From the monthly archives:

December 2005

Covering the Beatles

by Chris Bertram on December 22, 2005

Here’s a pointer to a piece of music that’s generating a lot a chatter here in the UK but which isn’t commercially available yet. I’ve listened a couple of times and I’m not entirely sure what I think (except that it is unusual enough to be worth a blog post). The song in question is Wyckham Porteous’s cover of the Beatles’ Please Please Me: very slowed down, semi-spoken, country-style arrangement (steel guitar). Bob Harris has been playing it on BBC Radio 2, as have Mark Lamarr and Jonathan Ross. It is currently available via the “Listen Again feature of Bob Harris’s Friday Show”: , but you need to use the +5 and +15 features of the BBC Radio Player to scroll through to about 1h 17 or so (you can use the “music played list”: on Harris’s website to help you find the right place). Porteous’s own website is “here”: .

Posner forgets himself again

by Kieran Healy on December 21, 2005

A commenter in “our previous post”: points to “this chat session”: with Posner, hosted by the _Washington Post_. Besides forgetting everything he ever learned about public choice theory, Posner also seems to have abandoned the cost-benefit methods which made him famous. He is now convinced that radical uncertainty is not amenable to probabilistic analysis:

*Question*: … Nothing in the Constitution does (or could) provide a guarantee of safety. I suspect that I am statistically much more at risk of being run over by a car than of being killed by a terrorist (even though I live within five miles of the White House). Should the government ban all automobiles to protect me?

*Richard Posner*: If your premise were correct, your conclusion would follow. But how do you know you’re at less risk of being killed by a terrorist than being run down by a car? The risk in the sense of probability of being killed by a nuclear bomb attack on Washington, a dirty-bomb attack, an attack using bioengineered smallpox virus, a sarin attack on the Washington Metro (do you ever take the metro?), etc., etc., cannot be quantified. That doesn’t mean it’s small. For all we know, it’s great. Better safe than sorry.

How far this all is from the confidence with which Posner “typically slaps probabilities on things”: in order to justify some policy. Here he is arguing about preventive war in 2004:

Should imminence be an absolute condition of going to war, and preventive war thus be deemed always and everywhere wrong? Analytically, the answer is no. A rational decision to go to war should be based on a comparison of the costs and benefits … Suppose there is a probability of .5 that the adversary will attack at some future time, when he has completed a military build up, that the attack will, if resisted with only the victim’s current strength, inflict a cost on the victim of 100, so that the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5), but that the expected cost can be reduced to 20 if the victim incurs additional defense costs of 15. Suppose further that at an additional cost of only 5, the victim can by a preventive strike today eliminate all possibility of the future attack. Since 5 is less than 35 (the sum of injury and defensive costs if the future enemy attack is not prevented), the preventive war is cost-justified.

I guess his epistemological position has changed a great deal in the meantime. Incidentally, about “forty two thousand people a year”: are killed in automobile accidents in the United States. Do the math yourself.

Posner forgets himself

by Kieran Healy on December 21, 2005

Earlier this month, Judge Richard Posner “wrote”: a “brutal opinion”: (accompanied by some “entertaining oral argument”: savaging the Bureau of Immigration Appeals for its capricious decision-making process, its inability to keep track of paperwork, and its willingness to dump the consequences of its ineptitude onto the people it passes judgement on — in this case by deporting them for no good reason. “We are not required to permit [the unlucky victim] Benslimane to be ground to bits in the bureaucratic mill against the will of Congress,” he said.

Today, Posner has an “Op-Ed”: in the _Washington Post_ arguing that the Defence Department and the FBI need extensive new powers to spy on as many U.S. citizens as possible. It seems that Posner’s well-founded belief that big state bureaucracies are good at grinding-up innocent people has evaporated within the last week or two.

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Patrick Cockburn on Iraq (2)

by Chris Bertram on December 21, 2005

Further to the interview with Patrick Cockburn I linked to the other day, he “now has an analysis of the Iraqi elections in the Independent”: . The religious parties are in the ascendant, women’s rights are being trampled, everyone is retreating the their ethnic and religious identities, and the break-up of the country is on the horizon.

Geographies of the Imagination

by John Holbo on December 20, 2005

Some time ago Tim Burke posted, requesting help expanding a ‘trope’ list for an ‘Images of Africa’ course. Here’s a sample, which gives you an idea what he’s looking for:

1) Hidden city/lost civilization deep in the jungle. Often civilization of whites or non-Africans.

2) Missionary/explorer in a cannibal cooking pot; general tropes of cannibalism.

3)  Mysterious ritual that turns out to have been marriage to chief’s daughter

4)  Superstitious bearer/guide

5)  Evil witchdoctor

6)  White man “gone native”/Tarzan figure

7)  Kurtz-style descent into madness …

And so on. I couldn’t think of anything to add at the time, now I’ve got one. [click to continue…]

Mr. Schmitt Goes To Washington

by John Holbo on December 20, 2005

Bill Kristol and Gary Schmitt in the WaPo:

   … That is why the president uniquely swears an oath – prescribed in the Constitution – to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. Implicit in that oath is the Founders’ recognition that, no matter how much we might wish it to be case, Congress cannot legislate for every contingency, and judges cannot supervise many national security decisions. This will be especially true in times of war.

Josh Marshall has thoughts on possible difficulties with this notion that ‘the power to set aside laws is "inherent in the president."’

But without waiting for the dust to settle we’ll just step back and declare: so it’s settled, Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology is the late-breaking, runaway dark-horse winner stocking-stuffer political book of the season. And we hereby open a new front in the war on Christmas, as it is clear the President, like Santa, doesn’t have the time to go to to some damn judge every time he needs to know whether someone is naughty or nice.

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Cash for comment

by John Q on December 20, 2005

Cato Senior Fellow Doug Bandow has resigned following the revelation that he wrote (for pay) articles promoting the interests of Jack Abramoff’s clients, including the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands and the gaming interests of the Choctaw tribe. This is disappointing – I liked Bandow best among the Cato crew (unless you count Julian Sanchez). And the amount of money involved was piddling – $2000 a pop or about $24K all up. A quick-and-dirty consultancy job could have brought in a similar amount, without raising any conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, Peter Ferrara, a senior policy adviser at the conservative Institute for Policy Innovation is sticking to his job despite taking Abramoffs cash. No surprise there.

In Australia, we had an extensive controversy over cash for comment. The leading offender, Alan Jones, not only got off unscathed but went on to play a prominent role in stirring up the recent Sydney race riots.

But the question that really strikes me is this: If Bandow’s relatively minor ethical lapse is a sackable offence, how can Cato continue to harbour Steve Milloy? He’s not only a corporate shill of the worst kind, but a walking offence to civilised standards of behavior. Cato Institute President Edward Crane, who has failed to sack Milloy, ought to resign before Bandow.


by Kieran Healy on December 19, 2005

All over the U.S. at the moment, academics like me are complaining about end-of-semester woes like administering exams and grading papers. Cheer up! It could be worse. For instance, take this “despairing page”: put up by the economist “John Hey”:, who spends some of his time teaching in England, and the rest as Professore Ordinario at a University in Italy. Pretty nice gig, you might think — “except when”: it comes to exams:

The intention of this web page is to draw attention to large differences in the number of examinations in different countries of the world, with the particular intention of revealing Italy as an outlier. I also want to draw attention to an associated bureaucratic procedure called “verbalizzazione”:, which I do not think exists anywhere else in the world other than in Italy. … Here is a broad summary of the number of examinations in different countries of the world. …
* ONE exam per course each year with no right to resit: Canada, United States
* ONE exam per course per year with at most one resit: Denmark, France, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland, United Kingdom.
* ONE exam per course per year with at most two resits: Austria, The Netherlands
* (Up to) TEN exams per course per year with the right to resit as often as you wish: *Italy*.

His page summarizing the “verbalizzazione”: business (what it takes, once you administer all those exams, to actually get the grade recorded) is enough to give a public choice theorist an aneurysm.

Spying at Home

by Kieran Healy on December 19, 2005

End-of-semester stuff has been piling up — Who knew that there was a well known social theorist named Marx Weber? Or that he developed the idea of the Protastic Ethic? — which means that I haven’t had enough time to digest the NYT report that “President Bush secretly authorized the NSA to spy on Americans without any legal oversight”:, or reactions to it. But from a quick perusal, it seems like both the Administration’s rationale and the response from supporters online is essentially the same as the effort to justify the arbitrary detention and torture of people (including U.S. citizens). In other words, choose any or all of:

# _Epochal Shift_: “9/11 Changed Everything and so the President can do whatever he likes.”
# _You Can’t Handle the Truth!_: Your “Jack Nicholson moment”:, viz: “Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? … I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it!”
# _Exquisite Regret_: “I fully appreciate the strength of the arguments (moral, practical, empirical) that you put before me about the evil nature of torture, arbitrary detention and spying on the very citizens from whom our claim to legitimate government derives. So believe me when I say that I have agonized over these decisions, lain awake at night, analyzed the hypotheticals in detail and now, with a great sense of the weight of the choice I am making, I will sign this piece of paper suspending the rights of anyone whom our staffers feel should be investigated.”
# _Rubber Stamp_: “We obtained a legal opinion from one of our own lawyers. He said it was OK and I believe him. He’s totally objective.”
# _World Weary_: “Oh, puh-leeze. This is nothing new. It’s been going on for years — Americans have no idea how little legal protection they have from arbitrary government surveillance. That’s why I became a libertarian. I still fully support the Government’s right to monitor, lock up, ‘render’ and torture anyone they declare is an enemy combatant, though. I absolutely still _don’t_ trust them to run a Social Security Program or redistribute taxes to the poor, obviously.”
# _Radical Empiricist_: I’m not sure we have all the facts about this, and we should “suspend judgment”: until either more real evidence becomes available or the black GM Suburban pulls up outside my house and bundles me off to a disused Soviet-era facility in Eastern Europe.

Mix and Match as appropriate.

_Update_: “Mark Schmitt”:, “Dan Koffler”: and “Ezra Klein”: have more comments. “Orin Kerr”: offers a detailed legal analysis.

Dark matter and Phlogiston

by John Q on December 19, 2005

Given the unwillingness of the Bush Administration to offer any policy response to the massive growth in the US trade and current account deficits, it is not surprising to observe a steady stream of theories explaining that such deficits can be sustained indefinitely.

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Chinese whispers

by Henry Farrell on December 17, 2005

I’ve been quite skeptical in the past about the power of the Internet to change politics in authoritarian states. If this “Washington Post”: story bears out, I may have to change my mind.

bq. In Memory of Ms. Liu Hezhen,” which Lu Xun wrote in 1926 after warlord forces opened fire on protesters in Beijing and killed one of his students, is a classic of Chinese literature. But why did thousands of people read or post notes in an online forum devoted to the essay last week? A close look suggests an answer that China’s governing Communist Party might find disturbing: They were using Lu’s essay about the 1926 massacre as a pretext to discuss a more current and politically sensitive event — the Dec. 6 police shooting of rural protesters in the southern town of Dongzhou in Guangdong province.

bq. In the 10 days since the shooting, which witnesses said resulted in the deaths of as many as 20 farmers protesting land seizures, the Chinese government has tried to maintain a blackout on the news, barring almost all newspapers and broadcasters from reporting it and ordering major Internet sites to censor any mention of it. Most Chinese still know nothing of the incident. But it is also clear that many Chinese have already learned about the violence and are finding ways to spread and discuss the news on the Internet, circumventing state controls with e-mail and instant messaging, blogs and bulletin board forums.

This shouldn’t be overestimated – it sounds as though discussion is only confined to a smallish elite, and in any event, _contra_ blog evangelists, argument over the Internets is not in itself a major political force for change. But it’s something new, and perhaps something that’s going to become more important over time.

Reverse Humiliation

by Henry Farrell on December 17, 2005

“Scott McLemee”: wrote a little while back about reading Colin Wilson as a teenager.

bq. But I have a certain fondness for that novel [Wilson’s _The Philosopher’s Stone_], having discovered it during Christmas break while in high school. It set me off on a fascination with Wilson’s work that seems, with hindsight, perfectly understandable. Adolescence is a good time to read The Outsider. For that matter, Wilson himself was barely out of it when he wrote the book.

I too had a Colin Wilson thing when I was a teenager; something I’m a little embarrassed about today. But nowhere near as embarrassed as I am about the “Erich von Daniken”: phase I went through when I was ten or so. Which seems a nice topic for a weekend discussion thread. What is the most embarrassing book that CT readers idolized when they were teenagers or pre-teens? Painful confessions welcome.

More Iraq punditry …

by Daniel on December 16, 2005

Is it me, or is The Economist getting much better? There’s nothing like as much out-and-out arrogance about its pronouncements as there used to be and they seem to be giving opposing views a much fairer treatment. I would say it’s about 40% less pompous than it was at the peak, which is bordering on readability. In the end, though, it is the market which will decide.[1]

Anyway, the rundown they give on the Iraqi elections is excellent and has certainly cleared my thoughts up substantially. (see here for what they looked like when they were unclear). I now think I know enough to make a few predictions about the elections, and if you say that with enough attitude on the word “think” then you’ll realize why The Economist is a dangerous drug that needs to be kept out of the hands of slightly tipsy businessmen on trains.

Update: Well what a bloody washout these predictions turned out to be!
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Patrick Cockburn on Iraq

by Chris Bertram on December 16, 2005

The “Patrick Cockburn interview in the New Left Review”: is remarkable and informative. Read it. A noteworthy feature is the way in which the interviewer (Tariq Ali? Susan Watkins?) tries to push a silly Sunni-“resistance”-as-national-liberation/Shia-as-collaborators line and is firmly and persistently rebuffed by Cockburn. (Via “Chris at the Virtual Stoa”: ).

Scott Lemieux’s “Tech Central Journal of Medicine”: excerpts a WSJ article that uncovers some pretty nasty practices in medical academic publishing.

bq. In 2001, the American Journal of Kidney Diseases published an article that touted the use of synthetic vitamin D. Its author was listed as Alex J. Brown, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis. But recently, that same article was featured as a work sample by a different person: Michael Anello, a free-lance medical writer, who posted a summary of it on his Web site. Mr. Anello says he was hired to write the article by a communications firm working for Abbott Laboratories, which makes a version of the vitamin D product. Dr. Brown agrees he got help in writing but says he redid part of the draft. It’s an example of an open secret in medicine: Many of the articles that appear in scientific journals under the by-lines of prominent academics are actually written by ghostwriters in the pay of drug companies. These seemingly objective articles, which doctors around the world use to guide their care of patients, are often part of a marketing campaign by companies to promote a product or play up the condition it treats.

bq. …

bq. Susanna Dodgson, who holds a doctorate in physiology, says she was hired in 2002 by Excerpta Medica, the Elsevier medical-communications firm, to write an article about J&J’s anemia drug Eprex. A J&J unit had sponsored a study measuring whether Eprex patients could do well taking the drug only once a week. The company was facing competition from a rival drug sold by Amgen Inc. that could be given once a week or less. Dr. Dodgson says she was given an instruction sheet directing her to emphasize the “main message of the study”… That report said the study’s goal “could not be reached.” Both the instruction sheet and the report were viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The higher figure Dr. Dodgson was asked to highlight used a broader definition of success and excluded patients who dropped out of the trial or didn’t adhere to all its rules. The instructions noted that some patients on large doses didn’t seem to do well with the once-weekly administration but warned that this point “has not been discussed with marketing and is not definitive!”

Meanwhile, the backers of the real Tech Central Station may have been involved in the New Hampshire “phone-jamming scandal”:

bq. McGee’s testimony suggested that the DCI Group, a powerful public relations firm which publishes the Tech Central Station website and is closely connected to the Republican party, was involved through lawyer and New Hampshire native Bruce McCabe. He also said he had talked to Darrell Henry of the American Gas Association, who said that he would keep the phone jamming going after it was officially called off.