Some thoughts on prostitution

December 19, 2009

Call girl, escort, fallen woman, harlot, hetaera, hoe, hooker, pro, streetwalker, sex worker, strumpet, tart, to be on the game,  tramp, trollop, whore, working girl… if you consult your thesaurus you will find these and many other words for prostitute. I don’t know about Eskimos and snow but English speakers have a serious obsession here. The reason for the ongoing popularity of prostitution is simple: men want more sex than they can get for free. To satisfy this demand there are women who will offer their services for the right price. The demand for sex seems to have remained pretty constant but supply has been affected since the sexual revolution. The spread of free love has been very negative for this industry. If sex for free is more available, then prices for those services go down. It would be a different story if prostitutes were an influential lobby – they could have this unfair competition penalised.

In economic terms the reason for this market is clear but it is also a moral question. There are two very different perspectives on this question. We have the abolitionists who favour zero tolerance. Their ranks include radical feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. They see it as a social problem. For them prostitution is always a denigrating act, that reflects power relations.

Others see prostitutes in a different light. They reject the image of victimhood that is so often portrayed by critics of prostitution. Surely if the transaction is consensual, it is a victimless crime. Obviously if coercion is involved, then the evaluation will be different. But to describe all prostitution as coercion is erroneous. There is a widespread belief that any woman who is selling sex must have been misled; she could not possibly have wanted to do it. In recent years a new hysteria has grown up around prostitutes. This moral panic was driven by political opportunism. Once again, as in the case of pornography, an unholy alliance of evangelical Christians and feminist campaigners pushed the trafficking story to secure their greater goal – to eradicate all prostitution. This story began to take shape in the mid 1990s, when the collapse of communist economies saw a mass exodus of young women from Eastern Europe. Soon the media began to report that these women had been “trafficked”. This is the type of story that the media just laps up. It was linked to the fears about illegal immigration. But as a recent academic report has shown, the numbers involved have been greatly exaggerated.

There are also feminists who reject the passive victim model and who argue in a free society a woman should be able to use her body as she chooses. They argue that sex workers should be treated like ordinary workers. Holland has gone down this road. One advocacy group that defends prostitutes’ rights is COYOTE, (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), whose goals include the decriminalization of prostitution, pimping and pandering, as well as the elimination of social stigma concerning sex work as an occupation.

I am not sure I really buy into the idea that selling sex is somehow empowering or an affirmation of female sexuality. Sex and commerce, while in some ways perfect bedfellows, will always raise difficult moral questions. Maybe prostitution does perpetuate those clichés about sex being something women do for male enjoyment. But as a libertarian I cannot accept the idea this activity, if it is between consenting adults should be subject to criminal prosecution. Let’s keep politicians, the police and judges out of private bedrooms.

Quotes about prostitution

December 19, 2009

Prostitution, although hounded, imprisoned, and chained, is nevertheless the greatest triumph of Puritanism. Emma Goldman

Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman’s body. Those of us who say this are accused of being simple-minded. But prostitution is very simple. (…) In prostitution, no woman stays whole. It is impossible to use a human body in the way women’s bodies are used in prostitution and to have a whole human being at the end of it, or in the middle of it, or close to the beginning of it. It’s impossible. And no woman gets whole again later, after. Andrea Dworkin

 Marriage is for woman the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution. Bertrand Russell

We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

What is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many? Angela Carter

Prostitution exists today because women are objectified sexually, and because it is considered more permissible for men than for women to have purely sexual experiences. Ruth Mazo Karras

If nobody wants to sell sex, it is a crime to force anyone to do so. But when men or women do want to sell their bodies, they should have that full right without encountering punishment or discrimination. If the client behaves decently, the relationship between the sex buyer and the sex seller must be considered a purely private transaction. Nils Johan Ringdal

Prostitution is criminal, and bad things happen because it’s run illegally by dirt-bags who are criminals. If it’s legal, then the girls could have health checks, unions, benefits, anything any other worker gets, and it would be far better. Jesse Ventura

Prostitution will always lead into a moral quagmire in democratic societies with capitalist economies; it invades the terrain of intimate sexual relations yet beckons for regulation. A society’s response to prostitution goes to the core of how it chooses between the rights of some persons and the protection of others. Barbara Meil Hobson

Prostitution reinforces all the old dumb clichés about women’s sexuality; that they are not built to enjoy sex and are little more than walking masturbation aids, things to be DONE TO, things so sensually null and void that they have to be paid to indulge in fornication, that women can be had, bought, as often as not sold from one man to another. When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women. Julie Burchill

The only way to stop this trafficking in and profiting from the use of women’s bodies is for prostitution to be legalized. Legalization will open it up to regulation; and regulation means safety. Jeannette Angell, call girl

When prostitution is a crime, the message conveyed is that women who are sexual are “bad,” and therefore legitimate victims of sexual assault. Sex becomes a weapon to be used by men. Margo St. James

Prostitution is the driving force behind sex trafficking. The demand fuels the industry. The U.S. must address the demand side of the equation if there is going to be success in combating the problem. Janice Crouse

 My thinking tends to be libertarian. That is, I oppose intrusions of the state into the private realm – as in abortion, sodomy, prostitution, pornography, drug use, or suicide, all of which I would strongly defend as matters of free choice in a representative democracy. Camille Paglia

My media week 20/12/09

December 19, 2009

A while back I posted a link to a blog called, which is “dedicated to the dribble-spattered lunacy of BBC Have Your Say discussions.” Recently the BBC news website posted this question “Should homosexuals face execution?” If you go the link now, the question has been rephrased. It now says “Should Uganda debate gay execution?” Some of the comments reminded me of Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where he suggested that the Irish should eat their children. Unfortunately I don’t these contributors were engaging in satire:

Homosexuality is not natural. It makes me very uncomfortable when you consider what it involves, although the death penalty is probably a little harsh.


I suggest all gays are put on a remote island somewhere and left for a generation – after which, theoretically there should be none left!


Homosexuals should not be executed. But homosexuality should be recognised for what it is – a perversion of natural sexual relations. Instead in our Godless humanistic society it is almost now being given some sort of protected and elevated status. Homosexual marriage is a travesty and an abomination. As is homosexuals in leadership positions in the church. One sign of a decaying society is the legitimising and the widespread practice of homosexuality. One of the major reasons for the fall of Rome.


Bravo to the Ugandans for this wise decision, a bright step in eliminating this menace from your society. We hope other African nations will also follow your bold step

NPR did a feature on The Most Influential Movies Of The Decade.

The Onion is doing a series on The Top 10 Stories Of The Last 4.5 Billion Years including this one: Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World
And amid the echoes of the Berlusconi incident The Daily Mash had BRITAIN DECIDING WHICH SOUVENIR TO HURL AT BROWN

Loving the alien

December 12, 2009

UFOlogy is the mythology of the space age. Rather than angels … we now have … extraterrestrials. It is the product of the creative imagination. It serves a poetic and existential function. It seeks to give man deeper roots and bearings in the universe. It is an expression of our hunger for mystery…our hope for transcendental meaning. The gods of Mt. Olympus have been transformed into space voyagers, transporting us by our dreams to other realms. Paul Kurtz, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and a prominent U.S. sceptic 

People are bringing shotguns to UFO sightings in Fife, Alabama. I asked a guy, “Why do you bring a gun to a UFO sighting?” Guy said, “Way-ul, we didn’t wanna be ab-duc-ted.” If I lived in Fife, Alabama, I would be on my hands and knees every night praying for abduction. Bill Hicks, American comedian

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure

How amazingly unlikely is your birth

And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space

Because there’s bugger all down here on Earth

The Galaxy Song, Monty Python

The idea of alien life has long attracted interest. In its most extreme form we have David Icke who in The Biggest Secret popularised the “Reptoid Hypothesis”, the idea that the world is controlled by reptilians from the constellation Draco, who walk on two legs, appear human and who live in tunnels and caverns inside the earth.* The UFO movement has enjoyed considerable success over the years with more than 30% of the American public believing in such phenomena; the figures for Europe are apparently similar.

I realise many people genuinely believe these stories but it is very difficult to take them seriously. The evidence is usually a blurred photograph. In fact, although there are many camcorders the actual number of sightings has gone down. Then we have alien abductions, the first of which appears to have been experienced by Betty and Barney Hill, who claimed they were abducted by aliens on September 19, 1961. These aliens of course took a sample of Barney’s sperm. The curious thing is that in this and all of the subsequent abductions, none of the abductees have brought back an alien artefact, which would resolve, once and for all, the UFO mystery.

The best analogy I have heard is with Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492. The native population certainly had no doubt that the Europeans had arrived. Can you imagine if the Spaniards had spent the next sixty years taking the piss out of the local populations with occasional sightings and the odd abduction for reproductive experiments? It took Columbus three months to cross the Atlantic; any interstellar voyage would surely be a massive endeavour. I don’t think they’ would be playing silly buggers..

So far I have only been looking at the wacky part of this enterprise but there is a more serious side. I am referring of course to the scientific search for extraterrestrial life. In particular I am thinking of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). This encompasses different scientific activities which are involved in the search for electromagnetic transmissions from civilizations on distant planets. The famous Drake equation has its origins in SETI. This equation, which was developed by Dr. Frank Drake in 1961, is designed to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy with which we could potentially come into contact. To calculate the answer it is necessary to multiply estimates of the following terms:

The rate of formation of suitable stars.

The fraction of those stars which are orbited by planets.

The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system.

The fraction of planets where intelligent life develops.

The fraction of possible communicative planets.

The “lifetime” of possible communicative civilizations.

From this Drake controversially estimated that in our Milky Way there could be around 10,000 planets containing intelligent life with the potential to communicate with us.

I don’t know about the ins and outs of this scientific debate. The size of space makes me think that the possibility of intelligent life is not inconceivable but the distances are also daunting. My concern is of a different nature – is it really a good idea? I am in favour of the quest for knowledge and I normally oppose the precautionary principle but in this case I do get a bit nervous. Going back to the Columbus example, we all know what happened when Europeans set foot in the New World. If aliens did ever arrive here, it would mean that they had superior technology and the results could be catastrophic. I know that it’s mindless nonsense but I did enjoy the film Independence Day. In particular I like the scene when all these peaceniks who have formed a welcoming committee on top of a skyscraper get zapped by the aliens. You will accuse me of viewing the world from a very cynical viewpoint but that is what human history has taught us. The disastrous may not necessarily be intentional. Remember, most of the native populations were killed by diseases that they had no immunity for. So I think we shouldn’t be blurting out our existence to the rest of the universe or sending out Bach’s Brandenburg concerto for them to listen to. Because when they do get here, they sure are going to be disappointed and they may well decide to take it out on us.

The Voyager Golden Record

December 12, 2009

The Voyager Golden Record is a phonograph record that is being carried by the two Voyager spacecraft, whivh were launched in 1977. the disc contains sounds and images selected toreflect  the diversity of life and culture on our planet due to the size of interstellar space there is almost no chance that it will ever be discovered – it is more a symbolic gesture, rather than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life. Here is an excerpt of President Carter’s official statement placed on the Voyager spacecraft for its trip outside our solar system, June 16, 1977:

We cast this message into the cosmos… Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some — perhaps many — may have inhabited planets and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of Galactic Civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.

There are 115 images are encoded in analogue form and the rest of the record is audio, designed to be played at 16⅔ revolutions per minute.

The first audio section contains spoken greetings in the following languages:


Amoy (Min dialect)



















Ila (Zambia)




































The next audio section is devoted to the Sounds of Earth including:







F-111 Flyby





Horse and Cart




Life Signs


Morse Code

Mother and Child


Saturn 5






Wild Dog


Then there was a music section. Sagan had originally asked for permission to include “Here Comes the Sun” from the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. While the Beatles favoured it, EMI opposed it and the song was not included. That is so out of character for the record companies. Here is all the music that was put on the disc:

“Dark Was the Night,” written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15

“Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38

“Melancholy Blues,” performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05

Australia, Aborigine songs, “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird,” recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. 1:26

Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. 2:30

Bach, “Gavotte en rondeaux” from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40

Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48

Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37

Bulgaria, “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin,” sung by Valya Balkanska. 4:59

China, ch’in, “Flowing Streams,” performed by Kuan P’ing-hu. 7:37

Georgian S.S.R., chorus, “Tchakrulo,” collected by Radio Moscow. 2:18

Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, “The Fairie Round,” performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. 1:17

India, raga, “Jaat Kahan Ho,” sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar. 3:30

Japan, shakuhachi, “Tsuru No Sugomori” (“Crane’s Nest,”) performed by Goro Yamaguchi. 4:51

Java, court gamelan, “Kinds of Flowers,” recorded by Robert Brown. 4:43

Mexico, “El Cascabel,” performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi México. 3:14

Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55

Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57

New Guinea, men’s house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan. 1:20

Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima. 0:52

Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen. 0:38

Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle. 2:08

Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service. 1:12

Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35

Zaire, Pygmy girls’ initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull. 0:56

The following is a list of some of the pictures electronically placed on the phonograph records showing Scenes from Earth:

Airplane in flight, Frank Drake

Andean girls, Joseph Scherschel

Antarctic Expedition, Great Adventures with the National Geographic National Geographic

Astronaut in space, NASA

Birth, Wayne Miller

Bushmen hunters, R. Farbman, Time, Inc.

Chemical definitions, Frank Drake

Children with globe, UN

Chinese dinner party, Time-Life Books

Conception , Albert Bonniers

Cooking fish, Cooking of Spain and Portugal, Time-Life Books

Cotton harvest, Howell Walker

Crocodile, Peter Beard

Dancer from Bali, Donna Grosvenor

Demonstration of licking, eating and drinking, NAIC

Diagram of continental drift, Jon Lomberg

Diagram of vertebrate evolution, Jon Lomberg

DNA Structure, Jon Lomberg

Eagle, Donona, Taplinger Publishing Co.

Egypt, Red Sea, Sinai Peninsula and the Nile, NASA

Elephant, Peter Kunstadter

Factory interior, Fred Ward

Family portrait, Nina Leen, Time, Inc.

Father and daughter (Malaysia), David Harvey

Fishing boat with nets, UN

Forest scene with mushrooms, Bruce Dale

Golden Gate Bridge, Ansel Adams

Grape picker, David Moore

Great Wall of China, H. Edward Kim

Group of children, Ruby Mera, UNICEF

Gymnast, Philip Leonian, Sports Illustrated

Heron Island (Great Barrier Reef of Australia), Dr. Jay M. Pasachoff

House construction (African), UN

Human sex organs, Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Jane Goodall and chimps, Vanne Morris-Goodall

Man from Guatemala, UN

Mathematical definitions, Frank Drake

Modern highway (Ithaca), NAIC

Mountain climber, Gaston Rebuffat

Museum, David Cupp

Nursing mother, UN

Physical unit definitions, Frank Drake

Radio telescope (Arecibo), NAIC

Radio telescope (Westerbork, Netherlands), James Blair

Rush hour traffic, India, UN

Sand dunes, George Mobley 

Schoolroom, UN

Solar system parameters, Frank Drake

Sprinters (Valeri Borzov of the U.S.S.R. in lead), History of the Olympics, Picturepoint, London

Street scene, Asia (Pakistan), UN

String Quartet (Quartetto Italiano), Phillips Recordings

Structure of Earth, Jon Lomberg

Sunset with birds, David Harvey

Supermarket, NAIC

Thailand craftsman, Dean conger

Titan Centaur launch, NASA

Train, Gordon Gahan

Underwater scene with diver and fish, Jerry Greenberg

Violin with music score (Cavatina), NAIC

Waterhole, South African Tourist Corp.

Woman with microscope, UN

X-ray of hand, NAIC

Films featuring extraterrestrials: a list

December 12, 2009

Here is a list of my favourite films featuring extraterrestrials. I realise the list is rather idiosyncratic. For example, I haven’t included any of the Star Wars series and I have probably forgotten some others. Anyway, here it is:

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968
  2. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars 1953
  3. Alien 1979
  4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977
  5. Contact 1997
  6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 1982
  7. Forbidden Planet 1956
  8. Independence Day 1996
  9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956
  10. Mars Attacks! 1996
  11. Men in Black 1997
  12. Plan 9 from Outer Space 1959
  13. Solaris 1972
  14. Starship Troopers 1997
  15. The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951
  16. Total Recall 1990
  17. The War of the Worlds 1953
  18. War of the Worlds 2005
  19. Within the Rock 1996
  20. The X Files 1998

My media week 13/12/09

December 12, 2009

In this Edge article evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser argues that morality has a biological root: IT SEEMS BIOLOGY (NOT RELIGION) EQUALS MORALITY.

The Chronicle Review has a piece by William Deresiewicz looking critically at the modern idea of friendship: Faux Friendship.

The RSA has a quartet of interesting podcasts from the live events they organise in London:

Ben Schott ‘Re-Views’ the Year: 2009

In Defence of the Enlightenment

The Hidden Cost of White-Collar Crime

Scroogenomics: why reindeer jumpers, singing fish and novelty clocks shouldn’t be under our Christmas trees

I did a piece a while back about untranslatable words. This week Lingua Franca has an interview with Adam Jacot de Boinod, author of a book about such words, The Meaning of Tingo. This time he is writing from a different perspective – he is trying to prove his point that, ‘The English language has a word for pretty much everything, even things you’ve never imagined needing to describe‘.

Some interesting thinkers

December 6, 2009

Here a few interesting and accessible thinkers who I enjoy reading and listening to:




Taleb is a polymath with three careers: an essayist, a university professor in risk engineering and a senior Wall Street trader, hedge fund manager, and expert in mathematical finance. He has been critical of the finance industry and was one of those who predicted the current crisis. He has put it down to the incompetent risk management at the banks. His most famous concept is the Black Swan, an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that are almost impossible to predict. He sums up his views thus:

“My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves and the quality of their knowledge too seriously and those who don’t have the guts to sometimes say: ‘I don’t know… Taleb does not suffer fools gladly and is wont to describe those who disagree with his ideas as imbeciles.

Recommended reading

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.



Ferguson is a British historian who specialises in financial and economic history. He is currently a professor of history at Harvard University. His analysis of economic history really gives you an idea of the importance of finance in shaping world history. Even a cursory reading of financial history will alert you to the frequency and inevitability of economic crises. His revisionist take on the British Empire has been more controversial, with accusations that he has underestimated the injustices of the British Empire while grossly exaggerating its benefits.

Recommended reading

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.

The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World


Pinker, a Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of a number of popular science books, is regularly quoted in this blog. He is an outspoken evolutionary psychologist and advocate of the computational theory of mind. He has a rock star appearance. His opinions are not to everyone’s taste. Until his death in 2002, Steven Jay Gould maintained a long-running feud with Pinker over what Gould believed was the misuse of Darwinism by evolutionary psychologists.

Here is a typical Pinker quote:

“Political equality consists of recognizing, as the Constitution says, that people have certain inalienable rights, namely life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Recognizing those rights is not the same thing as believing that people are indistinguishable in every respect.”

Recommended reading

The Language Instinct

The Blank Slate

The Stuff of Thought


Julian Baggini is a British philosopher and the author of several books about philosophy written for a general audience. He is co-founder and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and has done a lot to popularise the subject. In addition to his popular philosophy books, Baggini contributes to The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, and the BBC. He is an atheist but has been critical of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists for what he sees as their destructive nature.

Recommended reading

The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 other thought experiments

The Duck That Won the Lottery: And 99 Other Bad Arguments


Diamond is an American scientist and non-fiction author whose work draws from a variety of fields. He is currently Professor of Geography and Physiology at UCLA. He speaks a dozen languages – English, Latin, French, Greek, German, Spanish, Russian, Finnish, Fore (a New Guinea language), Neo Melanesian, Indonesian, and Italian. His most famous work Guns, Germs and Steel is an accessible account of why human development proceeded at such different rates on different continents for the last 13,000 years:

“The broadest pattern of history – namely, the differences between human societies on different continents – seems to me to be attributable to differences among continental environments, and not to biological differences among peoples themselves.” For Diamond Eurasia enjoyed the best natural endowment of crops and of domesticable animals. Furthermore Eurasia’s East-West axis provides an immense area with similar latitudes and therefore climates, which facilitated the diffusion of these plants and animals. This was not possible in rather America or Asia. More recently Diamond has been facing legal difficulties after Henep Isum Mandingo and Hup Daniel Wemp of Papua New Guinea filed a $10 million USD defamation lawsuit over Diamond’s New Yorker article Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?

Recommended reading

Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

The Birds of Northern Melanesia: Speciation, Ecology, & Biogeography (with Ernst Mayr)

Guns, Germs, and Steel Reader’s Companion,

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.



I don’t often include communists but this maverick Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist who combines Hegelianism, Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He writes about political theory, psychoanalysis and movies. I haven’t actually read any of his books but I think I prefer listening to him – he has such an over the top accent and provocative style. He likes to come out with provocative statements, like “Gandhi was more violent than Hitler”, which has not endeared him to critics who accuse him of sophistry. Here is a typical Zizek quote:

Everything is turned back to front. Public order is no longer maintained by hierarchy, repression and strict regulation, and therefore is no longer subverted by liberating acts of transgression. Instead, we have social relations of free and equal individuals, supplemented by ‘passionate attachment’ to an extreme form of submission, which functions as the ‘dirty secret,’ the transgressive source of libidinal satisfaction. In a permissive society, the rigidly codified, authoritarian master/slave relationship becomes transgressive. This paradox or reversal is the proper topic of psychoanalysis. Tolerance makes everything boring, we need more conflict!

Recommended viewing

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema


I don’t mean the author of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” but the British-born political philosopher. He really could be described as old misery guts but his cynicism can be useful to prick our enlightenment preconceptions. His book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism has just been republished with a new forward and his ideas are definitely bracing and he has no problem attacking both left and right:

While the Marxist faith in central planning is now confined to a few dingy sects, a quasi-religious belief in free markets continues to shape the policies of governments. Many writers have pointed to the havoc and ruin that have accompanied the imposition of free markets across the world. Whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or post-communist Europe, policies of wholesale privatisation and structural adjustment have led to declining economic activity and social dislocation on a massive scale.

Recommended reading

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern

Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions

Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia.

My media week 06/12/09

December 6, 2009

Radio Four has a new science chat show called The Infinite Monkey Cage, which takes its name from a famous thought experiment I talked about on an earlier post. The first week’s show featured Irish comedian Dara O’ Briain and Dr Alice Roberts talking about science and comedy, dinosaurs and the battle of good versus evil. The second week will feature by writer Jon Ronson and Seth Shostack from SETI Institute.

In his article on Spiked Anything ‘sustainable’ is not worth having Frank Furedi challenges the cult of sustainability and restraint that is growing in response to the economic recession.

The Onion has this video: Zombie Reagan Raised From Grave To Lead GOP

The Observer had a piece Will e-books spell the end of great writing?, which looked at the effects of technology on reading and writing. It mentions that Dom DeLillo still uses a typewriter. But as one wag wrote in the comments section :

Why doesn’t Don DeLillo use a quill pen, a jar of ink, and vellum? How about cuneiform?

Key economic terms

December 6, 2009

The Economist has an excellent A to Z of economics on their website. I have picked out a few of those concepts which really help to explain people’s economic behaviour:




When you do business with people you would be better off avoiding. This market failure is often associated with insurance. Adverse selection can be a problem when there is asymmetric information (see below) between the seller of insurance and the buyer; in particular, insurance will often not be profitable when buyers have better information about their risk of claiming than does the seller. Ideally, insurance premiums should be set according to the risk of a randomly selected person in the insured slice of the population (55-year-old male smokers, say). In practice, this means the average risk of that group. When there is adverse selection, people who know they have a higher risk of claiming than the average of the group will buy the insurance, whereas those who have a below-average risk may decide it is too expensive to be worth buying. In this case, premiums set according to the average risk will not be sufficient to cover the claims that eventually arise, because among the people who have bought the policy more will have above-average risk than below-average risk. Putting up the premium will not solve this problem, for as the premium rises the insurance policy will become unattractive to more of the people who know they have a lower risk of claiming. One way to reduce adverse selection is to make the purchase of insurance compulsory, so that those for whom insurance priced for average risk is unattractive are not able to opt out.


Buying an asset in one market and simultaneously selling an identical asset in another market at a higher price. Sometimes these will be identical assets in different markets, for instance, shares in a company listed on both the London Stock Exchange and New York Stock Exchange. Often the assets being arbitraged will be identical in a more complicated way, for example, they will be different sorts of financial securities that are each exposed to identical risks. Some kinds of arbitrage are completely risk-free—this is pure arbitrage. For instance, if Euros are available more cheaply in dollars in London than in New York, arbitrageurs (also known as arbs) can make a risk-free profit by buying euros in London and selling an identical amount of them in New York. Opportunities for pure arbitrage have become rare in recent years, partly because of the globalisation of financial markets. Today, a lot of so called arbitrage, much of it done by hedge funds, involves assets that have some similarities but are not identical. This is not pure arbitrage and can be far from risk free.


When somebody knows more than somebody else. Such asymmetric information can make it difficult for the two people to do business together, which is why economists, especially those practising game theory, are interested in it. Transactions involving asymmetric (or private) information are everywhere. A government selling broadcasting licences does not know what buyers are prepared to pay for them; a lender does not know how likely a borrower is to repay; a used-car seller knows more about the quality of the car being sold than do potential buyers. This kind of asymmetry can distort people’s incentives and result in significant inefficiencies.


Adam Smith’s shorthand for the ability of the free market to allocate factors of production, goods and services to their most valuable use. If everybody acts from self-interest, spurred on by the profit motive, then the economy will work more efficiently, and more productively, than it would do were economic activity directed instead by some sort of central planner. It is, wrote Smith, as if an “invisible hand” guides the actions of individuals to combine for the common good. Smith recognised that the invisible hand was not infallible, however, and that some government action might be needed, such as to impose antitrust laws, enforce property rights, and to provide policing and national defence.


One of the best-known fallacies in economics is the notion that there is a fixed amount of work to be done – a lump of labour – which can be shared out in different ways to create fewer or more jobs. For instance, suppose that everybody worked 10% fewer hours. Firms would need to hire more workers. Hey presto, unemployment would shrink. In 1891, an economist, D.F. Schloss, described such thinking as the lump of labour fallacy because, in reality, the amount of work to be done is not fixed. government-imposed restrictions on the amount of work people may do can actually reduce the efficiency of the labour market, thereby increasing unemployment. Shorter hours will create more jobs only if weekly pay is also cut (which workers are likely to resist) otherwise costs per unit of output will rise. Not all labour costs vary with the number of hours worked. fixed costs, such as recruitment and training, can be substantial, so it will cost a firm more to hire two part-time workers than one full-timer. Thus a cut in the working week may raise average costs per unit of output and cause firms to buy fewer total hours of labour. A better way to reduce unemployment may be to stimulate demand and so increase output; another is to make the labour market more flexible, not less.


Moral hazard means that people with insurance may take greater risks than they would do without it because they know they are protected, so the insurer may get more claims than it bargained for.


These can arise when somebody (the principal) hires somebody else (the agent) to carry out a task and the interests of the agent conflict with the interests of the principal. An example of such principal-agent problems comes from the relationship between the shareholders who own a public company and the managers who run it. The owners would like managers to run the firm in ways that maximise the value of their shares, whereas the managers’ priority may be, say, to build a business empire through rapid expansion and mergers and acquisitions, which may not increase their firm’s share price. One way to reduce agency costs is for the principal to monitor what the agent does to make sure it is what he has been hired to do. But this can be costly, too. It may be impossible to define the agent’s job in a way that can be monitored effectively. For instance, it is hard to know whether a manager who has expanded a firm through an acquisition that reduced its share price was pursuing his own empire-building interests or, say, was trying to maximise shareholder value but was unlucky. Another way to lower agency costs, especially when monitoring is too expensive or too difficult, is to make the interests of the agent more like those of the principal. For instance, an increasingly common solution to the agency costs arising from the separation of ownership and management of public companies is to pay managers partly with shares and share options in the company. This gives the managers a powerful incentive to act in the interests of the owners by maximising shareholder value. But even this is not a perfect solution. Some managers with lots of share options have engaged in accounting fraud in order to increase the value of those options long enough for them to cash some of them in, but to the detriment of their firm and its other shareholders.


Impossible to predict the next step. Efficient market theory says that the prices of many financial assets, such as shares, follow a random walk. In other words, there is no way of knowing whether the next change in the price will be up or down, or by how much it will rise or fall. The reason is that in an efficient market, all the information that would allow an investor to predict the next price move is already reflected in the current price. This belief has led some economists to argue that investors cannot consistently outperform the market. But some economists argue that asset prices are predictable (they follow a non-random walk) and that markets are not efficient.


Gamekeeper turns poacher or, at least, helps poacher. The theory of regulatory capture was set out by Richard Posner, an economist and lawyer at the University of Chicago, who argued that “regulation is not about the public interest at all, but is a process, by which interest groups seek to promote their private interest … Over time, regulatory agencies come to be dominated by the industries regulated.” Most economists are less extreme, arguing that regulation often does good but is always at risk of being captured by the regulated firms.


Cutting yourself a bigger slice of the cake rather than making the cake bigger. Trying to make more money without producing more for customers. Classic examples of rent-seeking, a phrase coined by an economist, Gordon Tullock, include:

  1. a protection racket, in which the gang takes a cut from the shopkeeper’s profit;
  2. a cartel of firms agreeing to raise prices;
  3. a union demanding higher wages without offering any increase in productivity;
  4. lobbying the government for tax, spending or regulatory policies that benefit the lobbyists at the expense of taxpayers or consumers or some other rivals.

Whether legal or illegal, as they do not create any value, rent-seeking activities can impose large costs on an economy.


A 19th-century amateur mathematician, William Forster Lloyd, modelled the fate of a common pasture shared among rational, utility-maximising herdsmen. He showed that as the population increased the pasture would inevitably be destroyed. This tragedy may be the fate of all sorts of common resources, because no individual, firm or group has meaningful property rights that would make them think twice about using so much of it that it is destroyed. Once a resource is being used at a rate near its sustainable capacity, any additional use will reduce its value to its current users. Thus they will increase their usage to maintain the value of the resource to them, resulting in a further deterioration in its value, and so on, until no value remains. Contemporary examples include overfishing and the polluting of the atmosphere.


When the gains made by winners in an economic transaction equal the losses suffered by the losers. It is identified as a special case in game theory. Most economic transactions are in some sense positive-sum games. But in popular discussion of economic issues, there are often examples of a mistaken zero-sum mentality, such as “profit comes at the expense of wages”, “higher productivity means fewer jobs”, and “imports mean fewer jobs here”