have attached a kind of Lost Cause mythology to his encounter with the Kennedy boys. Though overrun by a power-mad federal government bent upon the destruction of the south’s racial folkways, Wallace could imagine himself as a noble hero who — by keeping the segregationist faith — would soon enough be redeemed. One of the keys to Wallace’s perception of himself was, oddly enough, the belief that he was acting in a non-violent and dignified fashion, that his June encounter demonstrated strength rather than weakness before the law; in standing alone, he simultaneously embodied the spirit of all “true Alabamans” while demonstrating that he could keep their bloodiest impulses at bay. Styling himself a man of law and order, Wallace contrasted his own conduct with the actions of civil rights protesters around the country, the degenerate berserkers whom the governor believed were aiming to destroy the nation. His governorship was a blessing to the White Citizens’ Councils, who also believed in their own “respectability” and rewarded Wallace with enduring and unflinching loyalty. Read the rest of this entry »

I can’t even begin to parse the ridiculousness of Pat Buchanan’s latest piece, which argues that Hitler had no interest in conquering the world but was forced into war in Poland and then prevented from making peace by the recalcitrance of the Allies. “Hitler wanted to end the war in 1940, almost two years before the trains began to roll to the camps,” Buchanan intones, as if the Holocaust was also forced on the Germans by lack of cooperation.

This is the kind of appalling historical piece that leaves me thinking that I’ve fallen through into a bizarro world, and wondering what on the earth Buchanan thought the point was? To rehabilitate Hitler? To excoriate those uncooperative Poles?

He’s not even particularly good at it. To handwave his way past Hitler’s true intentions, he has to define the world that the Nazi wanted to conquer carefully, as “Britain, Africa, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, South America, India, Asia, Australia.” Any major countries missing? Anybody? Any massively large land power nearby Germany, full of (by Nazi lights) untermenschen that the Germans could conquer for some lebensraum?

He does deal with the Soviet Union, eventually, but can only manage the patently risible “As of March 1939, Hitler did not even have a border with Russia. How then could he invade Russia?” The mind boggles. How strange a coincidence for Buchanan that the country blocking Hitler from invading Russia was, in fact, Poland, and that by October 1, 1939, Germany and the USSR did share a border. It was over this border that around 3 million German troops would pour two years later.

Enough. This is the kind of horrendous drivel that would embarrass a crazy uncle spouting off at a family reunion as everyone stands by awkwardly and shuffles their feet. It is the historical equivalent of speaking in tongues: the syllables, accents, rhythms, and pauses of actual speech that, when actually heard, dissolve to gibberish. Buchanan strings together his events from the past in a coherent narrative; coherent but absolutely disconnected from reality. Somewhere in this world, a rabbit in a waistcoat is looking at his watch, muttering about lateness. Buchanan has no worries on that score; he is well down the hole already.

What’s your choice? Mine is Richard Powers, Gain. What a terrific book about American capitalism. And how often do you get to say that? (Go on, nominate JR.) Also full of neat wordplay and eminently readable. Plus, Powers has an excellent and timely sense of what it means to slide into the Best Healthcare System in the World™.

Your turn.

see UPDATE at bottom of post

Washington Monthly releases its 2009 college rankings, putting UC Davis at number 10 overall. But perhaps more importantly, UCD ranks number 4 (or maybe it’s 6, I’m not quite getting this right [see UPDATE below]—anyway, it’s higher) on “social mobility”—the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate based on the number of Pell Grants awarded and SAT scores.

The social mobility score is more complicated. We have data that tells us the percentage of a school’s students on Pell Grants, which is a good measure of a school’s commitment to educating lower-income kids. We’d like to know how many of these students graduate, but schools aren’t required to track those figures. Still, because lower-income students at any school are less likely to graduate than wealthier ones, the percentage of Pell Grant recipients is a meaningful indicator in and of itself. If a campus has a large percentage of Pell Grant students—that is to say, if its student body is disproportionately poor—it will tend to diminish the school’s overall graduation rate.

We have a formula that predicts the graduation rate of the average school given its percentage of Pell students and its average SAT score. (Since most schools only provide the twenty-fifth percentile and the seventy-fifth percentile of scores, we took the mean of the two. For schools where a majority of students took the ACT, we converted ACT scores into SAT equivalents.) Schools with graduation rates that are higher than the “average” school with similar stats score better than schools that match, or, worse, undershoot the mark.

Now Aggies, when you cruise around the other parts of the town, put your decal in back.


So, if you look at UC Davis, you see a 4 in the ranking under social mobility. But if you sort by social mobility, it comes in 6. Here, apparently, is the deal: they do two measures for social mobility. (1) What’s the overall percentage of students at the college on Pell grants? Is it more than average given the school’s selectivity? If yes, it goes up in the rankings. (2) On a regression analysis, is the college’s graduation rate higher or lower than projected, considering the proportion of students on Pell grants? If it’s higher, it goes up in the rankings. UCD ranks 4 on measure (2) and 6 if you combine both social mobility measures.

Notice, too, that if you sort the table by social mobility ranking, five of the top ten are UC’s; overall four of the top ten are UC’s.

highres_30018917 copy.jpgOn this day in 1939, the German Army invaded Poland. Operation Fall Weiß (Case White), as it was code-named, sent more than 60 German divisions storming into Poland. It came a day after the Gleiwitz incident, one part of Operation Himmler. The latter had German troops dressed in Polish uniforms attacking German emplacements along the border in order to give a casus belli. At Gleiwitz, for example, an SS unit so dressed attacked a German radio transmitter and then retreated, leaving behind dead bodies also dressed in Polish uniforms. The bodies–those of concentration camp inmates–were called Konserve, or “Canned Goods.”

Operation Himmler served as the official German pretext for the invasion of Poland. Needless to say, the invasion was actually long-planned, and came at the end of a whole series of aggressive moves by the Nazi government, including the remilitarization of the Rhine, the forced reunification of Austria–the Anschluss–and the absorption of Czechoslovakia (with the connivance of Britain and France). The British and French had finally drawn a line in the sand when Hitler turned to Poland, but it was a line drawn next to the Baltic Sea, where those western powers were essentially helpless.

Molotov signing, with Stalin behind him

The only power that might have intervened to back Germany down was the Soviet Union but on 1 September they were Hitler’s allies, not enemies. Perhaps Hitler’s greatest diplomatic triumph, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939, had rewritten the balance of power in Eastern Europe. Its public clauses were expressions of friendship and mutual defense against third party attacks. Its secret clauses handed the Baltic States to the USSR and split Poland between the two countries. Even though they were secret, the clauses danced around the issue in an oddly passive voice: “In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and U.S.S.R. In this connection the interest of Lithuania in the Vilna area is recognized by each party,” read the first secret clause. “In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state, the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San. The question of whether the interests of both parties make desirable the maintenance of an independent Polish States and how such a state should be bounded can only be definitely determined in the course of further political developments. In any event both Governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly agreement,” read the second. “In the event of”? What, was Poland going to slip in the shower and accidentally rearrange itself territorially? In any case, the Pact set up the invasion nicely for the Germans. It meant that they need not worry about Soviet intervention against them.

The invasion represented two experiments on the part of the Nazis. First, Hitler (as he had been for so long) continued pushing the western powers to see how much he could expand in Central Europe without them pushing back. He had taken Austria and Czechoslovakia with either little protest or active cooperation. Poland was obviously a much larger gamble as a full-scale military invasion. The second experiment was with something of a new form of warfare. The German Army had spent much of the interwar years arguing furiously about how to deal with the static mess that had been the Western Front. Unlike the French, who essentially decided on the pre-built trench system of the Maginot line, the Germans looked to mobility to break the stalemate. This was not universally loved within the German high command, but there was enough support that the Germans began creating divisions of tanks and mechanized infantry, supported by mobile artillery and ground attack aircraft. When the war started in September 1939, the number of those divisions was still relatively low but they served as the spearheads as the German Army launched itself into the Polish defenses. This operational method was not fully developed in Poland, nor was it truly a break from the past German practices. It was, in many ways, a great trial run of a German way of war that had existed since Frederick the Great and before, reinvented for mass industrial war.


The Poles, unfortunately for them, had played into the German hands (as the Soviets would two years later). Their defense pushed right up to the Polish border and aimed only to grudgingly give ground, while waiting for the British and French to come to their aid by attacking Germany in the west. That put an large number of Polish units into the Poznan salient along the western border, ripe for German plucking. Poland’s overall strategic situation was dire, but this disposition of forces was, to put it mildly, not optimal.

In any case, at 4:45 am on that day, the ancient German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish fortifications in Westerplatte and German units surged across the border from Prussia, northern Germany, and southern Germany. Twenty years earlier, the negotiators in Paris had been writing a treaty that they hoped would avert another catastrophe like the Great War. The sound of the guns on September 1 was a sign of their most signal failure.

Map from United States Military Academy Department of History.

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