Annals of Academic Putdowns

by Kieran Healy on April 20, 2005

“An article about new books on Robert Oppenheimer”:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/21/books/21masl.html?ex=1271736000&en=2a34a86231a33e36&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss quotes the following zinger:

bq. “American Prometheus” does capture the world in which Oppenheimer established his credentials: thick with future Nobelists, bristling with innovation, cattily competitive. (As one of his fellow scholars remarked about another: “So young and already so unknown.”)

That one’s up there with “This book fills a needed gap in the literature.”

A couple of thoughts on oil

by John Quiggin on April 20, 2005

he price of oil is stlll around $50, and there’s no reason to expect it to fall in a hurry. In particular, if China revalues the renminbi yuan, as is commonly expected, there will be a corresponding fall in the effective price of oil, both for suppliers and for consumers in China and other countries that revalue, for any given $US price. This probably doesn’t matter much on the supply side – everyone is pumping as hard as they can and will probably keep doing so. But China’s demand is probably quite price sensitive, and a reduction in the price could keep demand higher, even in the face of a slowdown in exports to the US.

The other thought that occurred to me relates to climate change. Although there are a variety of ways in which we could mitigate climate change, the simplest would be to double the price of carbon-based fuels. This would certainly reduce demand significantly in the long run (I’ll try and update this with some estimates soon). On the other hand, there’s a lot of concern about the short-run macroeconomic impacts of such an increase.

Well we’ve seen a doubling of oil prices, and substantial increases in coal and gas prices over the past few years, and any macroeconomic impact is undetectable amid the general noise. The cases aren’t perfectly comparable of course, notably

* the rising price has been driven by increased demand, not imposed exogenously

* the effect of rising market prices is to redistribute income to oil-producing countries, and increase trade deficits. This effect wouldn’t arise with carbon taxes and would be much smaller with tradeable permits

Still, the evidence is against the idea that higher energy prices would bring the economy to a grinding halt. Rather, the response so far seems to be a textbook case of orderly adjustment, as people gradually shift away from gas-guzzling vehicles, look again at energy saving options and so on. So far the response has been small, but over time (if supply declines and prices stay high) more substantial responses can be expected.

I’m sorry that you’re upset

by Ted on April 20, 2005

John Cloud, author of the Time cover story on Ann Coulter (via Atrios):

David Brock, who knew Ann Coulter from years ago, goes to a book that’s years old, and prints some mistakes from that book, and of course [there are] mistakes. And a lot of them are corrected. If you go out and you buy a copy of Slander now, you won’t find those mistakes in it, because the publisher has corrected them.

I know that Ann Coulter had admitted to one mistake, but I didn’t realize how absurdly dishonest her “correction” was. From the Daily Howler:
[click to continue…]

A Socialist for the Senate?

by Henry on April 20, 2005

David Sirota tells us that Bernie Sanders is on the verge of announcing his candidacy for Jim Jeffords’ Senate seat (Jeffords is retiring). This could be fun. (via Atrios)

Remember the 80s?

by Ted on April 20, 2005

Zoe Williams has an interesting article in the Guardian about howThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is now a nostalgia item. In the US, the Hitchhiker’s Guide was more nerd samizdat than cultural phenomenon. However, I’m attracted to the idea that my generation is seeing the nostalgia media complex turn the 80s into something that we don’t recognize.

Of course, people whose formative decade was the 60s say exactly the same thing. When Tony Blair made his ill-considered attack on that decade’s legislative liberalism some months ago, I asked my mother what the 60s were like, and she said: “They really were a lot like the 50s.” The historian Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the Sunday Times last weekend, gave us the killer fact about this era: “There were almost 60 million people in Britain and, at most, only 1 million bought the best-selling single of the week. In comparison, 20 million regularly tuned in to watch The Black and White Minstrel Show.” It wasn’t liberal, and it wasn’t cool. It’s news like that that turns your world upside down. Next we’re going to find out that there wasn’t really a war on in the 40s.

The Smartest Guys in the Room

by Ted on April 20, 2005

I’m one of the bloggers who got to see the Enron1 documentary “The Smartest Guys in the Room.” (It’s remarkable the extent to which this Onion review stole my thunder. I soldier on.)

There are so many ways that the filmmakers could have gone wrong. It could have been a dull parade of talking heads, or an airy exploration of the “culture of greed” with minimal specifics about Enron. It could have been a thin, unsatisfying hit piece like Bush’s Brain. It could have been incomprehensible to viewers without an accounting degree.

Instead, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a well-structured business book like Liar’s Poker. A film which spends about as much time talking about the Dabhol power plant in India as it does talking about strippers2 is taking its subject matter seriously. There’s an admirable depth and scope; I had the feeling that the filmmakers knew a lot more than they could fit in. It does an especially good job at explaining some of the big issues: how the institutions which should have blown the whistle (banks, lawyers, accountants, and analysts) had perverse incentives to keep Enron going, and how the pressure to beat expectations led to escalating fraud every quarter. The section on California is particularly infuriating to folks who remember how concerns about market manipulation were treated with blithe condescension.

Like many historical documentaries, the film tells the story of events that didn’t happen on camera, so it succeeds or fails on the strength of its editors. Luckily, the editing does a skillful job of mixing “real” footage (largely Congressional hearings), stock footage with voiceovers, and interview clips. The quick pacing and chapter-like structure help make the movie feel shorter than it is. It looks great, like someone took their time.

I have a few quibbles. It’s a touch light on the details of Enron’s financial chicanery. (I’d really like to know what “Death Star” meant, for example.) At points when I disagreed with the angle that the filmmakers were taking, I realized that there wasn’t much effort spent representing opposing views3.

But it’s an admirable, intelligent documentary about complex subject that captures many of the pleasures of a good nonfiction book. Well worth the time.

1 Full disclosure, as it were: I worked as an analyst at Enron in the London office for about six months in 2001, almost to the end. I’m not bitter; I didn’t get burned on stock and learned quite a lot.

2 Albeit with some pretty gratuitous visuals.

3 For example, some people had most or all of their retirement accounts invested in Enron stock. That’s an important part of the story. It would also have been appropriate to show someone, anyone, pointing out that these people had made a horrible, foolish decision on their own. UPDATE: Atrios notes that Enron’s 401k matching contributions were paid in Enron stock, which I didn’t realize.

Usual Suspects

by Henry on April 20, 2005

Don’t know about you lot, but this Glenn Reynolds shortie conjured up some unfortunate images in my mind.

Brad DeLong’s transformation into a political scientist appears to be advancing rapidly.

And this paper on voting in the mediaeval church provides some evidence that social choice theory is an outgrowth of Frances Yates’ Hermetic Tradition (it mentions in passing that Ramon Lull and Nicholas of Cusa anticipated some of the key arguments of voting theory a few centuries early).

Mysteries of the Insect World

by Belle Waring on April 20, 2005

This may just be the single most random post ever on Crooked Timber, but I, er, soldier on. Perhaps an entomologist or two reads this blog? Leftist entomologists who are sticking it to the man with their ground-breaking research in Roraima? So, I live in Singapore, where we’ve got lotsa ants. Big soldier ants. Little stinging ants. Medium-sized stinging ants. Demi-hemi stinging ants. And so on. When I walk my daughter to school we often see them running in little glistening jointed rivers, 15 ants wide, streaming from the corpse of a snail to the detritus at the edge of the sidewalk. And when the new queen ants are making their maiden flights we are tediously overrun by drones, even on the nineteenth story. They throng to the lights if you forget to close the windows. They also tend to induce menlancholy “to dust thou shalt return” feelings, being, as they are, so poorly put together. Their wings fall off at the feeblest provocation, leaving them to crawl around on the floor in circles. It’s as if a heartless Nature has put them together with the least possible care, thinking, “well, if they haven’t made it to the queen by that time…”. I have to kill dozens of them, usually smushing them with a wadded-up paper towel which I then throw away. This seems a peculiarly modern response; “I’m done with this insect—let’s throw it away in the trash!” But what I am I supposed to do, herd them back to the balcony in some Jain fashion? If they’re in my apartment, they ain’t impregnating the queen. Anyway, if I were to brush against them even slightly, their stupid wings would fall off. This wasn’t my point, though. Yesterday, I went out for a swim with my daughter around 4 o’clock. There is a waist-high stucco wall all around the pool. When I went to put our things on a chair, I noticed a strange sight. The top edge of the wall was thronged with ants, all of whom had their abdomen flexed up at a 90 degree angle to their thoraxes. They weren’t interacting with each other much, and were mostly all facing the same direction. When I leant over to look they rippled back in waves, then slowly edged back to their original positions, abdomens high as flags. WTF was up with that, then? I was struck with the vague thought that they were cooling off, but that didn’t really make any sense. When I got out of the pool 20 minutes later, they were still there, rippling back and forth, peculiarly bent. Thoughts?

Cheap talk

by Chris Bertram on April 20, 2005

There are many good reasons not to vote Labour in the forthcoming UK general election. Giving Tony Blair a bloody nose over Iraq, punishing the government for its pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment, withdrawing support over ID cards or the government’s handling of terrorists suspects: all are worth mentioning. Some will want to add the PFI and university tuition fees to the bill of indictment. I could go on. But I don’t find the fact that Liberal Democrat policies “are more in accord with my own views”:http://www.stalinism.com/shot-by-both-sides/full_post.asp?pid=984 than Labour’s are provides me with much of a reason for switching. After all, nobody, including the Liberal Democrats — currently 150/1 at bluesq.com — expects them to form the next government. And because of that, the Lib Dems can offer the voters they wish to seduce (Labour’s base) a portfolio of policies that are straight out of Guardian-reader central. In the circumstances it is a surprise that they aren’t offering philosophy lecturers in their 40s free beer on the NHS, but I suppose principle has to kick in somewhere. I’ll probably vote Labour (currently 20/1 on), but may vote Lib Dem for the aforementioned bloody-nose reasons. I certainly won’t be favouring the Lib Dems because they have better policies: talk is cheap.

Lancet interview

by Chris Bertram on April 20, 2005

Socialist Worker has “an interview with Les Roberts”:http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php4?article_id=6271 who led the team which conducted the Lancet survey which estimated 98,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the war began. (via “Lenin”:http://leninology.blogspot.com/ .)