From the monthly archives:

January 2006

Shalizi on Moretti

by Henry on January 25, 2006

CT readers who aren’t already following the Moretti discussion on the Valve, should head over to read Cosma Shalizi’s “essay”:http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/graphs_trees_materialism_fishing/ on Moretti’s approach to the analysis of literature. It’s one of the best pieces of scholar blogging that I’ve ever seen, if it’s not in fact _the_ best such piece.

Unbelievable!

by John Quiggin on January 25, 2006

In every sense of the term.

The NYT runs an Op-ed Piece by John Lott, reporting statistical work he claims to have undertaken.

(Only too believable section). Lott’s results support current Republican talking points.

(Via Tim Lambert and Kevin Drum)

The Army and Vietnam, part 3

by Ted on January 25, 2006

Still more from The Army and Vietnam by Andrew F. Krepinevich. What strikes me in this passage- and I know this is done to death outside of the Pajamasphere- is the incompatability of counterinsurgency strategy with the Rumsfeldian goal of minimizing troop numbers. The coalition in Iraq had a striking advantage, which Americans in Vietnam did not: they were replacing an unpopular dictator with a much more inspiring fledgling democracy. Maybe we could have short-circuited the escalation of violent ethnic conflict if we had paid sufficient attention on Iraqi security. I don’t know.

(As always, Arms and Influence has more.)

(UPDATE: This sort of corruption, of course, is another big part of the story.)

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Support fund

by Henry on January 24, 2006

Via Robin Vargese at the excellent “3 Quarks Daily”:http://3quarksdaily.blogs.com/3quarksdaily/2006/01/donate_to_the_n.html, the Graduate Students Organizing Committee at NYU have set up a “hardship fund”:http://www.2110uaw.org/gsoc/donate.htm , which will help defray “indispensable expenses such as health care, utilities, and rent for those who have lost their pay.” Need I say that this is an important cause, not only for the grad students at NYU, but at other universities too?

Quick survey: sites and services

by Eszter Hargittai on January 24, 2006

It’s been a while since we’ve had a survey around here. This one is on what sites and services you know about and use. It should take no more than 2.5 minutes (two and a half, NOT 25!). I’ll report back with results and why I am interested in this in a few days.

Take the survey. Thanks!

UPDATE 1/31/06: The survey is now closed. Thanks to those who participated. I will be posting results soon.

An ounce of inefficiency

by John Quiggin on January 24, 2006

Belle’s post on the fact that the US appears unlikely ever to go metric prompted me to try and put together some thoughts I’ve had for a long time.

When I lived in the US around 1990, I was struck by all sorts of minor inefficiencies that seemed to be sanctified by tradition. In addition to its unique system of weights and measures (similar to, but confusingly different from, the Imperial system I had grown up with), there was the currency, with no coin of any substantial value, thanks to inflation (this particular inefficiency was subsequently enshrined in the Save the Greenback Act), and the practice of quoting prices net of sales tax, so you always had to pay more than the marked price. And then there was a huge, but ill-defined, range of activities where tips were expected, apparently regardless of the quality of service. In all of these cases, Americans seemed much more willing to put up with day-to-day inefficiency in the name of tradition than Australians would be, and much more resistant to government action that would sweep such inefficiencies away in the name of reform.

Bigger issues like creationism can be fitted into this picture. As far as I can see, very few supporters of creationism (or intelligent design or what have you) have any desire to see it taught in university biology departments [there are a handful of exceptions, like Bob Jones, that are resolutely stuck in the pre-Civil War era on most things] or applied by oil geologists. Their big objection is seeing evolution stated as fact in museum displays or taught in high schools. Broadly speaking the position seems to be like that with the metric system – scientists are welcome to be evolutionists as long as they don’t try and ram it down the throats of our kids. Obviously, this is costly; as with metric and traditional measures, the two systems are bound to clash from time to time.

Then there’s the inefficiency that seems to be built in to the US system of government. When I lived there, I was subject to four different levels of government (town, county, state and federal) with multiple overlapping responsibilities, and procedures that seem designed to achieve maximal inconvenience for citizens (not to mention resident aliens!).

All of this of course, was set against the background of a general level of technology in advance of very other country in the world, and an economic system in which the pursuit of efficiency wasn’t much hindered by concerns about equity. At least for the upper-middle class to which I belonged, these things produced a very high standard of living.

How much do these minor inefficiencies matter? In one sense, I think, quite a lot. In another, they don’t matter very much at all, and can in fact be defended on cultural grounds

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Beware of economics geeks bearing gifts

by Daniel on January 23, 2006

Henry gave me the heads-up on this extraordinary story from Institutional Investor (it is worth watching the interstitial ad in order to read the story as it really is dynamite). It’s an account of the dog’s breakfast that was the Harvard Institute for International Development’s mission to Russia. I learned a few things I didn’t know from it – particularly, it was interesting the extent to which Jeffrey Sachs, who suffered quite a lot of damage to his reputation through being the titular head of HIID at the time it all blew up, wasn’t actually in charge, and to which Andrei Shleifer and his wife were involved in the whole thing to an extent which it is rather implausible to dismiss as the work of a head-in-the-clouds academic who didn’t realise that there might be a conflict of interest. It adds quite a lot to David Warsh’s excellent coverage of the same story, and indeed to the cacophony of fuck-all which has been our beloved mainstream media’s coverage of what is quite visibly one of the most interesting and scandalous tales of the 1990s (I’m linking to Warsh’s own story on the II story because it contains a few quotes that are in the paper version but not the online one, but it is well worth poking around in the Economic Principals archives for other stories on this subject).
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Stealing your best lines

by Ted on January 23, 2006

A long excerpt from Osama bin Ladin’s complete letter to America (UPDATE: Please note, as per comments, that this is a letter from 2002.) Between the call to Islam, the condemnation of homosexuality, gambling, financial interest, alcohol, the separation of church and state, and the liberation of women, does anyone else feel like they’ve heard this before? It’s practically Howard Dean’s stump speech, isn’t it?

Between the part about how Clinton was let off too easily for immoral acts committed in the Oval office, and the part about how America “brought (the world) AIDS as a Satanic American Invention”, I’m surprised he doesn’t already have a diary at Daily Kos. Is Osama really out of the anti-Bush mainstream with this?

Um, yeah. He really, really is.

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Murakami’s Underground

by Belle Waring on January 23, 2006

I read Haruki Murakami’s Underground last week; it is a book about the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. I have been a big fan of his fiction for a long time, but this was my first foray into his non-fiction. It is a fascinating book, consisting of interviews both with the sarin victims and with members of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult whose members carried out the attack. The latter were interesting but struck me as very similar to tales of what motivates cult members in the US–alienated loners with a certain cast of mind I would call quasi-philosophical were initally drawn in by the promise of a totalizing explanation for the world, and then a meager diet, little sleep, forced labor and indoctrination did the rest. By quasi-philosophical, I mean something like this, from Murakami’s interview with cult member Hirokuyi Kano: [click to continue…]

Abramoff and Medicare

by John Holbo on January 22, 2006

I’m reading Off Center. Here’s something from p. 87:

When the debate over prescription drug coverage picked up in the late Clinton years, the pharmaceutical lobbying group PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, pronounced “Farma”) went so far as to establish a faux grassroots organization that putatively represented the elderly: “Citizens for a Better Medicare.” Despite the lofty title, Citizens for a Better Medicare had few, if any, actual citizens on its rolls Its main activity was to spend millions of PhRMA dollars on slick ad campaigns supporting an industry-friendly drug plan. When Citizens for a Better Medicare came under fire, PhRMA switched its “grassroots” efforts over to the United Seniors Association, a conservative direct-mail organization that had cut its teeth with frightening scare letters to senior citizens. The United Seniors Association board included, among other GOP political operatives, Jack Abramoff

Greg Sargent and Kevin Drum have lately suggested that (as Kevin writes) “Dems might do well to tie the Republican corruption scandal to the broader theme of Republican addiction to special business interests.” Healthcare and the energy industry are the obvious places to start. But I haven’t yet seen anyone point out this fairly direct Abramoff/Medicare bill connection. Rather a useful factoid, perhaps, for purposes of converting the maddening complexities of this legislative boondoggle into damning talking-points. Medicare. It doth glaze the eyes over.

Mark Schmitt:

The backlash against the Medicare drug bill may or may not be a backlash against the people responsible for the Medicare drug bill. If it merely increases cynicism and deepens the sense that government can’t do anything right, then the ground remains fertile for the Republican anti-government message – even if it is Republicans themselves who betrayed their own anti-government message. Democrats have a very complicated (but absolutely true) story to tell here: They have to show that the Medicare bill was a guaranteed disaster from the start, that its consequences were not accidental but imtimately related to the corruption of the Republican majority, and that there is an alternative that would do more and cost less, and that Democrats would make it happen. We cannot assume that this story will occur automatically to people as they struggle with the program.

Wackos

by Henry on January 21, 2006

This “Financial Times article”:https://registration.ft.com/registration/barrier?referer=&location=http%3A//news.ft.com/cms/s/df63c89c-89fb-11da-86d1-0000779e2340.html (sub required) has a quote from an email written by Michael Scanlon, former bagman for Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, which sums up the modern Republican party in two sentences.

bq. Michael Scanlon … explained the strategy in an e-mail to a tribal client. “Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them,” he wrote. “The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right, Christian radio, e-mail, the internet and telephone trees.”

Fundamentalist wackos, stirred up by cynical political operators in it for the money. Not a pretty picture.

The rise of blogs

by Henry on January 21, 2006

“Danny Glover”:http://beltwayblogroll.nationaljournal.com/archives/2006/01/the_rise_of_blo.php at the _National Journal_ has written one of the best summary articles on blogs and their consequences for US politics that I’ve seen. It picks up on something that’s under-reported and under-studied – how blogs change politics through reframing political and policy issues. Most assessments of blogs and politics focus on how bloggers have successfully demanded the heads of Trent Lott, Eason Jordan etc on platters. This is the most visible consequence of blogs – but not the most important. The more fundamental (albeit much more difficult to measure) impact of blogs has been in reframing political issues such as Social Security for the media and other elite political actors, thus helping to change (sometimes in quite fundamental ways) the basis of political conversations. As Dan Drezner and I “claimed”:http://www.henryfarrell.net/blogpaperapsa.pdf the year before last, blogs’ primary impact on politics is through this kind of indirect influence. The Corey Maye case is a good example of a case where blogs have failed to have an impact, as Mark Kleiman (his site seems to be down; hence no direct link) suggested some weeks ago. Even though it created a massive “spike of attention”:http://www.blogpulse.com/trend?query1=%22corey+maye%22&label1=&query2=&label2=&query3=&label3=&days=90&x=37&y=3 on both the left and right of the blogosphere, it hasn’t had wider repercussions – because other political elites (journalists, policy-makers) haven’t picked up on it. But where other political elites do have an incentive to pick up on what bloggers are saying (as was true in the Social Security debate, where journalists desperately needed ways of framing and simplifying a complex and highly salient political issue for their readers) the political effects can be very substantial indeed.

Geography is Hard

by Kieran Healy on January 21, 2006

Via “Max”:http://maxspeak.org/mt/archives/001917.html comes a Washington Post column on The Realities of International Relations by “Robert Kagan”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/13/AR2006011301696.html who apparently is a “transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.” But not, it seems, a transpacific one:

bq. China’s (and Malaysia’s) attempt to exclude Australia from a prominent regional role at the recent East Asian summit has reinforced Sydney’s desire for closer ties.

An open letter to Tom Maguire

by Ted on January 20, 2006

Tom,

I hope that you’ll forgive that I didn’t just put this in your comments. I don’t hold you responsible for them (much as I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for everything in our comments), but your commenters scare me.

I really think that you’re off-base here. There are times when the arguments made by virtually any partisan can be shown to be parallel to the rhetoric of some unsavory character. It’s not hard to squint your eyes and find parallels between the rhetoric of Michael Moore, Howard Dean or Ted Barlow and Osama Bin Ladin. Similarly, it wouldn’t be hard to quote Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, or Tom Maguire and find a somewhat similar argument that had been made by David Duke, Timothy McVeigh or… you know. The guy we’re not supposed to mention. (You may remember that during the 90s, Republican congressmen had a habit of making arguments that were similar to the rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic.)

But so what? There’s simply no way to defend yourself against this, short of just shutting up. There’s no plausible way to make a case against a war without opening yourself to the possibility that the enemy will ever use a similar argument. (Any patriotic rhetoric will be simply excised by an attacking pundit.) There’s no way to oppose social spending without exposing yourself to a comparison some modern-day Scrooge. There’s no way to oppose affirmative action without exposing yourself to comparisons to racists. You don’t enjoy being on the receiving end of this sort of playground logic, so why take such pains to excuse it when the shoe is on the other foot?

People who make the kinds of statements that Chris Matthews made aren’t really making an argument. Rather, they’re just trying to get a little bit of tar onto the partisan they’re criticising. There’s no principle that they’re trying to establish. It’s just a show of contempt.

And it really does little good to bat your eyes and say that the good fella didn’t mean anything by it. You’ve found an angle at which Chris Matthews’ statement can be literally defended. Good for you. Now read your comments and trackbacks. At your blog, one of the most reasonable right-of-center blogs around, your readers have spent the day lamenting what they imagine to be an alliance between al-Qaeda and the American left. They understand the message.

Best,

Ted

The Army and Vietnam, part 2

by Ted on January 20, 2006

More from The Army and Vietnam by Andrew F. Krepinevich. It’s especially interesting, if I perceive the state of the world correctly, because al-Qaeda front terrorists in Iraq (as opposed to jockeying Iraqi ethnic militias) don’t seem to be terribly interested in gaining the positive support of a wide swath of Iraqis. That might reflect a nihilistic worldview, or it might be my own myopia.

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