The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent article following up on the Lancet study. That study is still basically unchallenged, by the way; however many epidemiologists you ask, they’re all going to give the same answer, that it was good science.

The Chronicle’s angle is on the strange fact that the Lancet appears to have shown that the Iraq War made an already horrible state of affairs much worse, and that nobody seems to think that this is something worth thinking about. There was a brief kerfuffle of interest around the time of publication, but other than that, the reaction of the world’s media to the fact that we spent $150bn on trying to help the Iraqis but did it so badly that we increased their death rate by over 50%, appears to be “ho hum”.

Les Roberts, the principal author, is going through long dark nights of the soul, wondering if it was a tactical mistake to request accelerated peer review and to have been so vocal about the US elections (btw, the Chronicle reiterates the point we made here earlier; that accelerated peer review is uncommon but by no means unknown with important papers). The Lancet editor Richard Horton refuses to comment, and well he might given that he wrote an entirely misleading summary of the paper which referred to “100,000 civilian deaths” when the paper did not make this distinction.

But there is no way on earth that I am going to write a comment harping on about this or that minor faux pas on the part of the authors.

Because the fundamental point that Roberts makes in the article is absolutely correct; it is a far greater disgrace that 100,000 people[1] can be needlessly killed and everybody carries on as they were before. You don’t have to accept an entirely consequentialist view of wars to accept that the consequences of wars have to be relevant to assessing whether they’ve succeeded or not. The best evidence that we have is that the consequences of this one were bloody disastrous. And as far as I’m aware, the list of war supporters who have seriously engaged with the possibility that this war was a failure numbers two; Marc Mullholland and Norman Geras. Marc mentions the Lancet specifically and ends up worried about his previous position; Norm doesn’t and doesn’t. If you know of any other examples, I’d be very grateful. But I honestly think, that’s it.

Other than that, the response in the world of weblogs has been exactly the same as the rest of the media; in the immediate aftermath of the report, half-assed attempts to rubbish the survey, or links to same. Then, when this didn’t work, just pretend that it’s all been dealt with and move on. Maybe say “I’ll get back to you on that” and never do. After a few months of this concerted inattention, many pro-war voices have even decided it was safe to use the old slogan “well Iraq is certainly a better place because we got rid of Saddam”, when this claim is quite obviously highly debatable (just like “of course the world is a safer place because we got rid of Saddam” …)

It’s an absolute intellectual disgrace. It might be good enough for Her Britannic Majesty’s Foreign Secretary but surely we ought to hold ourselves to higher standards than that. The debate over whether this war worked is vitally important, because we are talking about setting a precedent for an entirely new world of international relations, and the debate is not being carried on honestly. This is quite literally madness, and also quite literally suicidal.

I think I ended every single Lancet post with the observation that you can tell a lot about people’s character by observing the way in which they protect themselves from hostile information. Les Roberts ought to take some grim pleasure in the fact that the world has paid his work possibly the highest compliment that the establishment can pay to a piece of information; they regarded it as dangerous enough to ignore it, even at the cost of their own credibility.

[1]As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like this 100,000 number, and it is irksome that the Lancet’s lasting legacy has been that the “100,000 dead!” factoid has become a commonly used stick for antiwar hacks to beat prowar hacks with. But as I say above, there is no way that I’m going to pick nits on this sort of thing while there is such a huge act of ongoing intellectual dishonesty on the other side. The pro-war side have brought this on themselves; until they start engaging with the issue, they can live with it.

It’s your money

by Ted on January 27, 2005

Something’s been bugging me about private accounts. Correct me where I’m wrong here.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that any version of Social Security private accounts would offer account holders complete flexibility with their assets. Managing and ensuring the safety of millions of small accounts will be expensive under the rosiest assumptions. The fees don’t have to look like Chile’s, but they’re going to be considerable[1]. It seems reasonable to assume that any sensible administration would limit costs by limiting investment options to a small number of funds, something like a 401K plan.

The most appropriate investment vehicle would be a broad-based index fund such as the Wilshire 5000, which invests in pretty much every public company in the US, weighted for market capitalization. Index funds have a history of better returns than actively managed funds, and the broad footprint of the investment would minimize market distortions from the impact of (eventually) trillions in new investments. Most importantly, it keeps the government out of the business of picking winners and losers. The temptation to misuse trillions of investment dollars for political leverage will be awesome. A blind investment strategy also minimizes the reciprocal pressure on businesses to scramble to please the current administration in order to get under the umbrella of investments in a managed SS fund.

As an investment strategy, this would work pretty well for most Americans. However, a mandatory savings program isn’t for most Americans, it’s for all Americans. Since it’s a forced program, administrators will have to answer the question, “Why is my money being taken out of my paycheck to support X?”[2]

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Conservative Cultural Engineering Again

by Henry Farrell on January 27, 2005

More on trade-unions as the Bush administration tries to “restrict collective bargaining”: at the Department of Homeland Security, and ask Congress “to grant all federal agencies similar authority to rewrite civil service rules governing their employees.”

bq. Yesterday, union leaders decried provisions that would curtail the power of labor unions by no longer requiring DHS officials to negotiate over such matters as where employees will be deployed, the type of work they will do and the equipment they will use. They also object to provisions that would limit the role of the independent Federal Labor Relations Authority and hand the job of settling labor-management disputes to an internal labor relations board controlled by the DHS secretary.

After going back and forth on this, I’m coming to the conclusion that this is of a piece with tort reform and the privatization of social security. They’re all part of a massive experiment in conservative cultural engineering, which aims to transform the Democratic party into a permanent minority by eviscerating the political power of its key constituencies (trade unions, trial lawyers) and transforming ordinary citizens into a new investing class. As I’ve “said before”:, I don’t think that this will work – but I’ve no doubt that the administration can do some serious damage to Democrats’ ability to raise funds, and (much more important) get volunteers out on the streets to canvas for votes. I’ve no doubt that the Democratic party could live without the trial lawyers – but if the administration succeeds in crippling unions, it will very seriously hamper Democrats’ ability to win back the Presidency and other offices in 2008. I suspect that many middle class bloggers simply don’t realize how important unions are in organizing and getting out the vote in the Midwest and elsewhere. As Sam Rosenfeld has “said”:, it’s frustrating that the Democratic leadership in the Senate isn’t saying anything about strengthening labour law – improving the bargaining position of unions is clearly in the long term organizational interests of the Democratic party.

Update: “Sam Rosenfeld”: has more to say on this story too.

Buy Generously (yet again)

by John Holbo on January 27, 2005

Good deal at Amazon. 43 volumes of original Twilight Zone DVDs on sale for $4.99 each. I recommend volume 2. It’s got Shatner as the salesman who sees the gremlin on the plane wing. Plus a post-apocalypse Burgess Meredith bookworm. Plus "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street". Plus some other thing. Plus, on a more serious note, I’m still doing the thing where I advance my Amazon Associates proceeds to tsunami disaster relief, which is still needed. I’ve raised a little over $600 so far and am getting ready to cut another check. (The Singapore Red Cross wanted to raise S$1 million and they have raised S$48 million. I’m still hoping to hit US $1000 before the quarter ends.) If you haven’t just plain donated – say, to the American Red Cross – it’s still a very good time to do so. I’ll just stick another Amazon search box under the fold. If you were going to buy anyway, buy in a way that helps disaster victims. It makes sense.

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Pinochet’s private pensions

by John Q on January 27, 2005

For twenty-five years or so, the privatised pension scheme introduced in Chile under the Pinochet regime by his labour minister, Jose Pinera, has been touted as a model for the world to follow. It’s been particularly influential in the US debate over social security privatisation but has also had some influence in Australia, which has a somewhat similar setup, though we arrived at it by a different route – Chile scrapped its defined-benefit state pension scheme, keeping a basic safety net, Australia started with a means-tested flat-rate pension, but has tried to expand private superannuation since the 1980s

Now the New York Times reports that the Chilean scheme is not delivering the promised benefits . Lots of people are getting less than they would have under the old scheme and large numbers are falling back on the government safety net. Fees have chewed up as much as a third of contributions.

Why has this bad news taken so long to emerge. Complaints about fees have been around almost since the start, but right through the 1980s, they were ignored becuase investment returns were exceptionally high. This in turn reflects the fact that Pinera had the good luck or good judgement to start the scheme when the stock market was at an all-time low, thanks to a financial crisis (in retrospect the first of many cases where financial market darlings got into trouble). The economy recovered and the stock market boomed. Once gross returns fell back to normal levels, the bite taken out by fees became unbearable.

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by Kieran Healy on January 27, 2005

Kevin Drum “relays the bad news”: that high self-esteem is basically good for nothing in terms of tangible outcomes. These findings sound much like the literature on optimism and pessimism, which finds that optimists overvalue their abilities and blame others for their mistakes. People with sunny dispositions are a real menace to society. A solid Irish Catholic upbringing (or functional equivalent) is guaranteed to inoculate you against these problems for good. Where I grew up, people thought “self-esteem” was the Italian for “sauna”.[1]

fn1. I wish I could claim authorship of this joke. But I’d feel very guilty if I did.