From the monthly archives:

January 2008

Bill and Nazarbayev

by Henry Farrell on January 31, 2008

The _New York Times_ has a story suggesting that Bill Clinton cozied up to Kazakhstan president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev in order to help out a big donor to the Clinton Foundation.

Unlike more established competitors, Mr. Giustra was a newcomer to uranium mining in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. But what his fledgling company lacked in experience, it made up for in connections. Accompanying Mr. Giustra on his luxuriously appointed MD-87 jet that day was a former president of the United States, Bill Clinton. … the two men were whisked off to share a sumptuous midnight banquet with Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, whose 19-year stranglehold on the country has all but quashed political dissent. … Mr. Nazarbayev walked away from the table with a propaganda coup, after Mr. Clinton expressed enthusiastic support for the Kazakh leader’s bid to head an international organization that monitors elections and supports democracy. Mr. Clinton’s public declaration undercut both American foreign policy and sharp criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, Mr. Clinton’s wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

… Mr. Giustra also came up a winner when his company signed preliminary agreements giving it the right to buy into three uranium projects … monster deal stunned the mining industry, turning an unknown shell company into one of the world’s largest uranium producers …In a statement Kazakhstan would highlight in news releases, Mr. Clinton declared that he hoped it would achieve a top objective: leading the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which would confer legitimacy on Mr. Nazarbayev’s government. “I think it’s time for that to happen, it’s an important step, and I’m glad you’re willing to undertake it,” Mr. Clinton said.

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The monkey and the organgrinder

by John Q on January 31, 2008

At Wikipedia, the fight against pseudoscience and Republican antiscience across a range of articles from global warming to passive smoking to Intelligent design to AIDS reappraisal,to DDT is continuous and bruising.[1]. Editors have learned to detect bogus sources of information almost immediately. One of my fellow-editors at passive smoking pointed me to an interesting letter to Science (paywalled, but I’ve quoted the important bit), shedding unintentional light on the way the disinformation machine operates. It’s from William G. Kelly of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness the front organization founded by legendary Phillip Morris shill, Jim Tozzi (Kelly is employed by Tozzi’s lobbying outfit, Multinational Business Services

Responding to criticism of the infamous Data Quality Act (for more on this see the seminar on Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science, in the sidebar, Kelly offers a classic non-denial denial, saying

Neither Phillip Morris (a multiproduct company) nor any other tobacco company (or nontobacco company for that matter) played a leadership role in the genesis of the DQA. While working with the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness in Washington, DC, I was personally involved with the development of the DQA, and no industry entity contributed to its formulation.

While we’re at it, can I point out that Henry II was nowhere near Canterbury Cathedral when Thomas Becket met with his unfortunate end. The whole point of having people like Tozzi and Kelly, and groups like CRE is that corporations don’t have to play a leadership role in promoting their own interests in Congress.

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Kidney Theft in India

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2008

There’s a long-standing urban legend about where you meet an attractive person in a bar, they buy you a drink, and the next thing you know you wake up in a bath of ice with a pain in your lower back and a note telling you to get to a hospital. One of the reasons this story is just a story is that in order to usefully extract someone’s kidney for transplant, a whole lot of stuff has to be organized beforehand, and you need to have a lot of skilled people working together against a hard time constraint — too many, really, to quietly and reliably pull something like this off.

On the other hand:

Mr. Mohammed was the last of about 500 Indians whose kidneys were removed by a team of doctors running an illegal transplant operation, supplying kidneys to rich Indians and foreigners, police officials said. A few hours after his operation last Thursday, the police raided the clinic and moved him to a government hospital. … Many of the donors were day laborers, like Mr. Mohammed, picked up from the streets with the offer of work, driven to a well-equipped private clinic, and duped or forced at gunpoint to undergo operations. Others were bicycle rickshaw drivers and impoverished farmers who were persuaded to sell their organs, which is illegal in India.

Although several kidney rings have been exposed in India in recent years, the police said the scale of this one was unprecedented. Four doctors, five nurses, 20 paramedics, three private hospitals, 10 pathology clinics and five diagnostic centers were involved, Mohinder Lal, the police officer in charge of the investigation, said. “We suspect around 400 or 500 kidney transplants were done by these doctors over the last nine years,” said Mr. Lal, the Gurgaon police commissioner.

I’d be interested to see how many suppliers were straightforwardly lied to about what they were getting into, or otherwise forced to undergo operations, and how many were offered money first (and paid afterwards). Unlike some other documented cases of organ sales, this seems less like an illegal but functioning market and more like a criminal racket founded on fraud.

Other places

by Henry Farrell on January 31, 2008

Worth reading (and blogging about if I had more time):

Lane Kenworthy on “the (il)logic of the new Laffer Curve“.

“Ezra Klein”: and “Jonathan Cohn”: on John Edwards’ withdrawal from the race.

“Ricardo Hausman”: on the curious inconsistencies between the macroeconomic advice that Washington Consensus folks doled out to east Asia, Russia and Latin America, and what the same people are saying today about the so-called sub-prime crisis.

“Gideon Rachman”: is skeptical about economic freedom will indeed produce political freedom in countries like China and Russia (I’ve been meaning to blog about this essay for a couple of weeks, but have been swamped with other commitments, and am realizing this is unlikely to change soon …).

“Eric Rauchway”: on Findlay and O’Rourke’s _Power and Plenty_ (a book that will probably be finding its way onto my IR syllabus next year).

“Atlas Shrugged” Kicks the Ass of “Fight Club”

by Scott McLemee on January 30, 2008

The website Books That Make You Dumb seems designed to bring out the scolds among us. The methodology is dubious (use Facebook to determine the ten most popular books among students at various colleges and universities, then organize this data according to average SAT scores for each institution) and there is no reason to suppose the books cause stupidity, rather than serving to diagnoise a preexisting condition.

The creator of the site, Virgil Griffith, acknowledges the problems. “I’m aware correlation [does not equal] causation,” he says. “The results are awesome regardless of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks.”

Gripe if you must, but diverting the chart certainly is. The Book of Mormon falls right in the middle. There is probably a Mitt Romney joke to be plucked from this, like over-ripe and low-hanging fruit. Verily I say unto you, have a look. (via

Born under a full moon

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 30, 2008

There was a full moon last Wednesday, when Ischa was born. A month earlier, I was at a Christmas party in Belgium, and was warned to return home on time ‘because babies tend to be born when there’s a full moon.’ Why that would be so, no-one has yet told me. But it is a fact that last Wednesday, the delivery ward in the hospital was full, and two women had to be referred to another hospital. The nurse who served breakfast confidently told me she knew it would be busy when she came to work the night before – she had noticed that the moon was full.

I’ve also been told that children born under a full moon would somehow be special. Ischa is absolutely adorable (I know, I know, all parents suffer from this kind of prejudice); he’s been rather kind to his parents (so far!) by sleeping relatively well at night; he’s a big supporter of the nappies industry; and he makes an interesting case study for international private law scholars, since, “just as his older brother”:, he has two different official surnames thanks to the unwillingness of the Belgian state to recognise the surname that his parents have chosen for him. Yet whether any of that can be traced back to his being born under a full moon — I doubt it.

A million foreclosures

by John Q on January 30, 2008

The news that over a million homes went into foreclosure in the US in 2007, affecting about 1 per cent of all households or around 3 million people, supports the view that foreclosure has taken over from bankruptcy as the primary mode of financial catastrophe.

As with bankruptcy, however, the high frequency of financial distress is partly offset by the fact that US law and standard contractual arrangements are more debtor-friendly than in other countries. Compared to those in other places (at least in Australia) US mortgage contracts have commonly favored borrowers in two important ways. First, they have been fixed rate contracts with no, or limited penalties, for early repayment. That means that borrowers can stick with their fixed rate if market rates rise, but can refinance at lower cost if market rates fall.

Second, most mortgages are non-recourse, meaning that the lender can take the house but cannot recover the debt from the borrowers income or other assets. That means that once the value of the house falls below the amount owing (equity becomes negative) the borrower can walk away from the house and the debt. As Felix Salmon notes, the difficulty of pursuing deficiency payments means that most loans are non-recourse in practice even if the contract says otherwise

In the jargon of financial assets, the standard contract gives borrowers both a put option on the house (the ability to walk away) and a call option on the debt (the ability to pay early). Both of these make the contract more valuable to borrowers and less valuable to lenders. There’s quite a good discussion of all this from Tanta at Calculated Risk, though the author makes heavy weather of the put option and seems to me to be unreasonably exercised about the fact that households are now treating their debts to banks with the same calculating attitude that corporations have long shown to their workers and other creditors, paying them if it is profitable to do so and defaulting otherwise.
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Prediction Markets In Republican Spin

by John Holbo on January 30, 2008

In November, we’ll be sending out our most liberal, least trustworthy candidate to take on Hillary Clinton—perhaps not more liberal than Barack Obama, but certainly far less trustworthy. And the worst part for the Right is that McCain will have won the nomination while ignoring, insulting and, as of this weekend, shamelessly lying about conservatives and conservatism.

(Over at the Corner.)

In this election the right hand has no clue what either the right or left hands are doing. Apparently. Nor can I really believe it’s some sort of deep game – Operation Briar Patch.

This can’t last. Quite possibly, it can’t last another week. If McCain wraps it up, what will Republican wisdom be? (Obviously the bumperstickers won’t read ‘McCain: probably less liberal than Obama’.) There are basically three options: 1) McCain as maverick liberal goes down the memory hole. Don’t look back. We have always been at peace with McCainia. 2) McCain as new direction. So far, there is zero evidence of this sort of framing. But there is obvious desire to get the Republican party back on track, after Bush. So, if McCain is it, there is an advantage to brandishing his former maverick status as evidence that real change has been achieved. 3) It was personal, not political. It will be discovered that McCain’s maverick status was just a function of his personal rivalry with Bush. We’re done with Bush, so we’re over that.

It is very hard for me to imagine a world in which Republicans reliably say any of 1)-3) about the formerly anathema McCain. But they can’t call him a liberal, or run him as an ‘until 2012’ placeholder. What, then? What will be the reason why McCain was obviously always the best man for the job?

Blogs and partisanship in the US

by Henry Farrell on January 29, 2008

A follow-up on John’s “post”: below. I don’t want to get into the back-and-forth about whether or not the conservative movement is hopelessly compromised, but I do want to point to some empirical evidence on the kinds of conversations and arguments that exist between left and right wing blogs.1 Dan Drezner and I co-edited a “special issue”: of _Public Choice_ on blogs, politics and power which came out this month – unfortunately, it is behind a stiff paywall (as best as I can discern, Springer Verlag is not an enormous fan of the access-to-knowledge movement). Among its contents are a piece by Sunstein (which provides a slightly more blog-specific version of the argument that John disputes), and an article by Eszter and two of her grad students on the specific ways that left- and right-wing bloggers talk to each other.

Eszter and her colleagues work from a sample of 40 well-known political blogs, and examine how these blogs did or didn’t link to each other over three week-long periods. Like previous studies, they find that the majority of links are between blogs sharing the same ideological position. However, over the three weeks examined, only five of the conservative blogs never link to a liberal blog, and only three of the liberal blogs never link to a conservative one. In general, they find that there is evidence that blogs are somewhat insular (they are far more inclined to link to other blogs like them than to blogs with different ideological positions), but far from being insulated (there still is a fair amount of left-right conversation going on). In general they find “no support for the claim that IT will lead to increasingly fragmented discourse online.”

More interesting still, Eszter and co. do some basic content analysis on the substance of links between left and right wing blogs. They distinguish between (1) ‘straw man arguments’ (their term for yer basic full on attack intended less to persuade than to harangue), (2) disagreements on substance (which offer critiques or refutations of the other blog’s argument), (3) neutral or non-political links (not politically argumentative at all; the example given is an Orin Kerr link to a Talkleft post about a parrot called Marshmallow), (4) redirects or posts which suggest that someone read another blogger on topic _x_ without attempts to agree or disagree with the other blogger, and (5) agreements on political substance. Unsurprisingly, they find that the first category includes a lot of links back and forth – in total, according to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, it accounts for just under half of left-right and right-left links combined. But that also means that slightly more than half of cross-linking blogposts don’t involve scorched earth attacks, but real back-and-forths, and sometimes actual debate. This debate can itself be pretty excoriating to be sure, but it does have Real Arguments and all, something which doesn’t fit well with the standard media account of the blogosphere as a brutish ideological mudwrestling match.

This doesn’t mean that Cass is necessarily wrong; this is a glass half-empty glass half-full debate. Cass can argue that nearly half of all blogposts are exercises in simple pointscoring, people like myself who are more inclined to point to the democratic benefits of the blogosphere can argue back that there is obviously real debate happening at the same time. Really, what is needed to move the debate forward is a better understanding of how the effects of blogs compare with those of other forms of political communication. Here, my understanding is that John is largely correct on one important point. The political science literature strongly suggests that most people don’t have much contact in their daily life with strongly differing political views, and blogs may be the first point of vantage for them on starkly different political views. Two GWU colleagues, Eric Lawrence and John Sides, and myself, are currently writing an article which attempts a first cut at the broader set of issues on the basis of data about blog readers, but you’ll have to wait a little while to see what we have to say on this …

1 If I did, I’d get into some of the differences between the linking patterns of left and right wing blogs, which on an initial glance at the findings of Hargittai et al. go against some common lefty perceptions, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Suharto is dead

by John Q on January 29, 2008

I don’t imagine many readers will be shedding tears at the death of former Indonesian dictator Suharto, and certainly I won’t be. The bloody massacres in which he rode to power amid the collapse of the Sukarno regime, and the brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor, not to mention his spectacular corruption, mark him down among the worst political criminals of a terrible century. Like some other dictators, he managed some significant successes in economic management, but overreached himself in the period leading up to the Asian economic crisis if 1997, which brought his downfall from power. Unfortunately, hostility to the Suharto regime has coloured attitudes to Indonesia in the decade since his fall from power, certainly in Australia and I suspect elsewhere.

In fact, Indonesia has been remarkably successful in dealing with what was, in many respects, a poisonous legacy from the Suharto era.
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Six Nations 2008

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2008

With the Six Nations starting this weekend, it is time for one of those prediction threads again. Here’s my take. There are only three possible winners: France, England and Ireland. Of these, England overperformed in the World Cup, and the Irish were shocking, but expect some regression to the usual level. France have the most skilful team, England are rebuilding, and a great Irish team is on its last legs. England have some key weaknesses: Regan has been dreadful at hooker for Bristol, and, once again, there’s no obvious scrum half. Since France have home advantage over both England and Ireland, and England have the same over Ireland, that should be enough to make the difference. So who to come last? I’m betting on Scotland to get the wooden spoon.

By popular request

by Henry Farrell on January 28, 2008

Harry’s mention “below”: of finding a comic strip from his youth on the internets made me think about the cultural ephemera that the Internet does and doesn’t preserve. Lots of stuff out there that people have scanned or Youtubed that I was delighted to find again decades after first seeing it. Lots of stuff, however, that isn’t available at all. Two of my favourite things that seem to have slipped down the memory hole (if I’m wrong, of course I would love to be told so, and more to the point, given the URLs).

(1) The famous ‘mothers of prevention’ confrontation between Jello Biafra and Tipper Gore when the latter was on her rampage against naughty rock lyrics and bad thoughts in teenagers. I remember this as having been a gloriously entertaining demolition job by Biafra (but the best part of two decades afterwards, my memory may be faulty or my standards of judgment may have shifted).

(2) Kevin McAleer’s sketches about the old days. These were broadcast on the comedy show ‘Nighthawks,’ which used to be on late at night on RTE, Ireland’s national TV station in the early 1990s. I suspect that you’d have to be Irish to really have gotten the humour – but the soft accent, the gentle, pixillated stare with which he’d not-quite-fix the camera, and the rapid degeneration of anecdotes purveying rural nostalgia into the most demented surrealism were pretty wonderful.

Neither seem to be available (although there are indications that the Biafra-Gore match was once to be found). Further suggestions of pieces of popular culture that ought to be, but aren’t preserved on the nets are welcome in comments, of course.

Art through geek-colored glasses

by Eszter Hargittai on January 26, 2008

Some of these images are excellent. The level of geek quotient required to understand/appreciate them varies.

[Thanks to Ethan.]

UPDATE: The images have been deleted from Flickr. Thanks to Jacob for this link with an explanation. The pictures are available here (for now – Mon pm).

Veil of ignorance

by Henry Farrell on January 25, 2008

“The Monkey Cage”: writes about an experiment on people’s perceptions of photos of a young woman wearing a headscarf and without one. I don’t see any information on how careful the surveyors were to ensure randomness, whether they carried out statistical tests of significance etc etc (this appears to have been put together by a general social research firm, rather than academics). Still, if the results don’t have major problems, then they make for interesting reading. Not all the inferences that people make about the veiled, as opposed to the unveiled woman, seem unreasonable. Unsurprisingly, more people consider the woman to be more conservative when they see the headscarf photo (this seems to me to be not an unreasonable inference; people who display overt symbols of religiosity often are more conservative). But there are some other judgements that are a little bit less pleasant.

Subjects displayed considerably more aversion to the covered woman. Specifically, they were less likely to want to live near her. While 89% said that they would like the uncovered woman as their next-door neighbor or in their neighborhood, only 62% said that about the covered woman. One-fifth (19%) actually said they wanted her to live “outside of the US.”

More “here”:


Look and Learn

by Harry on January 25, 2008

My dad rather cleverly put a condition on me getting a regular delivery of Thunder (home of Adam Eterno, the man who couldn’t die, and quickly gobbled up into Lion and Thunder, and, eventually, Valiant): it was that I also get regular delivery of the distinctly old-fashioned Look and Learn. A clever move: I loved it. You still can’t see much of Thunder on the web, but Look and Learn has it’s own wonderful website now. Incorporating the magnificent Arthur Mee‘s Children’s Newspaper. Hours of fun to be had by all boys and girls (as long as they have firmly entered middle age). (First three months of Adam Eterno, here, by the way).