From the monthly archives:

July 2006

One Big Mutual Fund, or, The Ownership Society

by Cosma Shalizi on July 31, 2006

Attention Conservation Notice: Over 1500 words on a wacky quasi-socialist economic scheme, from someone utterly lacking in credentials in economics. The scheme does not respect the sanctity of private enterprise, but at the same time would not reduce the alienation of labor one iota. Includes a lengthy quotation of a game-theoretic impossibility result.

In the previous installment in this series of modest proposals for the reform of corporate governance, I looked at ways of making the incentives of the managers of large, publicly-held corporations align more closely with those of their long-term shareholders. This left alone the question of the beneficiaries of corporate value; assuming that the managers are busily working to maximizing their revenue streams, who benefits from their industry and diligence? Having just read Mark Greif’s great essay on redistribution in n+1, I would like to make a suggestion. (Issue 4; long excerpt here, as pointed out by Matt in the comments.)

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Cuban Oil

by Jon Mandle on July 31, 2006

Now that oil has been discovered off the coast of Cuba, I may eventually be deprived of my best come-back to those lefties who oppose anything that could be called “globalization” but who also complain about the U.S. embargo of Cuba. But the more interesting question will be the reaction of Republicans who will be torn between their love of all things oily and hatred of all things Cuban (post-1959). Some possibilities:

1. Suddenly realize that the embargo isn’t working and end it;
2. Suddenly realize that the embargo isn’t working where oil is concerned – end it for oil, but keep it in place for everything else.
3. Dispute Cuba’s territorial claims where the oil was found;
4. Escalate – either blockade or at least stop suspending enforcement of title III the Helms-Burton amendment [pdf] until Cuba is a democracy like Saudi Arabia;
5. Really escalate – invade Cuba (beyond Guantanamo Bay) or some other country, related or not – I’m thinking Venezuela;
6. Keep very quiet about this and hope Castro dies soon and declare success no matter what the replacement regime looks like.

The early front-runner seems to be 2, with hints of 3, and of course 6 is an old standby.

Thus spake Rousseau

by Chris Bertram on July 31, 2006

I’ve been a participant in various discussions on and off blogs, about the laws of war, just war theory and so on, as it applies to recent events. Though I think it is necessary to get clear about those things, there’s a horrible disconnection and abstractness about the debates, which doesn’t seem respond appropriately to the human miseries, to the people who are most human to us just as they are stripped of their humanity. Two texts came to mind when I thought about this, and felt feeling of disgust at myself for treating such matters as theoretical exercises. The first was Yeats’s “On a Political Prisoner”:http://www.poetry-archive.com/y/on_a_political_prisoner.html , and the second was Rousseau’s _The State of War_ from which I reproduce the opening lines below:

I open the books of law and morality, I listen to the sages and the philosophers of law, and, imbued by their insidious speeches, I am led to deplore the miseries of nature, and to admire the peace and justice established by the the civil order. I bless the wisdom of public institutions and console myself about my humanity through seeing myself as a citizen. Well instructed concerning my duties and my happiness, I shut the book, leave the classroom and look around. I see wretched peoples moaning beneath a yoke of iron, the human race crushed by the fist of oppressors, a starving and enfeebled crowd whose blood and tears are drunk in peace by the rich, and everywhere I see the strong armed against the weak with the terrifying power of the laws.

All this takes place peacefully and without resistance; it is the tranquility of the companions of Ulysses shut into the Cyclops cave and waiting their turn to be devoured. One must tremble and keep silent. Let us draw a permanent veil over these horrible phenomena. I lift my eyes and I look into the distance. I notice fires and flames, deserted countryside, pillaged towns. Ferocious men, where are you dragging those wretches? I hear a terrible sound. What a confusion! What cries! I draw closer and I see a theatre of murders, ten thousand men with their throats cut, the dead trampled by the hooves of horses, and everywhere a scene of death and agony. Such is the fruit of these peaceful institutions. Pity and indignation rise up from the the depths of my heart. Barbarous philosopher: try reading us your book on the field of battle.

Lieberman-Lamont and the blogs

by Henry on July 31, 2006

Mark Schmitt has the best “blog-overview”:http://markschmitt.typepad.com/ of the Lieberman-Lamont race that I’ve seen so far.

bq. It’s a great expression of the Democratic Party of 1996: You got your enviros, you got your minorities, you got your women. Each group has one issue. For the enviros, it’s ANWR (the most trivial of victories, but the one that raises the money). For the minorities, affirmative action. (Likewise, of minor relevance to the actual structure of economic opportunity for most African-Americans and Latinos.) For women, it’s all about “preserve abortion rights.” There are a couple others, but those are the basic buttons you press to be credentialed as a good liberal Democrat. After you press them, you can do whatever you want. But has Lieberman failed to press those buttons? No! In fact, he’s been pounding on them like that guy at the elevator who thinks that if he presses “Down” hard enough and often enough, eventually the elevator will recognize how important and how late he is. … But where do these other issues come from? … since when do they care about bankruptcy? What if all of a sudden you couldn’t count on Democratic women just because you said that right things about choice – what if they started to vote on the whole range of issues that affect women’s economic and personal opportunities?

There’s just one thing that I’d add to this. As Mark said in a previous post, the netroots aren’t a “critically important”:http://markschmitt.typepad.com/decembrist/2006/07/what_the_netroo.html force on the ground in Connecticut; they’re helping stir things up, but they’re only one of many groups that are doing this. The buzz for change is coming from the voters rather than the blogs. If you talk to the netroots people they’ll happily confirm this. But where netroots bloggers are playing an unique role is changing the way that this is being framed in the national political debate. They’ve made the Lamont insurgency into an attack on the shibboleth of bipartisanism. I just can’t imagine that the dueling editorials in the “Times”:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/30/opinion/30sun1.html?ex=1311912000&en=27103aed18e357d8&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss and the “Post”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/29/AR2006072900680.html would have happened if the blogs hadn’t consistently and relentlessly framed Lieberman’s problem as a fawning and corrupt bipartisan deference to a president gone crazy. It would have been framed (as it was and still is elsewhere in the media), as a debate about the Iraq war, or a local race that was of interest not because of the issues at stake, but because the guy in trouble was a former vice-presidential candidate. The fact that guys like David Broder and Morton Kondracke view this as an attack on the tradition of cosy bipartisanship (and their source of authority in the punditocracy) isn’t an accidental outcome, nor is it something that would likely have happened if there hadn’t been blogs pushing this message (and getting read by reporters and editorialists) over a considerable period of time.

Brunch in the Ruins

by Cosma Shalizi on July 30, 2006

It’s a hot, lazy Sunday, which seems like a good time for browsing through livejournal communities dedicated to photos of peacefully rusting machines, quietly crumbling buildings, and similar modern ruins:

Abandoned Places [via David Chess]
Decayed Machinery [via I forget who, years ago]

The photographers are all amateurs, so the quality (to the slight extent I can judge) is quite variable, but many manage to capture the suggestion of sunset and sadness, of unhappy stories brought to a close, which fascinates me about such scenes. Some of these photos, in fact, seem as good as, say, those in Terry Evans’s book on the former Joliet Arsenal, Disarming the Prairie, bringing to mind the words of the poet:

These are the halls of the dead, where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.

— But I see I’m getting melodramatic, and it’s just too hot and sticky and still to sustain that.

Philosophy on the Radio

by Brian on July 30, 2006

A week or so ago, philosopher and blogger “Greg Restall”:http://consequently.org/ was on (Australian) Radio National’s show The Philosopher’s Zone talking about logical pluralism. The link to the show is “here”:http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2006/1689459.htm. I’m partially bringing this up because I was pleased to see a discussion of philosophical logic in on national radio, and partially as a segue into gratuitous self-promotion.

This week’s episode of “Philosophy Talk”:http://www.philosophytalk.org/ features a panel discussion that was recorded at the Pacific APA. The panellists were Liz Harman, Sean Kelly and me, discussing the future of philosophy. Though I can occasionally “spot short term trends”:http://tar.weatherson.org/2004/07/05/contextualism-relativism-and-the-near-term-future-of-philosophy/, I’m pretty useless at spotting larger patterns, so I wouldn’t put much stock in much of what I say. The show will air on Tuesday at noon PST on “KALW”:http://www.kalw.org/ in San Francisco, and be repeated at 8pm PST Thursday on “Oregon Public Radio”:http://www.opb.org/. I’m going to be away at “Bellingham”:http://myweb.facstaff.wwu.edu/nmarkos/BSPC/BSPC7/BSPC7.htm the next few days, so I won’t be able to hear the show live to air, but hopefully I’ll hear it soon after. I’m not exactly sure what I said, so when I hear it I might have to scramble to come up with some justifications.

The dismal science of freedom

by John Quiggin on July 30, 2006

The topic for my BrisScience talk tomorrow night is Economics: The Hopeful Science. The name, obviously, is an allusion to Carlyle’s characterization of economics as ‘the dismal science’. In choosing it, though, I was under the common misapprehension that Carlyle was attacking Malthus, and his prediction of a stationary economy with a subsistence wage, that could be raised only through ‘moral restraint’.

It turns out, however, that the phrase actually occurs in Carlyle’s defence of slavery, charmingly entitled, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question*, and that the primary target is John Stuart Mill and other economists who favored wage labour over slavery.

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Apple, Tree

by Henry on July 29, 2006

Greg Djerejian, who’s definitely one of the more interesting and thoughtful people on the right, “attacks John Podhoretz”:http://www.belgraviadispatch.com/2006/07/morality_and_the_warfighting.html for engaging in “amoral” and “outrageous” “speculative dribble” about how US troops didn’t kill enough young Sunni men in the early stages of the war to have put the fear of God into them (only thing they understand is force, you know). Right on. But when he says that:

bq. It’s quite sad that the son of an accomplished, prestigious American intellectual would muse so innocuously about the merits of mass butchery–basically the wholesale slaughter of a broad demographic of an ethnic group writ large–a policy prescription that is quasi-genocidal in nature.

I have to wonder whether he’s read anything that Norman Podhoretz has written in the last decade or so. Take, for example, his February 2005 _Commentary_ piece, where he “claims”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/08/12/trahisons-des-clercs/ to have evidence that realist critics of Bush’s foreign policy are “rooting for an American defeat” (the evidence was, not to put too fine a point on it, lies). Duncan Black’s standard line in response to media criticism of bloggers’ shrillness etc is to ask whether the critics have listened to talk radio recently. But elite journalists don’t need to go that far. I’ve often thought that the folks in the _New Republic_ and others should take a long, hard look at the kind of stuff that people like Podhoretz père publish in _Commentary_, purportedly a serious intellectual magazine, on a regular basis. There may be well known bloggers who are as vicious and mendacious as Podhoretz is, but there aren’t many of them.

Inducing Disorientation in Larval Economists

by Cosma Shalizi on July 29, 2006

As a good neoclassical, neoliberal economist, Brad DeLong is acutely aware that the market system is not natural at all, but a delicate historical anomaly. He is worried that it is so familiar to his students that they will find alternate modes of social organization almost incredible; accordingly he wants to mess with their heads:

Would making Berkeley’s first-year economics Ph.D. graduate students this fall read short biographies of William Gates and William Marshall as a way of getting at the idea that there are non-market societies that work very differently from our own today–would that be a teaching idea of extraordinary brilliance or of total insane lunacy?

The rest of the post is an extended excerpt from the New York Review of Books review of a biography of William Marshal (which goes on to my to-read list). The question I have is, what should DeLong make his students read, to give them a vivid sense of just how differently production and distribution could be and have been organized? Argonauts of the Western Pacific, perhaps? Gilgamesh?

And: those of us who teach things other than economics, what books do or should we hand out as ice-axes for our students’ frozen seas? ( This one is mine.)

Troops U-Turn in Iraq

by Henry on July 29, 2006

The _Financial Times_ says that the Bush administration is “engaged in a quiet U-turn on troop numbers.”

bq. The US administration has quietly reversed its goal from whittling down troop numbers in Iraq before the mid-term congressional elections in November. A Pentagon spokesman on Friday confirmed that US troop levels in Iraq rose to 132,000 during the past week – the highest since late May – from 127,000 at the start of the week. The spokesman said troop numbers often fluctuated and “there might be temporary spikes during periods of troop rotation.” However, analysts said an increase in troop numbers was more likely than a reduction because the number of sectarian killings in Iraq had almost doubled since the start of the year. The rise will prompt fears that the US is becoming increasingly bogged down in an unwinnable conflict. … Richard Armitage, who was US deputy secretary of state until January 2005, said: “The US has almost totally reversed the troop situation from two months ago. The danger is that this is too little and too late and that the US will turn into a bystander in an Iraqi civil war it does not have sufficient resources to prevent.”

I haven’t posted on Iraq in a long time, because I’m not sure that I’ve anything useful to say. All the options facing the US are grim, and I don’t know which is the least grim. What I do know is that when we hear something like:

bq. Kenneth Pollack, a former US National Security Council official, said: “The numbers should probably be roughly double what they are. We are seeing the right plan but completely inadequate resources to make it work.”

we can be sure that the Pollack plan plus a pony will get you peace in Iraq. Regardless of whether a doubling of troop numbers would in fact bring peace (a claim that I seriously doubt), it’s clear that those troops aren’t there to send out in the first place. The US military is badly overstretched as it is.

MacBook

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2006

As some of you may remember, “I blegged”:https://crookedtimber.org/2006/05/12/laptop-choice-bleg/ a while back about getting a new laptop. As a result, I took your advice and got myself a spanking new Intel-based “MacBook”:http://www.apple.com/macbook/macbook.html . So here’s the audit part. Was it a good decision? Yes, I think so. The MacBook looks nice and it plays nice. The keyboard is comfortable, the display is good, and the whole think isn’t too heavy to carry about. On the other hand, I did have a nasty persistent problem when I first got the machine, one that Apple weren’t much use with, and which a large number of new MacBook owners seem to be suffering from. The problem was this: that I’d imagine I had shut down the machine, but I’d actually closed the clamshell before the shutdown process finished. It didn’t just go into benign “sleep” mode when this happened, it “woke up” in its closed state became incredibly hot, fans whirring, refused to shutdown or restart, “kernel panic”, and so on. One one occasion I came downstairs in the morning to find the battery completely depleted from one of these incidents, on another my rucksack was burning hot from the nearly combusting computer inside it. Apple told me to reset the power management, which I did, but that made no difference. What works is to wait until the screen goes black and then a further few seconds. Apple should tell people.

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Surowiecki and attribution error

by Henry on July 28, 2006

Via “Dan Drezner”:http://www.danieldrezner.com/archives/002818.html, this fun little “article”:http://www.danieldrezner.com/archives/002818.html by James Surowiecki in the _New Yorker_.

bq. Airbus’s woes are being held up as proof that it is, in the words of one columnist, “a textbook example of how not to run a commercial enterprise.” The Wall Street Journal explained that Airbus was failing because of its “politicized management,” while the Times suggested that Airbus had to decide whether it was a company or a European “employment project.” … What much of the talk about the inherent weakness of Airbus ignores is that, just a few years ago, it was Boeing that looked fundamentally flawed, while Airbus was seen as the future of the industry. … The problem with such prognostications is that they infer basic truths about a company’s prospects from its short-term performance. … People are generally bad at accepting the importance of context and chance. We fall prey to what the social psychologist Lee Ross called “the fundamental attribution error”—the tendency to ascribe success or failure to innate characteristics, even when context is overwhelmingly important. … Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, we see patterns where none exist. It’s no wonder that management theory is dominated by fads: every few years, new companies succeed, and they are scrutinized for the underlying truths that they might reveal. But often there is no underlying truth; the companies just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

This applies not only to judgements about the success of companies, but to judgements about the success of countries. A few years ago, the political scientist Peter Katzenstein went through a couple of decades worth of those special issues that the _Economist_ runs on particular countries for his own amusement. He found that there wasn’t any long term consistency in judgement – a country cited as a model of how to create a thriving economy in one special issue might be cited as a prime example of political dysfunction the next time round, and back in the good books a few years later. This isn’t a problem that’s specific to the _Economist_; it’s a more general one of how the political wisdom on the sources of economic success is incredibly unstable. A couple of decades ago, the shelves were filled with books on Japan Inc., and nasty xenophobic bestsellers like Michael Crichton’s _Rising Sun_ claiming that Japan was going to gobble up America unless it fought back. Before that, there was a lot of talk about _Modell Deutschland_ as the way forward. _Und so weiter_. We don’t know very much at all about the root reasons why economies succeed or fail, for some of the reasons that Surowiecki cites. Countries too can happen to be in the right place at the right time, and may find their luck running out unexpectedly when conditions change.

Tommie Shelby II

by Jon Mandle on July 28, 2006

A few months ago, I wrote about Orlando Patterson’s rave review of Tommie Shelby’s book, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. I’ve now read the book myself, and the praise is entirely deserved. Shelby indeed “knows how to ask all the right questions.” And his answers are always thoughtful, clear, insightful, and he shows almost unbelievable patience with his many mistaken rivals. I admit to being pre-disposed to his position, but I learned a lot. My review is below.
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Frederick Mosteller Is Dead

by Cosma Shalizi on July 28, 2006

Via everyone in the profession: the statistician Frederick Mosteller has died. Mosteller was one of the great leaders of the generation of statisticians in which our field went from being an annex of mathematics (as it was when he attended Carnegie Tech) to an autonomous, institutionalized discipline. He had an astonishing range as a researcher, but is perhaps best known for his work on stochastic theories of learning theory and the authorship of the Federalist Papers. He was also a notable teacher, as his essay “Classroom and Platform Performance” suggests, and in the later part of his career tried to bring elementary inferential hygenie to educational research. More anecdotes are available from Tales of the Statisticians, or this brief sketch by his student Stephen Fienberg.

Hezbollah’s war crimes

by Daniel on July 28, 2006

Not so much in the interests of spurious balance, but because it provides a way to deal with a number of general issues of international law in a more neutral framework, I thought I’d consider what war crimes have been committed by Hezbollah in the course of the present conflict. I am not an international lawyer, though I have had reasonable luck in the past arguing points of international law on the Internet. I am leaving comments enabled for the time being, though I would like all commenters to respect the principle that the blame game is not zero sum, and in specific application to this case, the fact that one side is committing war crimes does not absolve the other side from their obligation to obey the law.

Throughout this post, I am assuming that Hezbollah can be considered as a separate military entity and that its troops are being judged according to the law of war rather than as civilian criminals (or for that matter, as “illegal combatants”). I think that this is fair enough; the Geneva Conventions are rather vague on what constitutes a legitimate military entity, but my opinion is that if state sponsorship was a necessary condition this would have been explicitly stated and it seems to me that it would be hard to argue that Hezbollah are not guerillas under Protocol I. Although the Conventions seem to mainly be considering cases of civil war rather than cross-border aggression by parastates I personally believe that they apply. More under the fold.
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