July 28, 2005

Economic illiteracy in City Pages

From City Pages:

Although technically a subsidized agricultural commodity, unlike other crops sugar has historically earned its keep. The U.S. sugar program currently operates at no cost to taxpayers thanks to a system of loans, domestic quotas, and import restrictions.

Well, I suppose that makes it OK then! No cost to taxpayers on the federal budget. But plenty of inefficiency in the sugar beet market besides.

(Also noted on Minnesota Politics)

Posted by robe0419 at 8:34 AM

July 26, 2005

The New World conceit

America is uniquely screwed up about class. So are the other new world countries

As I write this I'm coding occupations from a database of the complete 1880 census of the United States. Mechanically, what I'm doing is looking at 80 character descriptions of people's jobs, and giving them 5 digit codes in an Access database. In the end this will allow anyone who cares (and is not a genealogist) to make some sense of the 550,000 different responses 37 million Americans (the other 13 million were under the age of 10, and thus ineligible to answer, or neglected to give a response) gave to the basic request for the "Profession, occupation, or trade of each person, male or female."

Right about now I am working my way through assorted odds and sods who work on the railroad, thinking about whether someone who describes their job as "tends station" is like a "station master" and kind of a manager, or whether "tends station" is more of a subordinate clerical position. And what about someone who "works at railroad station." What do they do? If they were the station master, surely they would say that? Probably "works at railroad station" means the man (this is 1880) does general duties at the station; perhaps selling tickets, unloading freight, calling the arrival and departure of trains. In the end, some of the actual meaning of the job is lost to history.

I mention this to dispel any lingering notions that historical demography and economic history are glamorous profession, but also to make the point by example that while clarity may be elusive the distinctions do matter. There was a substantial difference in pay and status between the station master and the grunt who unloaded goods or shoveled coal. Needless to say, being the President of the railroad was even more prestigious.

(At the risk of losing my readers in this digression, there were lots of small railroad companies in 19th century America, many of which were incorporated, so being president of a railroad could mean being president of a 6 mile transfer line, or being James J. Hill and holding sway over the plains and northwest. More of the former than the latter.)

Class is a slippery subject, and I have considerable sympathy for the New York Times endeavor to say something about class in America in their Class Matters series. They're not the only ones; the LA Times examined risk and inequality for families back in October 2004, and the Wall Street Journal looked at inter-generational income mobility in a May/June 2005 series (but for that you'll need a subscription, sorry).

The Times series gets the most criticism, because it was more ambitious, and because it's the New York Times. Paper of record, liberal elite and all that.

They cop it from all over the place --none of the people commenting on the series had much love for it after the obligatory "glad someone's looking at this" comment. Two of the more substantial criticisms come from Chris Lehmann in the Boston Phoenix, and Jack Schafer in Slate.

Lehmann's take is that:

Social class is at the core of the Times’ institutional identity, which prevents the paper from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching discussion the subject demands.

Anyone who has ever read the catalog of heiresses marrying scions (Yes. Still. In 2005), and doctors marrying lawyers (a more recent development) that is the Times' Weddings and Celebrations section will know the ring of truth in this charge.

Schafer's criticism is rambling, and all over the map (but then so is his target). He makes an advance on the argument that class is really moot these days, because most everyone has more and better material possessions than people did back in the day, which he defines as the 1960s.

Then he says relying on surveys that exclude immigrants--who have high relatively high inter-generational mobility--"places a cloud" over the "whole project. Really? When only 11% of the country is foreign born I'd say that places a cloud over, ummmm, 11% of the project. But whatever. What's 89% of the population when you have an axe to grind?

Then he says that because choices and circumstances differ (1) between individuals and families at a point in time, and (2) for one person over time, you can't make sense of class at all:

Lives are in such flux over any two points in time—one ages, marries, divorces, spawns, changes jobs, gets sick, gets sicker, gets well, moves to a new climate, etc.—that it's maddeningly complex to determine whether one's stock is up or down .... No consumer price index, academic data, and statistical tool known to man can crack these nuts.

That's true, people's lives are up and down, but there are ways to account for these individual variations in circumstances.

Finally, Schafer lights upon the idea that journalists in New York are particularly envious of the people they report on. The whole series, he suggests, is really an expression of journalists own status anxiety:

Journalists are notoriously sensitive to matters of class and status, especially a New York journalist with a $125,000 salary that might make him an object of envy to a reporter living in Lansing, Mich., but that stigmatizes him as a knuckle-dragging proletarian on his home turf .... If they're blue about class in America, you can't blame them.

This is the admonition to look at an author's perspective motivation gone amok, beyond parody. Nobody can write about class because we're all so invested in our part of the class structure.

Now you can see the continuing appeal of Tocqueville . It's the foreign observer, mixing easily with the locals, traveling the country, who can see the people and their social relations as they really are. Something to aspire to.

But what I've seen, as a foreigner from another new world country, is that American ambivalence about the existence of class relations is not unique. It's unique in its particular forms—the usual things that can be used to explain why American social history is not the same as Canadian/Australian/New Zealand social history: race and religion—are relevant here too. But the national myth—or delusion—that class does not exist here persists.

Tocqueville observed about America in a section entitled "Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly so Called" that

In democracies servants are not only equal among themselves, but it may be said that they are, in some sort, the equals of their masters

When Tocqueville spoke of "manners" he didn't mean how you hold your knife and fork (<joke>and just as well for Americans whose incompetent use of these instruments is the disgrace of the civilized world</joke>), but rather of the way in which people of different economic circumstances conversed and interacted.

His observation that these interactions were less formal and more equal than in Britain was echoed in the Antipodes. In Australia and New Zealand it was said that:

'Jack's as good as his master' here, and even better in some cases

This rather echoes Tocqueville's observations from earlier in the century about the United States.

Contemporary [19th century] observers attributed this equality of interaction to the economic mobility in the new world, and one man one vote elections. If men could advance rapidly and far from humble origins (inter-generational mobility) and humble starts (career advancement) then servants might soon be masters. Moreover, in the voting booth servants and masters spoke with the same weight.

There was, of course, inequality in the new world. But these new world countries came of age with the justifiable belief that there was more economic mobility and political equality than in Europe. Comparing at least Britain and the United States we know this was true. Contemporary observers were not wrong. The national myths of the classless society was grounded in something real. It was always likely a bit of an exaggeration, but it expressed some reality, and reflected an important ideal.

In the last century two things have changed (just two? not really. two things that are relevant). We know the United States has become less economically mobile, (it's probably true for Australia and New Zealand too) compared to its past and to European countries; and old world Europe has become more politically equal.

The exceptionalism of the relationship between rich and poor, between the new world and the old, reflects an historical ideal, rather than a current reality. The myths of the new world classless societies attributed mobility and easy social relations to the character of immigrants and the bountiful opportunities of abundant land.

We tend to forget that economic mobility in a society does not spring just from the good character of its population and [what appears to be] free land. Policy, government policy, is important too.

Universal male suffrage created a constituency for policy that distributed benefits to many white men. When land appeared free it was easy to distribute benefits to the relatively poor without taking from the wealthy. That is a harder trick to play when land is no longer free, abundant or very useful. Policy that promotes economic mobility may advance the interests of many at the expense of some others. But governments that want to stay in office have to wonder about balancing the votes they will lose when they take and tax, with the votes they will win when they spend and distribute.

That's a harder trick to pull off. Getting the right balance between government intervention to ensure opportunity, and government interventions that do too much to ensure outcomes is not straightforward.

We should not kid ourselves in the New World that because we have a history of high economic mobility, and because we idealize mobility, that class does not exist and does not matter. Because class has many dimensions—measurable and not—we will never really understand it. But that does not mean that class doesn't exist. The belief that a history of opportunity and an ideal of mobility persists into the present is the conceit of the new world.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:41 PM

July 25, 2005

Judge Roberts

John Roberts has been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since Evan is the Welsh version of John, I'm thrilled that a sort-of-namesake could be elevated to the highest court in the land.

As far as I know (these people could probably find a connection 23 generations back) John and I are not related. But good luck to him, anyway.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:31 PM

July 22, 2005

Anonymous or pseudonymous

Two meta-blogging posts in a week! It must be the summer silly season.

One of the easily distributed pieces of wisdom in last week's discussions of the Ivan Tribble article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the more titillating story of how a New York journalist fired her nanny after reading her blog (well discussed on bitchphd) was this: blog pseudonymously, or blog anonymously.

Now, I could well have chosen to blog anonymously by using blogspot or typepad, or whatever, but I had few qualms about putting my name, face and opinions out in public. I also like to kid myself that other aspects of my CV will outweigh any hiring committee member who objects to my opinions about tipping, American football, and sweaty Mormons.

The most basic and unoriginal point is that pseudonymous and anonymous are not the same thing. Most all blogs that are anonymous are pseudonymous when referring to people and places, but remaining anonymous takes real skill.

Indeed might it be better to blog under your own name and think carefully about what you put out there—don't complain about colleagues or friends, don't express shrill political opinions, etc... —than to blog pseudonymously, say things that might well offend people, and be found out.

Many pseudonymous bloggers mention enough real details about their life that they very quickly reduce the set of people that anyone determined to unmask them has to examine. For example, when people give pretty fine detail about their job, even in the United States, you quickly narrow the field of possible blog writers down to a small number. Combine that with information about where someone is living and we really are talking about pretty small numbers.

Do pseudonymous bloggers take great care to anonymize any email with people who leave comments on their blog? I ask, because this, in part, was how some determined people worked out who Atrios was. They received some email that came from the library servers at the main line colleges in Philadelphia, put that together with Atrios' informed comment about economics, and began to suspect it was an adjunct professor of economics. And so he was.

Do pseudonymous bloggers who wish to remain anonymous keep their blogs free of photos? Put some photos in there, especially if it's of your haircut, or your hometown, and you're well on the way to providing someone with more evidence of who you might be.

I say this not to criticize pseudonymous bloggers for these posts about their jobs, and the photos of their haircuts, which I have enjoyed reading. The question really is, does putting something on the internet pseudonymously entitle you to anonymity? Is anonymity what people with pseudonyms actually want?

If I wanted to find out who profgrrrl was, could I? Perhaps, with some effort, and focussed googling. For the record, I'm not about to try. Could I find out who BitchPhD was? With a lot more difficulty. Not going to try that one either. Would it be weird? Yes. Would it be unethical? Hmmmm ... And there's the rub.

If you publish something on the internet, are you entitled to remain anonymous? I think back to the pseudonymous pamphleteers of the American revolution, who actually risked real physical violence for their views, and think that remaining anonymous is justified. There are also, of course, contemporary pseudonymous bloggers in such places as Iraq, China, and Zimbabwe who risk real violence for their expression too. I speak not of these blogs, but the pseudonymous blogs that have proliferated in politically free countries. The cost of being unmasked for most is embarrassment or job dismissal.

But there's also the established tradition of the pseudonym as parlour game, where the readership is encouraged to take some initiative and find out who wrote that. Who knows how your audience is going to react to your cloaking?

There's also the question, if you're truly, truly uncomfortable with being found out, why put your thoughts in an established, consistent place with a known—if alternate & pseudonymous—personality?

Some of the pseudonymous bloggers I read have argued that the linking between and commenting on pseudonymous blogs allows the creation of a supportive community. I have some sympathy for this view. One of the great things about the internet is how it allows people from diverse locations to come together around shared interests, and to choose the level of disclosure involved. I am less sure whether blogs, even pseudonymous ones, are the appropriate venue for those discussions.

Many message boards are anonymous, and provide much of the same support and community, without the investment in an identity and personality that a blog requires.

Obviously, it's for everyone to set their own boundaries for themselves about what is and isn't public. But I do think that the right to anonymity on a blog are less than on an anonymous message board, and certainly less than in a privately kept diary. Having kept a diary for two decades now (that clause made me realise how old I am), I'm all for the self-awareness [and self-delusion] that comes through writing. But I do think that much of that should
stay hidden from public view.

I used to include a regular amount of political and cultural musings in my diary—possibly a sign I wasn't getting out enough—but have largely transferred those to the blog now. Public place. Public comments. In my view.

When I started this entry, my idea that pseudonymous blogs were not as anonymous as all that was just an idea. This morning I was searching for reviews of a hotel that I'm planning to stay at on a trip later this year, and came across a blog entry from someone who had stayed there. The anecdotes she related sounded eerily familiar to those a friend—who I knew had stayed there—had told me. So I clicked through to the front page, and saw that, sure enough, this was the blog of a friend-of-a-friend (who I've never met, but have heard of).

In this blog, people's names had been replaced by a series of consistent pseudonyms. But the names of cities and activities and events were there. Just a couple of mentions from my friend about this other friend, were enough to make me think "this has to be X, my friend Y's friend." And so it was. And I've only heard about "X" twice.

In this instance nothing too bad will come of my idle "research" and stumbling upon the blog entry. But if it's easy enough for me to guess this person's identity when I've never met them, when they use pseudonyms for all people, I think it would be very easy for others who know the person to guess that too.

The use of proper names for places and activities was helpful, to be sure, but I note that some pseudonymous bloggers who are seemingly careful not to reveal the name of their hometown do not provide pseudonyms for places they travel too. Others do.

People who know you closely enough in real life might well be able to identify you even if you used pseudonyms for nearly everything you did. If you tell the truth about the relationship between people and events, that can easily be enough for people to work out who you are.

In the end this is a continuing debate, and I have no pithy answer to the questions I've littered along the path. But I would say this: most all of us know how to be polite, how to think about how others might hear us, it's something we've been learning since we were really young; not a lot of us know how to make writing pseudonymous enough to be anonymous, it's not really taught so much in school or at home.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:19 PM

July 21, 2005

Why Americans might care about New Zealand's election

Like "worthy Canadian initiatives," foreign readers may yawn when they hear of "Elections due in New Zealand." Anyone still awake out there?

A brief primer on New Zealand politics can be found at the bottom of this entry.

For the first time since 1981 the likely winner is not clear in advance. Only a year ago the Labour government looked odds on to win another comprehensive victory. Now, the National party which was the dominant party in New Zealand politics between 1949 and 1984, has a chance to win a shot at government. Owing to the electoral system, any majority government would likely have to be a coalition with the populist and unpredictable New Zealand First party. Both Labour and National might well prefer to take their chances on running a minority government, seeking support on an issue-by-issue basis.

There are a couple of reasons Americans might care about the New Zealand election. The first is trade. Both the Labour and National parties are committed to free trade. New Zealand's commitment to further liberalization of world trade is not going to change with this election. Labour's trade diplomacy has been to support the ongoing World Trade Organisation negotiations, pursue free trade agreements with small countries (recently concluding an agreement with Chile and Singapore. This is not as crazy as it sounds), and to plough ahead with further economic integration with Australia. (For whatever reason, it has historically been the norm that New Zealand and Australian bilateral relations are strongest and most productively focussed on issues of joint concern when the domestic governments are not of the same party.)

Both parties would love to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. However, it's pretty clear that the current American administration does not really negotiate free trade agreements, it "negotiates" "free trade" agreements.

The Bush administration has pretty clearly demonstrated that it will put out the trade agreement it wants, and it's a take it or leave it offer for the other country, and American industries with an interest in the trade deal. That's not really negotiation. It's also not really free trade.

The Australian FTA proposal, a good template for what New Zealand might be offered, required Australia to substantially modify its pharmaceutical purchasing and pricing policies, and in exchange accept fairly limited access to the American market for its primary produce (meat and wool).

It's also clear that the Bush administration sees trade diplomacy as having a symbiotic relationship with security and military diplomacy. Australia was offered a FTA because it had been supportive of American foreign policy after 9/11.

Such are the realities of great power politics. It has been made fairly clear to New Zealand that a bilateral FTA will only follow when the New Zealand government modifies its foreign policy in other areas. For a while, the US clearly hoped that NZ might offer more than the 40 engineers it had sent to serve with the British in Iraq in late 2003. But now it's clear that the US is going to have trouble convincing anyone to pony up men or troops for Iraq, the sticking point in relations has returned to being New Zealand's ban on nuclear powered or nuclear armed ships entering its waters.

New Zealand's security position is relatively benign. Situated where it is, several thousand more miles from Asia than Australia, the country's perception of international threats is quite different. While Australia has legitimate security concerns because of its proximity to Indonesia, New Zealand has a much larger moat to hide behind. This is not to defend a blindness to the world situation, but merely to indicate that there are good reasons for New Zealand to believe it faces few external threats to its sovereignty in the near future. It may be that in 10 or 20 years, Indonesia or China or Vietnam, or some other large Asian country does pose a threat to New Zealand's security, but the cost-benefit on arming against low-probability, distant threats is small.

Similarly, because of New Zealand's geographic location, the public wonders why the US should find it so necessary to its global strategy to send nuclear armed or powered vessels. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the most common reason for foreign navies to visit New Zealand ports is so that sailors can have sex. I exaggerate slightly, to be sure, but "R&R" is a major reason for naval visits to New Zealand.

For both these reasons—public perception of limited external threat, and scepticism about New Zealand's importance to global strategy—the anti-nuclear policy remains very popular. Eighty percent of the population support the ban. This constrains any government that has to deal with the United States.

The National party put out feelers earlier this year about repealing the ban on nuclear powered vessels, and was pilloried in the press for doing so. Subsequent statements on the matter have been much more cautious, with the leader musing that any change might have to be approved by a referendum. Nevertheless, it's clear that the National Party is prepared to "modify" the nuclear ships ban, in pursuit of a FTA with the United States.

Thus, the results of the New Zealand election are likely to have some impact on relations at the inter-governmental level. My own view is that Labour's policy and instincts have been broadly right. The chimera of a bilateral FTA with the United States is not worth so much as to accept the approach of linking trade and military/security diplomacy. If the US market was much more important to NZ than it is, or the bilateral FTA could be expanded to include other countries, then the benefits might be greater it might be worth it.

But as it stands, bilateral trade agreements are clearly inferior to freer world trade, and it's not clear how long the Bush administration's linking of trade and security diplomacy will last. Putting one's diplomatic efforts into the WTO negotiations is likely to have a larger, long-term payoff for New Zealand. It is clear that any Bush administration-negotiated "free trade" agreement for New Zealand would maintain substantial barriers to real free trade in agricultural products. That's a shame, because American consumers are losing out on cheaper meat and diary products than they currently have.

While I'm not privy to whatever has been said between governments, the debate in public about the nuclear ships ban suggests that neither side has worked behind the scenes for a compromise. On the one hand, the Bush administration waxes loud and long about the importance of democracy. On the other, it then puts pressure on friendly countries to ignore what their voters believe. We saw this in the run-up to invasion of Iraq when the Chilean government was caught between 90% domestic opposition to the invasion, and the government's desire to maintain good relationships with the United States.

The way forward for the next New Zealand government (nothing will happen until after the election), Labour or National, should be to inform the American government privately that they would welcome a conventional ship visit, and to suggest a suitable vessel. After all, information on the power source of American navy ships is publicly accessible in Jane's Fighting Ships.

The other way forward is for the governments to co-operate on soft power issues. I've said before (but am too lazy to link to it) that one of the flaws in America's official soft-power strategy at the moment is the hubris that the United States is the only force for democracy in the world. World's oldest democracy, blah, blah, blah ... If only it were true. A little recognition that other countries have substantial experience with democracy as well, might actually help in spreading democracy. As well as the older democracies (like New Zealand), it seems that the lesson of the last twenty years from places like South Africa, Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, and Mozambique is that democracy can grow and flourish in diverse conditions and cultures.

The trouble with democratization as a diplomatic goal is that democracy is a process, not an outcome. American official pronouncements speak as if repealing legislation, like the nuclear ships ban, with 80% popular support, were so easy. It's not, and it's even harder when governments appear to have been walked into that position under pressure. New Zealand's election will have little consequence for many Americans, but it will be interesting to observe whether the Bush administration has learned much about diplomacy in friendly countries. When an administration can't even manage its relationships with its friends, its no wonder they struggle with their enemies.

Potted introduction to New Zealand politics

New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, with a unicameral parliament. The executive is drawn from the members of the legislature (=House of Representatives). The Prime Minister is the head of the Cabinet, and [generally] the leader of the largest party grouping in the House of Representatives. The House has 120 Members of Parliament (=MPs)

Elections must be held at least every three years, but the government can call an early ("snap") election at any time if they feel like it.

The voting system is called "mixed-member proportional," and is less complicated than it sounds. Everyone casts a "party vote," and an electorate (=district/constituency) vote. The party vote determines the overall party make-up of the parliament. Once the winners of the 65 electoral districts have been determined, parties are then enough list seats to get them up to their required number of seats. So, let's say a party wins 1/3 of the party votes, and 30 of the [geographic] electorate seats. They are entitled to 40 seats in parliament. Their next 10 members are then drawn from the remaining 55 seats that are distributed to make seats in parliament proportionate to votes across the whole country.

The two main parties are the Labour and National parties. The Labour party dates to 1916, and is one of the younger social democratic parties in the western world. It tends to support somewhat more generous social welfare programs, and government intervention in the economy, and more independent foreign policy. However, is is very supportive of free global trade, and Labour party treasurers have nearly always supported conservative fiscal policies. It governed from 1935-49, 57-60, 72-75, 84-90 and 1999 to the present.

The National Party dates to 1936, and is similar to the British Conservative party or the Australian liberal party. It has historically been identified with the urban wealthy and employers, and the rural farming communities as its core supporters, but has supported the welfare state enough to win lower and middle income votes. It first won office in 1949, and governed from 1949-1957, 1960-1972, 1975-1984, and 1990-1999.

Both parties are, compared to America, socially "liberal." Reflecting New Zealand's secular culture, there is a very small constituency for bringing religion into politics. Indeed, recent New Zealand prime ministers who have been church attenders have gone out of their way to stress that they would not let their religious beliefs influence their politics. Abortion has not been a topic of major political debate since the 1970s.

There are several smaller parties in parliament, the New Zealand First party, a populist party opposed to immigration from Asia, and supportive of more government intervention in the economy; a Green party, a small "Progressive" party, and the "United Future" party who are slightly conservative on social and cultural issues, but liberal on economic issues (in the sense of favoring less regulation and government spending).

Posted by robe0419 at 1:42 PM

July 15, 2005

Friday cat blogging

Nice life if you can get it ...

Me, I've spent the day correcting forty two pages of page proofs, and filling out immigration forms. Honestly, I'd prefer to be filling out tax forms!

Back in the day—that would be 1997—when I first encountered page proofs as a research assistant, some journals still seemed to be re-keying the text. As you might imagine, this led to somewhat more errors. Perversely it made correcting the page proofs easier. You knew you'd find at least an error a page (and people with more experience and years in the business can tell us about the times when one error a page was a good thing), so there was some reward for your time.

Nowadays with many presses sliding the text in from your word processing document, there are fewer errors at the final stage. But it's still the final stage. Last chance to save yourself from error. Who wants something out there under their name with "forth two" for "forty two." Not me. Coincidentally, there were as many pages in the article as there were articles that we reviewed. Now, hopefully, I just wait for the October issue to arrive ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:58 PM

July 14, 2005

Page proofs

Page proofs for my forthcoming article in Medical Care Research & Review have arrived. The joy of forthcoming publications is always tempered by the concentration of checking the proofs, and trusting that crucial words or numbers have not been mistakenly excised somewhere along the line.

So, you can guess what I'm doing first thing tomorrow. Not blogging ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:39 PM

July 13, 2005

Welcome, new readers

Welcome readers who have been kindly referred by New Kid on the Hallway.

Please stop a moment and look around. The kettle switches off automatically when it is done. Please save your coffee grounds and tea bags for the compost.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:15 PM

July 11, 2005

Should you blog?

The topic du jour on some academic blogs is a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by "Ivan Tribble" (Who decides on Chronicle pseudonyms? They always sound so unreal, as if they generate the first and last names randomly and separately without regard for their euphony when paired) that argues blogging is a net negative for people on the job market.

Tribble's article has been thoroughly deconstructed in the links above, so there may not be much new to say.

I do like the irony of a pseudonymous piece in the Chronicle asking "What is the purpose of broadcasting one's unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? It's not hard to imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum. But it's also not hard to find examples of the worst kinds of uses."

The same goes double for many of the Chronicle's pseudonymous complainers. I'm unashamed to say that the pseudonymous articles in the Chronicle have many of the same demerits as blogs, because I have the inkling of a view that they are all written by the same person.

Perhaps the Chronicle just has a very firm copy editor for the pseudonymous contributions to the "First Person," but a lot of them read with the same tropes and tone. It's like the questions advice columnists get -- they just sound a little too similar to be genuine.

Many of the articles in the Chronicle's First Person section are written as a tragedy. There is no room for romance, comedy, and certainly not satire. Not intentional satire or comedy, that is.

The common theme of a Chronicle First Person tragedy, like Ivan Tribble's piece is the dashed expectation. About one third of the way through these pieces the writer details the moment of their realization that s/he was suffering from an illusion, an idealization of the world. That illusion was cruelly shattered by the way the academic job market works. The point of their pieces is to save others from such cruel realizations, by letting them in on a secret.

The revealed secret is another common element in these Chronicle pieces. They convey a tone of "I have seen inside the guild, and I can tell you just this much. You can't even imagine what else I know now."

This is, to say the least, a little problematic. Since these Chronicle pieces are pseudonymous the author's authority rests entirely on the logic of their argument and evidence. To be fair, the Chronicle authors seem to be constrained to about 1500 words. Still, they often move a little too rapidly from "I was a naive, idealistic young thing," to "I can dispense pithy wisdom on this topic." It really does strain the reader's credulity.

It doesn't help that this amazing transformation from naïveté to sage adviser to the world often occurs in the course of a single job search (whether as candidate or committee). Of course, once you're tenured you can probably safely publish in the Chronicle under your own name and damn most of the consequences.

Nor does it help the pseudonymous authors that their pieces are largely anecdotal. A sense of the scale of the problem they faced, and whether their experience was representative, often goes missing in the Chronicle.

These elements are all present in "Ivan Tribble's" essay on the applicant bloggers.

Initial naïveté about the subject? Yes. Tribble and his colleagues were clearly unaware of the diversity of blogs and the purposes to which they were put.

Tragedy and dashed expectations? Yes, in spades. See, here it is, the high initial expectations: "Don't get me wrong: Our initial thoughts about blogs were, if anything, positive." followed a couple of paragraphs later by "Several members of our search committee found the sheer volume of blog entries daunting enough to quit after reading a few. Others persisted into what turned out, in some cases, to be the dank, dark depths of the blogger's tormented soul."

Letting readers in on the secret the author has just learned? Yes. "You may think your blog is a harmless outlet," Tribble writes. (emphasis added)

A missing sense of scale and representativeness? Yes. How convenient for Tribble that the shortlist contained both Professor Shrill and Professor Bagged Cat, whose blogs were opinionated and emotional. How convenient, too, that Professor Turbo Geek's blog illustrates that job candidates might have significant outside interests.

Blogging is young and it's entirely possible that a genuine job search might turn up only bloggers who write about other interests, personal observations, and personal torments. But there are so many examples of non-anonymous blogs by graduate students and un-tenured faculty that are used for serious writing about research, that you have to wonder how deeply Tribble and colleagues delved into the range and realm of academic blogs.

I've said before that the new word, "blog," obscures the continuity with other forms of communication. Tribble's cautionary tale to bloggers is really not about blogging, it's about Google.

Blogging software does allow people to easily post things to the world, and, sure, the ease of that process may let some people put out half-formed opinions and rants. But to call these "unfiltered" as Tribble does is misleading exaggeration. Inadequately filtered, sure. But not unfiltered. A blog is always a partial, selective, and constructed online persona.

As "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast" says, there's an easy solution for that problem. Think before you post. Imagine whether you'd say that at a party with people you'd never met. Or, imagine saying what you're writing in the apparently more casual atmosphere of a dinner or coffee with a job search committee, where many a candidate has slipped up.

But, really, it's Google, not blogging that is the issue here. This blog ranges from topic to topic, a mixture over time of serious academic musings and drafts of arguments, commentary on contemporary politics, observations on cultural differences, and running.

Even without the blog, anyone with a search engine would have been able to find that I had put drafts of work on the internet, that I had authored several little essays interpreting New Zealand and the United States to each other, that I had been involved in New Zealand's republican movement, and that my other passion was long distance running. I also occasionally wrote letters to the editor on current politics, though these predate any New Zealand newspaper's move onto the internet.

I suspect that I'm not alone in having a somewhat copious internet oeuvre without really trying. People that go onto graduate school and then apply for academic jobs have a large overlap with the kind of people who are interested in contemporary events and affairs, sign online petitions, get involved in politics and community organizations, write for the student newspaper, and have a hobby or sport on the side.

Anyone interested in googling job candidates can find out all about their candidates other interests, even if the candidate does not have a blog. Indeed, I wonder if having a blog might in time be an advantage, precisely because it focuses your internet presence. That intemperate 1998 column in the "Small College Small Campus Paper" that Clinton should share a cell with Ken Starr, and Hillary should be appointed President? Lost on page 17 of the Google search results. Your more recent musings on how the draft of your dissertation might look? An intelligent observation about the next Presidential election? Easy to find on your blog. Which would you rather they read?

To me it seems that the gist of Tribble's article is that the search committee was shocked (shocked) to learn that their candidates had outside interests and emotions that might prevent candidates from spending 14 hours a day on research or teaching.

There's nothing new about this attitude on academic search committees -- it has after all been reported in many First Person columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A friend of mine--blogless--writes and publishes poetry as a hobby. You might think that in the humanities this kind of other interest would be seen as a useful complement to scholarship, making them a truly cultured person. Not so much. Some faculty have advised my friend that the poetry might be seen negatively by a search committee. After all, if they can find the time to write poetry and a dissertation, they can't have been serious about their studies. What if this scholar-poet were offered a faculty job, and then decided that really they wanted to be a poet instead of a professor?

A concern about blogging is just the re-expression of age-old concerns that job candidates might not be slaves to the academic galley, and might have personality "quirks" that don't quite fit into the department as it currently exists.

Daniel Drezner advises graduate students to "think very, very, very carefully about the costs and benefits of blogging under one's own name (emphasis original)." I'm not sure that I thought very, very, very carefully about blogging under my own name; perhaps very carefully. It was a while ago that I started this.

It will also be quite a while (four years, at least) before I'm on the academic job market. I think it's likely that in that time the multi-purpose, multi-topic academic blog will be better understood by search committees. And if they still have anxieties about blogs, they'll probably still have anxieties about other indications of outside interests and well-formed personalities.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:56 PM

July 7, 2005

Always pack your knife in your checked luggage

Great article in the Guardian about the challenges the Swiss army knife has faced since September 11th.

Having owned a Swiss army knife since I was but a boy I can attest to their usefulness. I am not one of those exceedingly practical people who carries it all the time on their belt, and can fix locomotive engines with the toothpick. More the type to use the scissors to cut a loose thread from my rarely worn dress shirt before an out-of-town conference.

I always packed mine in my checked luggage. It never occurred to me, even before September 11 2001, that they would permit 3 inch sharp blades and saws on planes.

Buy a Swiss army knife. But always keep it in your checked luggage.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:00 PM

July 6, 2005

Separated at birth?

Posted by robe0419 at 12:27 PM

PSA: Default browser in OS X/Panther

Public service announcement: To change the default browser in OS X/Panther you have to open Safari, open its preferences, and change the default browser there.

Back to your regularly scheduled activities ...

Posted by robe0419 at 11:36 AM

July 5, 2005

Unions and politics

Matt Yglesias says articulately what I've often thought: the political weaknesses of the American labor movement are a huge problem for the Democratic party and social democratic/progressive politics in America.

Two quick observations. First is my recurring surprise at the hostility to unions by otherwise down-the-line Democrat voting, liberals. I sometimes find myself in the odd position with liberal American friends of being far more conservative on economic policy (free trade, balanced government budgets, in favor of toll roads etc ...) but much more instinctively supportive of unions than they are.

The second is a New Statesman article from years ago which surely won't be online turns out to be online that argues:

... trade unions will only thrive when they regard their role as being member-focused service organisations, just like any other -- the AA and RAC [=AAA] of the modern labour market

Americans can be mighty fond of their somewhat collectivist, co-operative institutions like churches and AAA. Unions could do worse than looking at the successes of those organizations for ideas about gaining and keeping members.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:24 PM

July 2, 2005

New Zealand 1500m record

Nick Willis has broken the New Zealand 1500m record, running 3:32.38 in Paris to break John Walker's 30 year old national record by 0.02 of a second.

You don't get much slimmer than that in athletics, but the symbolism of beating Walker's 1975 time is huge. (The New Zealand Herald article linked to says that Walker's national record was from the 1974 Commonwealth Games. It wasn't. Walker ran 3:32.5 at Christchurch, behind Filbert Bayi's winning 3:32.2 with both breaking the world record. Walker ran 3:32.4 the next year in Europe, before breaking the mile world record and the 3:50 barrier)

There was an interview a few weeks ago where Willis matter-of-factly stated his ambition to break all the New Zealand national records between 1500m and 5000m. Most of the publicity for his European campaign said he'd go after the 1500m record in Oslo (where Walker set the previous record), so perhaps we'll see him run even faster then. Here's hoping. He'll also attempt the 3000m record this month.

I met Nick years ago when he was probably 9 years old. His father is a colleague of my father at Victoria University. Nick's older brother, Steve, was a contemporary of mine in Wellington, and we ran together occasionally. Such are the ways of a small city like Wellington that plodders like myself can run with future sub-four minute milers and older brothers of future national record holders. Nick had the same coach in high school that I did, Don Dalgliesh. This says much about Don's generosity in coaching 9:40s 3000m runners like myself, along with low 1:50s 800m runners like Nick Willis.

In that small way hearing about a national record like this means something more than a world record I have no connection with at all.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:11 PM

Through the center of the earth

When I was a kid in New Zealand if we were digging in the sandpit or the garden the proverb was that if you kept digging through the earth you'd get all the way to Spain.

(American kids, I hear, are told they'll get to China. This is false, but no child is going to empirically disprove this lie by continuing to dig, so no harm done probably)

For whatever reason I've met more Spanish people in Minnesota (at the University to be specific) than I ever imagined. All of them report that children in Spain are told that if they keep digging they will get to New Zealand.

I think it is kind of cool that the proverbs people tell their children half a world away mirror each so neatly. It's not as if Spain looms large in the New Zealand imagination otherwise, and I imagine that New Zealand is not often on the minds of most Spaniards. Except when children are digging ...

Posted by robe0419 at 6:22 PM