Saturday, July 31, 2004

George W. Bush speaking to the Republican National Convention in 2000,

As commander in chief, I will rebuild America's military and strengthen our alliances.
I don't know about "rebuilding the military" but he's definitely 0/1 on the alliances.

George W. Bush, accepting the nomination for president at the 2000 Republican National Convention:

A generation shaped by Vietnam must remember the lessons of Vietnam: When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear, and the victory must be overwhelming.
You said it, mate.

David Brooks disliked Kerry's acceptance speech:

When you actually read for content, you see that the speech skirts almost every tough issue and comes out on both sides of every major concern...For every gesture in the direction of greater defense spending, there are opposing hints about reducing our commitments and bringing the troops home.
Oh, wait a second: didn't George W. Bush run on a platform of greater defense spending and reducing our overseas commitments in 2000?

I bring this up not just to be snarky. One doesn't have to be an op-ed writer for the Times to realize that the two ideas are not incompatible: a stronger military is one that engages in fewer cockeyed adventures overseas.

Friday, July 30, 2004

I wish Slate's Kerryism of the Day would deconstruct this passage from the acceptance speech:

I know that there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities, and I do, because some issues just aren't all that simple. Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn't make it so. And proclaiming mission accomplished certainly doesn't make it so.

On the moral world of the Volokh Conspiracy: what are the most important events of the last year or so?

Without question, our failure to find the WMDs in Iraq; the widespread abuses of Abu Ghraib; the continuing violence in Iraq and the failure of the United States to provide law and order, not to mention essentials like electricity to the Iraqi people.

Yet if you read blogs by thoughtful conservatives - like the Volokh Conspiracy - you'll find scant mentions of these things. If they are talked about at all, its only in a brief by-the-way manner.

Indeed, the Volokh conspiracy has devoted time to criticizing Democrats for giving Al Sharpton a speaking spot at the convention; criticizing the Democratic party for being too harsh on its anti-abortion members; criticizing John Kerry for helping to hurt veterans by publicly testifying against the Vietnam war; incredibly, criticizing Kerry for wanting to confirm judges which share his political beliefs; implying that North Korea and Iran want Kerry to win; criticizing Kerry for picking Edwards for VP due to Edwards' lack of experience (of course, Bush himself had plenty of experience when he ran for office); finally, criticizing Kerry for - I kid you not - singing along to Puff the Magic Dragon.

Not to suggest that anyone in the conspiracy is in any way obligated to write about WMDs or Abu Ghraib. But when Eugene Volokh says he doesn't feel like writing about the torture scandals and then spends his time coming up with ridiculous scenarios where the right of enemy combatants to sue brings about the destruction of the United States - what does this say about him?

I'm not the first to write about this - Daniel Davies over at Crooked Timber has speculated that multiple universes are the culprit here: many of the conservative inhabit Uqbar, a world eerily similar to our own, but not quite the same one.

The tendency is not limited to conservatives: consider the petitions circulating in Canada against hiring American companies. To some extent, this is just plain old protectionism, but the argument made, and taken seriously by many as far as I can tell, is that the Patriot Act allows the US government to subpoena data relating to Canadian clients of these companies and therefore American companies are a privacy risk.

This is, of course, rather ridiculous. True, the Patriot Act allows the Justice department to obtain this data more easily. But the subpoena power of the Patriot Act has never been used. And if the US government wanted data possessed by a company under US jurisdiction, it could easily obtain it even if the Patriot Act had not existed - by issuing a subpoena with the help of a judge - just like any other government could easily obtain the data. I don't condone the Patriot Act - I think Republicans are simply evil for championing it - but the actual practical effect of it has been close to negligible.

Canadian courts, on the other hand, have ruled that printing bible verses critical of homosexuality in a newspaper ad can be hate speech; Canadian officials have investigated a UBC professor for hate speech after she claimed Americans were "bloodthirsty, vengeful and calling for blood"; have shut down websites that were critical of homosexuality; and more recently, refused to renew the license of a popular radio station because they disliked the content.

These are real, tangible assaults on free speech and liberty. Only in a strange, twisted moral universe are they less worthy of attack than a never-used provision of the Patriot act.

Two weeks ago The New Republic reported that the Bush administration was putting pressure on Pakistan to provide high-profile terrorist captures in time before the election. One specific source said the administration asked Pakistan to announce a capture this week to steal media coverage from the Democratic National Convention:

Lieutenant General Ehsan ul-Haq, informed tnr that the Pakistanis "have been told at every level that apprehension or killing of [High Value Targets] before [the] election is [an] absolute must." What's more, this source claims that Bush administration officials have told their Pakistani counterparts they have a date in mind for announcing this achievement: "The last ten days of July deadline has been given repeatedly by visitors to Islamabad and during [ul-Haq's] meetings in Washington." Says McCormack: "I'm aware of no such comment." But according to this ISI official, a White House aide told ul-Haq last spring that "it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] [terrorist High Value Targets] were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July"--the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Last night, hours before John Kerry's acceptance speech to the convention, Pakistan announced the capture of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, "the first high-level arrest resulting from military operations that Pakistan began ... five months ago."

I'm no fan of conspiracy theories, but sometimes its hard not to connect the dots.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Reaction to the Kerry speech: loved it. About as compelling a defense of modern liberalism as I've seen an American politician make recently. By using the rhetoric of values to argue the case for ethical foreign policy, health care, and help for the homeless Kerry simultaneously cut the ground under Bush and crafted a naturally appealing argument for (not-so-popular) liberal policies:
For four years, we've heard a lot of talk about values. But values spoken without actions taken are just slogans. Values are not just words. They're what we live by. They're about the causes we champion and the people we fight for. And it is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families.

You don't value families by kicking kids out of after school programs and taking cops off our streets, so that Enron can get another tax break.

We believe in the family value of caring for our children and protecting the neighborhoods where they walk and play.

And that is the choice in this election.

You don't value families by denying real prescription drug coverage to seniors, so big drug companies can get another windfall.

We believe in the family value expressed in one of the oldest Commandments: "Honor thy father and thy mother." As President, I will not privatize Social Security. I will not cut benefits. And together, we will make sure that senior citizens never have to cut their pills in half because they can't afford life-saving medicine.

And that is the choice in this election.

You don't value families if you force them to take up a collection to buy body armor for a son or daughter in the service, if you deny veterans health care, or if you tell middle class families to wait for a tax cut, so that the wealthiest among us can get even more.

And then he was blunt about something Democrats are not usually blunt about: religion. It was refreshing to hear an argument against Bush's hypocritical invocations of God:
I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve. But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side.

Compare this honest defense of Democratic ideas to the GOP's showcasing of liberal speakers at its convention. Prime time slots at the GOP convention are to go to Arnold Schwarznegger, George Pataki, Michael Bloomberg, and Rudy Guiliani who are pro-life; John McCain who is not exactly your typical conservative; and Rod Paige, who has extensive experience in education but no public stance on any other issues and got the slot by being black - who says Republicans don't like a little affirmative action now and then? The GOP convention is shaping up to be an attempt at deception, a stab at trying to present Bush as someone he is really not. With his scrupulous defense of his ideology, Kerry has created yet another contrast between the two candidates.

The Live Make-Out Tour, sponsored by PETA, consists of scantily clad couples making out on public sidewalks. It is being staged throughout the country to demonstrate PETA's claims that vegetarians are better lovers.

Daniel Geffen links to an insightful piece of correspondence on Ed Fitzgerarld's blog about protests:

...when the original civil rights marches were being organized, those behind them INSISTED that anyone participating must look and act a certain way. Folks had to be clean, they had to have good haircuts and either be shaved or with neatly-trimmed beards and mustaches. On many of the early civil rights marches, men HAD to wear ties and white shirts and dress slacks. Women HAD to wear neat, professional work dresses or skirts and blouses.

Today, there are plenty of (mostly leftists) who want to protest but almost never, it seems, actually think much about whether or not they are going to have an impact. Martin Luther King and other civil rights pioneers were deadly serious about what they were trying to accomplish. They weren't going out there just to feel good about themselves: they had a clear agenda, and didn't want anything to hurt their efforts. Most particularly, they did not want any "supporter" actually hurting their cause. For a stark contrast to this, consider that here in Portland, Oregon, there are regular anti-war protests downtown. Just about every week. The participants have a bunch of banners and signs, and they always have a drummer or two pounding away. They march along the sidewalks, stopping for lights, and I believe they always have permits. But they look like a band of hippies, and absolutely NO ONE takes them seriously. Even people opposed to the war sniff at them. I am quite sure that they have NEVER turned a single opinion against the war, and quite possibly managed to turn away more than a few middle-of-the-roaders... seems to me that many leftists who engage in protests -- marches, demonstrations, and so on -- do so in order to look like they're doing something, or feel like they're doing something ... but not, in fact, in order to actually DO something.

Tyler Cowen remarks that if he is burried alive, he wants a copy of Spenser's The Faerie Queene in the coffin to read when he wakes up.

Is he trying to be pseudo-intellectual or has he not read anything written after 1600?

In the time-honored tradition of bloggers criticizing the conventional media: I turned on CNN yesterday for pre-convention coverage - first time I watched cable news in a few months - to see Lou Dobbs ask a political journalist "How important is this night of the convention for John Kerry?" If you're curious, the answer was "very important." Dobbs then asked a different journalist how important last night was.

Politics is a lot like hockey it seems:

Hockey commentary is always moronic, but it reaches a special intensity of moronitude at playoff time. You know what I'm talking about: the "this game is critical" analysis, sometimes phrased as a question ("Pat, how critical is it to win this game?"). Fellas, can I let you in on a secret? In a seven-game series, every game is critical. Lose that first game, and you're down 0-1: you're behind the eight-ball right off the top. Then there's the critical second game: win it, and the series is all tied up, the momentum is all yours; lose, and you're facing a 2-0 deficit, and as we know, only 35 teams in 962 series have come back from 2-0 to win (gosh: you mean teams that lose games usually lose series?).

But now we come to the critical -- I mean critical -- third game. Maybe the teams are tied going in: so whoever wins gets the all-important edge. Or one team's up 2-0: they win, and they're up 3-0, and you might as well just go home; they lose, and suddenly they're vulnerable, the momentum has shifted etc. Oh, but that's just the prelude to the critical fourth game: the clincher, or maybe the last stand, or possibly the one that ties it all up, or sometimes the one that breaks a tight series wide open.

Of course, the fifth game, now the fifth game's critical...

Thats Andrew Coyne, who needs to fix his permalinks so I can link directly to his posts without having to reproduce them. Admittedly the analogy is imperfect - the last night of the convention is, of course, far more important than the others - but any day when the Democrats have the direct focus of the media is pretty damn important.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

I couldn't agree more: William Saletan writes on the DNC,
The 2004 Democratic National Convention begins inauspiciously. Delivering the invocation, Rev. Stephen Ayres of Boston's Old North Church warns the delegates that had it not been for the courage of Boston's American revolutionaries, "You might be gathered this week to nominate Tony Blair instead of John Kerry." Even with Blair's stock at an all-time low, the deal sounds tempting.

I can't read literary blogs.

I'm referring to weblogs like The Reading Experience and Maud Newton that concern themselves primarily with writing about literature.

My reaction to these sites was ably summarized by Bulgakov 74 years ago. Bulgakov's A Theatrical Novel contains the following exchange between Leontiy Sergeevich, who has just written a play, Ivan Vasilevich, a producer, and his old aunt, Nastasia Ivanova, who is speaking as the passage begins:

- So why have you come to see Ivan Vasilevich?
- Leontiy Sergeevich, --interjected Ivan Vasilevich, -- has brought me a play.
- Whose play? --asked the old woman, looking at me with sorrowful eyes.
- Leontiy Sergeevich has composed a play himself!
- But why? --anxiously asked Nastasia Ivanova.
- What do you mean, why? ...Hmm...hmm....
- Have we no plays these days? --replied Nastasia Ivanova, gently and condescendingly. --How many wonderful plays exist! Begin to perform them all, one after another -- twenty years later you would not run out of plays! Why, then, create a new one?

She was so convincing that I was unable to fashion a response.
This is how I feel about literary blogs: must they write about new books? Are we running out of old books? The problem with recently published material is that I haven't read most of it and the most I can get out of a review is an item to add to my wish list. Why not write about the "old" authors all of us are roughly familiar with?

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The proponents of prediction markets claim that that society would derive valuable information about the future by looking at the trading rates of these markets. But would this information be of any use in coordinating long term policy?

Currently, Ideosphere has an Immortality by 2050 contract trading at 15%. This is absolutely ridiculous; I don't think anyone seriously believes that those of us who manage to eke out another 45 years will be immortal.

So why don't I short the contract? Because I'd make 15% in 45 years. Not a terribly good expected return.

Generally, if we were all rational agents who believed the immortality-by-2050 proposition is false, and if we also believed - quite rationally - that we could get about 10% per year on stocks over the next 45 years, no one would short the contract and the information derived from the trading rate would be completely useless for the next, oh, 43 years.

The point is: in the face of a 10% return on stocks and a 5% return on bonds, idea markets are pretty useless for predicting trends that take more than 4-5 years to materialize.

Other howlers on Ideosphere: a 25% chance that the Democrats will not recapture the house before 2047 and a 40% chance that the US will have proportional representation by 2012.

Update: OK, after some browing on the Ideosphere web page, I found out that the example here is rather silly: Ideosphere does not trade with real money - the idea is that every trader gets an equal amount of fake money to begin with so that traders who get things consistently right dominate the market.

The point stands for markets that use real money though.

Monday, July 26, 2004

One time when I was a kid I came across something about the Buffon needle problem - if you drop a needle randomly between two lines, the probability that it will cross one of the lines has a remarkably simple expression: [2*(length of the needle)]/[pi * distance between the lines]. This fact can be used to obtain an approximation for pi: just drop a lot of needles on a tiled floor, count how many intersect lines, and set the above expression equal to that; solve for pi. Without much ado, I went to the kitchen, emptied the contents of a few boxes of toothpics on the floor, crouched on my knees, and started counting.

Of course, there were a few hundred toothpics lying around and my parents came home long before I was finished. They were puzzled: why was I on the kitchen floor counting toothpics? I didn't want to give away my secret and said I had knocked them over accidentally. But why was I counting them? I shrugged. They looked at me, puzzled. Eventually I had to admit I was trying to approximate pi, much to my embarassement.

According to Wikipedia, the experiment was performed in 1901 by the Italian mathematician Mario Lazzarini, who obtained a value within 0.000001 of pi by tossing 3408 needles, though there is some debate over whether these results are genuine.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Writing in the Guardian, John Galbraith makes the following bizzare claim:

At the end of the second world war, I was the director for overall effects of the United States strategic bombing survey - Usbus, as it was known. I led a large professional economic staff in assessment of the industrial and military effects of the bombing of Germany. The strategic bombing of German industry, transportation and cities, was gravely disappointing. Attacks on factories that made such seemingly crucial components as ball bearings, and even attacks on aircraft plants, were sadly useless. With plant and machinery relocation and more determined management, fighter aircraft production actually increased in early 1944 after major bombing. In the cities, the random cruelty and death inflicted from the sky had no appreciable effect on war production or the war.

These findings were vigorously resisted by the Allied armed services - especially, needless to say, the air command, even though they were the work of the most capable scholars and were supported by German industry officials and impeccable German statistics, as well as by the director of German arms production, Albert Speer.

This is a serious misrepresentation of Speer's position. In his book, Speer complains much of the difficulties presented to him by allied bombing, specifically the bombing of ball bearing plants. According to Speer, the allies came astonishingly close to shutting down the German production of tanks entirely in 1943 via the destruction of several ball bearing plants. It is only because these plants were restored with a few months of work and because they were not bombed again that German wartime production continued.

Precisely because of the success of the targeted bombing, Speer proposed to Hitler to bomb Russian ball bearing plants. Several weeks later an envoy of the air force presented him with pictures documenting the success of the operation. However, when Speer showed these pictures to his ball bearings expert, he found out that despite the devastation shown in the pictures it was possible to get the plant running again in only a month. Only a sustained bombing campaign where the site would be bombed a few times, with a couple of weeks passing between bombings, would shut down the plant permanently. Speer speculated in his book that perhaps unawareness of this on the part of the Americans had been the reason why the ball bearing plants were not bombed again and why German tank production had managed to continue.

On the whole the Galbraith column, subtitled "Corporate power is the driving force behind US foreign policy - and the slaughter in Iraq," is rather insipid. Its logic can be reduced to:

1. The US spends a lot of money on the military
2. Most of the weapons are built and developed by corporations.
3. Corporations don't care about the environment, are difficult to hold accountable, and are generally very, very bad.

I am one of those World War II veterans who are dying off at a rapid pace, and I can't stand the thought of dying under a Bush administration.
From an 87 year old Kerry supporter, quoted by the Times in an article on the growing polarization of the electorate.

Innovation in campaigning:

Criticized early in the campaign for his failure to take any stand on the war in Iraq, [Colorado Senate candidate] Coors eventually declared that he agrees with his opponent on all major issues.

--from a Washington Post article on Pete Coors' bumpy Senate campaign.

Friday, July 23, 2004

From an interview with Robert Shiller in March 2000 - Shiller is a bearish economist who at the time was predicting large stock market declines soon to come:

Q: What about all the productivity improvements brought about by the Net?

A: Is the actual invention of the Internet more important than vending machines? They're everywhere! Think of all the labor they save! That's a pretty good invention, but I don't hear anyone saying that the stock market should triple because of vending machines.

barbara kruger, 2001

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Via Marginal Revolution, I came across this paper which purports to explain why the United States does not have a European-type welfare state: the US is a lot more ethnically diverse and ethnically diverse countries tend to spend very little on welfare.

I was at first skeptical: American libertarianism dates back to the time before Thoreau, before slavery was abolished; it is better explained as a by-product of the historical circumstances which brought the United States into being - circumstances that instilled a strong distrust of central government in most early Americans.

But the evidence presented in the paper is persuasive: whatever the origins of American libertarianism are, its reasonable to say that ethnic diversity accounts for much of the impetus that kept it going during the twentieth century. Even if the United States is not considered, it is a fact that there is a definite negative correlation between diversity and social spending; such a correlation even exists among US states:

In 1967, the same year that Che died, the radical French activist Guy Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle which, among other things, predicted our current obsession with celebrity and event. 'All that was once directly lived', wrote Debord, 'has become mere representation.' Nowhere is this dictum more starkly illustrated than in the case of Che, who, in the four decades since his death, has been used to sell everything from china mugs to denim jeans, herbal tea to canned beer. There was, maybe still is, a brand of soap powder bearing his name, along with the slogan 'Che washes whiter'. Today, Che lives! all right, but not in the way he or his fellow revolutionaries could ever have imagined in their worst nightmares. He has become a global brand.
--from The Guardian.

Barbara Kruger, 1981. Originally made in the context of feminism, it applies equally well today to the conservative distaste for gay rights rhetoric.  Posted by Hello

Was the success of the terrorists on 9/11 primarily a failure of imagination, a result of our inability to envision that terrorists would hijack planes and crash them into buildings? Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, argues that's not the case:

As early as 1995, Abdul Hakim Murad told Philippine authorities that he and Ramzi Yousef, who was arrested for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, had planned to fly an airplane into CIA headquarters. This wasn't dismissed as a crazy idea. The year before, a group of Algerians actually had hijacked a plane in France with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower.

In September 1998, a U.S. consulate in East Asia was warned about an impending al-Qaida plot to fly an explosives-laden airplane into an American city.

Around the same time, Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief, conducted an exercise in which terrorists commandeered a Learjet, loaded it with bombs, and flew it into a target in Washington, D.C. Clarke asked Pentagon officials what they could do to stop such a threat. They answered they could scramble jet fighters, but they would need authority from the president to shoot the plane down. The exercise went no further.

On Dec. 4, 1998, the President's Daily Brief by the CIA warned that "bin Laden and his allies are preparing for an attack in the US, including an aircraft hijacking" to compel the freeing of those responsible and imprisoned for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

The North American Aerospace Defense command also conducted an exercise to counter a terrorist attack involving smashing an airplane into a building (though the scenario assumed the plane would be coming from overseas).

Quite independently, in August 1999, the Federal Aviation Administration's intelligence branch warned of a possible "suicide hijacking operation" by Osama Bin Laden.

On May 1, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a circular to airliners, informing them of intelligence reports about a possible terrorist hijacking.
On June 22, 2001, the CIA notified its station chiefs about an al-Qaida plot to attack American cities with planes.

All of these scenario-spins (plus several others, similarly spelled out in various blue-ribbon commissions) preceded the infamous President's Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001, which warned George W. Bush, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US."

Why did Sept. 11 happen then? The report of the 9/11 commission argues that the root cause lies in the failure of the intelligence community to coordinate anti-terrorism activities. This manifested itself in many ways; the CIA did not share the names of suspected Al Qaeda members with the FBI - if it had, two of the 9/11 hijackers would have rang alarm bells when they bought their tickets; the CIA could not persuade other intelligence agencies to focus on Bin Laden, because it did not control their funding; the FBI's domestic counterterrorism plans of the late 90s were similarly starved of cash; finally, counterterrorism was generally not discussed at the highest levels of government, promoting further uncoordination among the agencies.

To remedy this, the commission proposes taking away most of the powers of the director of the CIA and giving them to a National Intelligence Director -- someone who controlled the budgets and appointments in all intelligence agencies. Its a good idea: as long as different intelligence branches have different budgetary sources, they will ultimately represent the federal agency that funds them - a recipe for policy clashes and hampered coordination.

Unifying intelligence powers in this way is politically tricky: many different agencies stand to lose power because of it and are likely to oppose it. President Bush, for one, has come out against it. But then there is hope: following George Tenet's recent resignation, we have no CIA director at the moment so the CIA may not be able to oppose the measure effectively; moreover, lets not forget that the Department of Homeland Security, the brainchild of Senator Lieberman, was fought tooth and nail by the Bush administration until it was clear its passage was inevitable.

from a South Korean mall Posted by Hello

In defense of racial profiling: Daniel Drezner quotes an article from the Persian Mirror arguing against the racial profiling of airline passengers,

Even within the Arab community, should there not be a difference between a Saudi, an Egyptian, a Jordanian, a Kuwaiti, or an Iraqi? How do we profile them? Instead of trying to make the world a Mickey Mouse Park where things fit neatly into boxes and security agents can pick and choose terrorists with color-coded instructions from the government, shouldn't we put some real brains behind the plethora of terrorist networks that continue to terrorize our daily activities all over the world?

This echoes an argument I've heard from many liberals: "instead of racial profiling, lets do X." But its a false dichotomy; there's no reason why we can't fight terrorism with racial profiling and do X.

Race, sex, religion, and sexual preference all contain information - information that is useful in predicting how likely a person is to hijack a plane. Its difficult not to feel squeamish about using this information, but I don't think we can afford to ignore it in the post-9/11 world.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Recent events in Iraq reminded me of these paintings; I am not trying to draw historical parallels.

The Third of May 1808, Francisco de Goya. The picture shows French soldiers shoot a group of defenseless civilians rounded up in Madrid after an uprising against the French occupying army.  Posted by Hello

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, Edouard Manet. Maximilian was a puppet installed by Napoleon III to rule Mexico; after the withdrawal of the French army, he was executed by Mexican nationalists. In Manet's painting, the executioners wear French uniforms. Posted by Hello

barbara kruger, 1987 Posted by Hello

Terrorism is no big deal: each year about 41,000 Americans die in road accidents and aproximately 98,000 die from medical errors -- yet we never even pause to think about these deaths. There's no reason why we couldn't accept ~10,000 deaths per annum from terrorism as normal.

I want to go on vacation.

Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, built with the proceeds from a recent influx in oil revenue.Posted by Hello

The shrine of Hajrat Ali, at the center of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. Posted by Hello

A view of Pyongyang. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A New York Times article highlights the case of Karen Coveler who, after giving birth to a deaf child, found out a simple test could have told her there was a high risk of it happening:

...Dr. Ostrer said that almost no one offered [the deafness test], including the genetic counselors he supervises, because of opposition from advocates for the deaf who argued that deafness was not a disease.

'If people ask us, 'What about that deaf test I heard about?' we will tell them about it,'' Dr. Ostrer said, 'But we aren't more proactive about it because of the sensitivities of the deaf community.''"

Question: if a treatment that allowed deaf people to hear was invented, how many would refuse it on the grounds that deafness is not a disease?

This is political correctness run amock.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Paul Krugman's latest column discusses how President Bush's actions have ended up bolstering terrorist movements throughout the world; its a good read, but it contains this eyebrow-raising aside:

At the same time, [he] would neglect the pursuit of those who attacked us, and do nothing about regimes that really shelter anti-American terrorists and really are building nuclear weapons.

Attacking President Bush for his supposed inaction on Iran and North Korea has been a favorite liberal technique as of late - Bill Maher and others have been making this case on the news channels for a while now. The argument, though, reeks with hypocrisy; liberals have advocated a multi-lateral approach based on negotiation with Iraq; why are they suddenly unhappy this approach is being pursued in regards to Iran and North Korea?

Over at The Leiter Reports, Brian Leiter makes some highly questionable claims.

Addressing whether economics is a science, Leiter writes:

[Economics] is better, perhaps, than astrology, but not much more predictively successful than common-sense psychology. It parlays a set of implausible and utterly unrealistic assumptions into tidy, mathematically-expressible theories that have little or no connection to reality...

The New Yorker uses the example of Nobel laureate Robert Lucas's anti-Keynesian theories attacking the ability of the Federal Reserve to affect the economy, theories that exerted a profound affect on public policy for some time. "[A] number of [subsequent] empirical studies" (55) disconfirmed them…. [other examples omitted].

I don't know whether economics is a science; it rather depends on what the definition of a science is, doesn't it? It strikes me as a silly question; economists stake their claim to truth on the empirical verification economic theories must ultimately undergo before being accepted, not on whether economics fits some (inherently arbitrary) definition.

As for parlaying a set of implausible and utterly unrealistic assumptions into mathematically-expressible theories: what in the world does Leiter think physicists and engineers do? I hate to be the one to break it to him, but every electrical device Leiter uses in his daily life makes a myriad of untrue assumptions about the real world - assumptions which hold only in an approximate sense - assumptions that were made because they are easy to deal with mathematically.

Not much more predictively successful than common-sense psychology? This is sheer nonsense. Its true that economists can't quite predict the phenomena they study as well as physicists ; however, to claim that they can do no better than any reasonable person equipped with common sense is rather ridiculous.

How fast will GDP grow next quarter? Different economists may give you different opinions. There will be a sizeable difference between the most optimistic and the most pessimistic estimate. The presence of this difference does not imply that one could do just as well by asking a random person endowed with common sense.

As for Lucas: shouldn't the example cited convince Leiter of the opposite, that economics is a science? A theoretically compelling theory was rejected because it disagreed with empirical data - that, to me, sounds quite similar to the vetting process employed by physicists to test their theories.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

A New York Times report released today entitled "When a Campaign Intrudes on Vacation" begins,

President Bush has spent the last three Augusts at his ranch in the scorched flatlands of Crawford, Tex., where he has cleared brush, gone for runs in 105-degree heat and summoned sweaty cabinet members to eat fried jalapeño peppers at the only restaurant in town.

But this year, the 2004 campaign has ruined Mr. Bush's Texas vacation.

Yes, this re-election business can be so unexpectedly time consuming. Two paragraphs later we find out,
Final details are to come, but the bottom line is that Mr. Bush will spend only two weeks at the ranch compared with his usual four.

Only two weeks! Is our President overexerting himself?

Writing on the 2000 election, Barbara Ehrenreich had this to say about voting for Gore:

We are being summoned to save this inveterate bribe-taker because "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush." That in itself is a disturbingly Orwellian proposition...

In her latest New York Times op-ed, Ehrenreich has a change of heart:

Ralph, sit down. Pour yourself a Diet Pepsi and rejoice in the fact that - post-Enron and post-Iraq war - millions have absorbed your message. You're entitled to a little time out now, a few weeks on the beach catching up on back issues of The Congressional Record.

This has led some to ask why exactly voting for the Democrat in spite of your principles has suddenly ceased to be Orwellian.

Ehrenreich's op-ed provides come clues to her train of thought on this. She writes,

...a lot of sewage has passed under the bridge since 2000. Back then, Al Gore was campaigning with the furious energy of an old-growth oak. George W. Bush looked like a dumbed-down version of Gerald Ford — a man who could be trusted to while away his presidency on the elliptical trainer.

and follows it up with

You've been kissing up to the Reform Party, which ran paleo-right-winger Pat Buchanan the last time around. You've been caught dallying with the former New Alliance Party, described by Christopher Hitchens, with his customary restraint, as a "zombie cult."

It's not difficult to see the political ignorance embodied in these statements. Who could have guessed that George W. Bush would not whittle away his presidency? Anyone who bothered to listen to one of his speeches. With his plans for a massive tax cut that disproportionately benefited the rich - with his explicit rejection of the multilateralism of the Clinton administration - with his propensity for putting out misleading numbers regarding budget plans and policies - and finally with his conspicuous incompetence - Bush had clearly exhibited all the traits that led to our current problems.

As for Nader cozying up to right wing groups - lets not forget that in 2000 Nader employed similarly insidious tactics. To maximize the vote total for the Green party - which might have qualified it for federal financing - Nader would have had to campaign in solidly liberal states in New England and California; but Nader explicitly rejected this strategy and instead put all his energy into swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania.

People like Ehrenreich - who voted for Nader in Florida - brought Bush to power through their sheer stupidity and naivete. I'm glad they are beginning to realize their mistake; but rather than pretend Ralph Nader has morphed beyond recognition in the last four years, its time for them to wholeheartedly embrace political realism.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

About a year and a half ago, Marge Piercy wrote a poem called Choices. It began:

Would you rather have health insurance
you can actually afford, or occupy Iraq?
Would you rather have enough inspectors
to keep your kids from getting poisoned
by bad hamburgers, or occupy Iraq?
Would you rather breathe clean air
and drink water free from pesticides
and upriver shit, or occupy Iraq?

We're the family in debt whose kids
need shoes and to go to the dentist
but we spend our cash on crack

This version is from Marge Piercy's webpage. The draft I saw a year and a half ago said "bomb Iraq" not "occupy Iraq." The poem caused a minor controversy when it was written because Piercy had planned to read it at a White House poetry event hosted by Laura Bush. The event had to be cancelled.

At the time, I argued to an English-major friend of mine that this is wrongheaded: health insurance for every person in America would cost a few hundred billion dollars per year, whereas invading Iraq would have a one time cost of about 20 billion -- this being the number being thrown around by Rumsfeld at the time.

What I said is still true -- but the cost of the war has ballooned to 150 billion -- so far. If this continues at the same rate, Marge Piercy may turn out to be right after all.

Reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses yesterday, I was struck by the techniques of seduction among the 18th century French. In the novel, Vicomte de Valmont wins over a woman who initially rejected him and told him not to bother her with protestations of his love -- by writing letters in the following vein,

You forbid me, Madame, to speak to you of my love; but where shall I find the courage requisite to obey you? Occupied solely by a sentiment which should be so soft and which you render so cruel; languishing in the exile to which you have condemned me; living only upon privations and regrets; a prey to torments, the more painful in that they continually remind me of your indifference; must I be compelled to lose the one consolation that is left me, and can I have any other than sometimes to open to you a soul which you fill with distress and bitterness? Will you avert your gaze in order not to see the tears which are shed owing to you? Will you refuse even the homage of the sacrifices you exact? Would it not be more worthy of you, more worthy of your virtuous and gentle soul, to pity a wretch who is only such because of you, than to wish to aggravate his sufferings still more by a prohibition which is both unjust and harsh?

I am no expert, but I think attempts to guilt a woman into love would be more likely to backfire today.

Interesting: from an article in today's Times,
When deciding where to run his television advertisements, President Bush is much more partial than Senator John Kerry to crime shows like "Cops," "Law & Order" and "JAG." Mr. Kerry leans more to lighter fare, like "Judge Judy," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman.
Crime shows appeal to the Bush campaign because of its interest in reaching out to Republican men who are attracted to such programming. By contrast, the Kerry campaign is more interested in concentrating on single women, who tend to be drawn to shows with softer themes.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Did you know: while there are many estimates for the cost of compliance to the Kyoto protocol for global warming, most of the figures are less than the size President Bush's tax cut?
Keep that in mind whenever you see conservative magazines refer to the "devastating" cost of Kyoto.

I scanned this from Time magazine:

Thats Kerry on the far left squinting -- doesn't he look attractive, especially compared with JFK?

Kerry was invited to yacht with the President because he was dating Jackie's half-sister. It seems like knowing the right woman has helped Kerry many times in his career.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Today's Times reports

The fast-growing movement to unionize graduate students at the nation's private universities suffered a crushing setback yesterday when the National Labor Relations Board reversed itself and ruled that students who worked as research and teaching assistants did not have the right to unionize.

In a case involving Brown University, the labor board ruled 3 to 2 that graduate teaching and research assistants were essentially students, not workers, and thus should not have the right to unionize to negotiate over wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.

The Republican-controlled board reversed a four-year-old decision involving New York University, a private institution, in which the board, then controlled by Democrats, concluded that graduate teaching and research assistants should be able to unionize because their increased responsibilities had essentially turned them into workers.

1. This should prove, for the millionth time, that Republicans and Democrats are not indistinguishable and that it matters quite a bit who you vote for -- so don't throw your vote away by voting for Nader!

2. I'm with the Republicans on this one; unionization will lead to increased wages for graduate students and, by corollary, lower admission rates. It can be argued that many fields are currently overproducing PhDs, creating high rates of unemployment among advanced degree holders. But there are also many fields that are not overproducing PhDs and the unionization of graduate students may prevent the United States from getting all the engineers & scientists its economy may need in the future.

Ultimately, a PhD should be available to anyone who is competent and willing to sacrifice years of his life for it -- this would not be so under unionization.

The Federal Marriage Amendment vote has restored my confidence in our government: In mid-May, CBS News conducted a poll with the following question,

"Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow marriage ONLY between a man and a woman?" N=1,113 adults, MoE ╠ 3 (for all adults)

The results: Favor, 60%, Oppose, 37%, Don't Know, 3%

Yet today, a procedural vote relating to the FMA failed to garner a simple majority, effectively killing the constitutional amendment. Moreover, a few senators have said they will vote against the FMA on the final vote but still vote for the procedural vote; in total, this brings the number of senators supporting the FMA to about 46.

Its astonishing that a proposition supported by 60% of the public only finds 46% in the Senate. Further, this isn't an artifact of the way Senate representation distorts national opinion; the Senate is dominated by members from rural states where the public overwhlemingly supports the FMA.

When it came down to it, senators really voted their principles rather than their electoral advantage.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

From Senator Rick Santorum:

Isn't that the ultimate homeland security? To defend the sanctity of marriage?

Uh, No.

(via Andrew Sullivan)

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

From Benjamin Netanyahu's op-ed in the Times about Israel's security fence, responding to critics who argue that the fense usurps Palestinian land:

...the indefensible line on which many have argued the fence should run — that which existed between Israel and the Arab lands before the 1967 war — is the only line that would have nothing to do with security and everything to do with politics. A line that is genuinely based on security would include as many Jews as possible and as few Palestinians as possible within the fence.

That is precisely what Israel's security fence does. By running into less than 12 percent of the West Bank, the fence will include about 80 percent of Jews and only 1 percent of Palestinians who live within the disputed territories.

I tried to read Richard Russo's Straight Man last night -- but couldn't get past the first 20 pages or so. I initially picked up the book in a bookstore and leafed through it -- it seemed to be a run of the mill academic satire, about a department head who threatens to execute a goose each day until he gets his budget from the Dean -- and finds out who must be laid off. The book's description of the protoganist's father made me chuckle -- "My parents were academic nomads...the academic position [my father] favored was the 'distinguished visiting professor' variety, usually created for him, duration of visit a year or two at most, perhaps because its hard to remain distinguished among people who know you."

Once I actually got around to reading it, the book was mildly annoying at best -- tiresome prose coupled with poorly crafted characters -- characters the reader immediately begins to dislike. After 20 pages of wishing the protagonist would immediately endure some fatal injury, I ended up looking for something else to read.

Monday, July 12, 2004

And another thing about Fahrenheit 9/11: Moore makes much of a visit by a Taliban envoy to the state department in 2001. "Why on earth would the Bush administration allow a Taliban leader to visit the United States knowing that the Taliban were harboring the man who bombed the USS Cole and our African embassies?" Moore asks.

Because the Taliban envoy brought a letter to Bush containing an offer from the Taliban in an effort to resolve the question of what is to be done with Bin Laden.

Thats why.


Slate's international papers sections summarizes the main articles and editorials in papers around the world. The latest edition notes,

In the aftermath of Sunday's Tel Aviv bombing that killed one Israeli, Oslo's Aftenposten noted that the security barrier cannot prevent all attacks. "This is not the first time in history that a land has tried to protect itself from enemies with a physical barrier. These attempts have not lived up to their expectations."

Perhaps the barrier did not prevent this attack because four-fifth of it have not been constructed? Just a thought.

The motivation for a fence is simple: there is already a fence around the Gaza strip and not a single suicide bomber from Gaza has carried out a bombing in Israel in recent years.

These guys are just plain evil: Republican congressmen have defeated an effort to curb the worst and most objectionable provision the Patriot act. The act gives the goverment the power to subpoena records of your transactions with third parties -- books you check out of the library, movies you rent from Blockbuster, Sandwiches you buy from subway -- without a warrant, without the consent of a judge. The amendment defeated on the House floor would have allowed these things only with a warrant.

How do you like the idea of government empowered to find out everything about you at the slightest whim? Welcome to the era of Republican majority.

Some more ramblings on Fahrenheit 9/11: most of the movie consisted of some rather cheap shots at the Iraq policy of the administration. These ranged from the tiring -- showing, at length, the grieving of a woman whose son died in the war -- to the morally repugnant -- showing pictures of happy Iraqis, boys flying kites, during Saddam Hussein's reign.

The rest of the movie was dedicated to conspiracy-theoretic ramblings: Moore is quite innovative at finding ways to connect Saudi oil interests to Bush family finances. None of it was surprising or shocking for me -- the Bushes made their money in the oil business -- and their connections to Saudi Arabian oilmen are to be expected.

Moore is at his best when he pulls ridiculous stunts: stopping Congressmen on the street in an effort to recruit their sons for the armed forces in Iraq; or renting an ice-cream truck and driving around D.C. reading the provisions of the Patriot act out of a loudspeaker. If he did more of those, he could have been entertaining.

One item where Moore gets it right: what is up with the periodic news conferences held by Tom Ridge/John Ashcroft announcing that there is information about an Al Qaeda plot to attack the US followed by refusal to give out specific information? What conceivable purpose do they serve, apart from scaring the hell out of the public?

I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 today. I was initially torn about going -- I was curious to see the movie but I intensely dislike Michael Moore and did not want to support him by buying a ticket. In the end, I found the perfect solution: I bought a ticket to Dodgeball and snuck into Fahrenheit 9/11. Clearly, all those years as an engineering major did me a lot of good.

Four things you might have thought are true from watching Michael Moore but are actually -- provably -- not:

1. All the networks called Florida for Bush after Fox News did [In fact, CBS was the first to call Florida for Bush].

2. Under any vote-standard for the state-wide recount, Gore would have won [Investigations have found Bush would have won under most definitions of a vote, though Gore would have also won under some].

3. Bush was doing poorly politically pre-9/11. In support of this, Moore claims that Bush's major agenda was stalled, his judges could not be confirmed, and his approval rating fell to 45% [Bush passed the major agenda he ran on -- the tax cut for the rich. I have no idea where Moore gets the 45% figure but its certainly not from any poll I know of -- Bush's approval rating never fell below 50%]

4. The Bin Laden family flew out of the United States when restrictions were placed on commercial airlines [In fact, the Bin Laden plane left the United States on Sept. 14 after the airspace restrictions have been lifted].

Alan Wolfe reviewed Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation in the New Republic a few years ago. Precociously, he noted,

But if you are writing a book critical of a president who has a problem with the truth, it does not require all that much intelligence to figure out the importance of being truthful yourself. Moore could care less.


I would, however, endorse Krugman's charge that conservatives are holding Moore to a standard they do not even hold the President of the United States. Bush has repeatedly lied to the public -- most notably about the budget and about WMDs in Iraq -- among other things. The commentators at the Volokh Conspiracy -- and other right-leaning blogs -- should get outraged over that.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Todays Times carries an article describing recent efforts by conservative activitists and Republican members of Congress to stifle scientific research they don't like:

...professionals in sex-related fields who have started speaking out against what they say is growing interference from conservatives in and out of government with their work in research, education and disease prevention.

A result, these professionals say, has been reduced financing for some programs and an overall chilling effect on the field,with college professors avoiding certain topics in their human sexuality classes...

When Representative Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, wanted to stop the National Institutes of Health from spending $1.5 million on studies he said were wasteful and unnecessary, he pointed to what he described as research on the sexual habits of transgender American Indians and "people's reaction to being aroused when they're in different moods."

The spending had been vigorously opposed by the Traditional Values Coalition, a group that represents churches primarily. Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the coalition, said her group's intention was to challenge research grants that "don't pass the straight-face test." "There's an arrogance in the scientific community that they know better than the average American," Ms. Lafferty said.

Uh, yeah, they do know better than the average American -- because they spent years conducting scholarly research.

What in the world makes congressmen think they are fundamentally qualified to decide which research is good and which is a "waste of time?"

Friday, July 09, 2004

What makes a useful education? Not math, according to some:

When, after the examinations at the end of the first term, she looked at the papers they had been set, she read some of the more vulnerable of the questions aloud with the greatest contempt: "A window cleaner carries a uniform 60-lb. ladder 15 ft. long, at one end of which a bucket of water weighing 40 lb. is hung. At what point must he support the ladder to carry it horizontally? Where is the c.g. of his load?" Miss Brodie looked at the paper, after reading out this question as if to indicate that she could not believe her eyes. Many a time she gave the girls to understand that the solution to such problems would be quite useless to Sybil Thorndike, Anna Pavlova and the late Helen of Troy.

-- from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Dear Prudence,

My wife and I are expecting our first child in October. She plans to continue working after we have our baby, and she is being bombarded by people who make her feel as if she's an unfit mother for wanting to work outside the home. For example, a lady at our church told her she would NEVER let anyone else raise her baby. Others just ask how she could possibly leave her baby with someone else. Many just she give her a condescending look. Most of these comments come from people she does not even know!

Heres a piece of advice Prudence didn't give you: move out of hicktown.

The following bit from The Crying of Lot 49 puzzled me until I learned that Pynchon was, at one point, an engineering student at Cornell:
At some indefinite passage in night's sonorous score, it also came to her that she would be safe, that something, perhaps only her linearly fading drunkenness, would protect her.

I may have trouble with interpretation, but I know what linear fading means.

Update: more vestiges of an engineering education from Pynchon,

She knews, because she held him, that he suffered DT's. Behind the initials was a metaphor, a delirium tremens, a trembling unfurrowing of the mind's plowshare..."dt," God help this old tattooed man, meant also a time differential, a vanishingly small instant in which change had to be confronted at last for what it was, where it could no longer disguise itself as something innocuous like an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the projectile be frozen in midflight, where death dwelled...

Thank God someone is educating english majors about infinitesimals.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Surprise -- attitudes on makeup have changed in the last 300 or so years -- but not so much: from Moll Flanders, written in 1722, a description of a rapidly aging woman in her late forties preparing for a meeting:

I dressed to all the advantage possible, I assure you, and for the first time used a little art; I say for the first time, for I had never yielded to the baseness of paint before, having always had vanity enough to believe I had no need of it.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

A question: why does everyone in new england have a stick up their ass?

I did not think southerners were especially nice when I lived in Atlanta; but now that I am living in Massachusetts, I finally understand the meaning of "southern hospitality."

Journalists and economists have been fawning over China's economic growth lately. Yesterday's Times brings news that economic growth in China is so high that there is fear of an electricity shortage due to rapidly rising demand; Sunday's edition features a 10-part special I, for the life of me, could not get through, entitled The Chinese Century. A steady stream of articles on China's economic prowess has been coming from news sources over the past few years.

All of this is based on growth figures released by the Chinese government. Here is a question: why should those numbers be given any credence? After all, China has an interest in projecting economic strength; the reporting and calculation of growth is not done by an independent agency but rather by the very government that stands to benefit from it; and there is no independent way to verify how fast the country is in fact growing.

I'm generally skeptical that a communist country could sustain a course of economic growth in a developed economy -- this comes from my memories of coming of age in late eighties Russia. The problem is that there is little incentive for managers to manufacture things efficiently in a communist system, even when private enterprise is allowed; rather, people seek to increase their own influence by increasing the size of their company/division and developing connections with the government. One can try to fight this from the top -- as was done in late 1980s Russia -- but its very difficult to change the behavior of the people if the incentives are skewed; and as long as the government plays such a primal role in the country, personal connections are what ultimately matters for success, and incentives will remain skewed.

Am I liberal or conservative? Its certainly hard to tell from this weblog: I was looking through my recent entries when I observed an interesting juxtaposition -- I claimed that liberals were either hypocritical or obsessive and dumb in this post; two days afterward I wrote this, arguing that over-representation of stupid people among conservatives explains their relative scarcity in academia.

In a nutshell, I am a 2000 Democrat. In 2000, as Clinton was leaving the presidency, I agreed with Democrats on every single conceivable issue, with the exception of affirmative action. I have not grown more conservative since then; rather, the Democratic party has shifted to the left into positions it never espoused during the Clinton years: skepticism about free trade, criticism of US intervention abroad, abandonment of fiscal conservatism (Kerry never promised a balanced budget).

I wish I could freeze 2000 and make it last forever. A high tech bubble that provided jobs for every well-educated person who sought them; Clinton was the president of the United States; a balanced budget and projections of a rosy economic future; politics was simple -- there were two parties, one made up of reflexive isolationists who wanted to force Christian conservative values on the rest of the country; the other championed humanitarian intervention abroad, supported free trade, and fought efforts to undermine the separation of church and state. The isolationists nominated a bumbling dolt for president while the other party nominated a savvy, intelligent policy wonk -- it did not take me long to figure out who I was going to vote for in the 2000 election.

Its too bad its all irrevocably lost.

Is this a good idea? Today's Times runs an article on welfare policy in the United States which contains the following blurb about (unnamed) state-level officials:
[State] officials seek more freedom to tailor their programs to local needs. They want to expand the definition of work to include more vocational education and drug treatment...

Expand the definition of work to include drug treatment for welfare purposes? My natural reaction to this is very negative: an honest day's work does not include rehab!

After a conversation with angela, though, I grew convinced that my natural reaction misses the point. There are many reasons why its better for society to have drug addicts attend rehabilitation clinics: it lowers crime, hurts the drug trade, and less addicts on the streets translates into better neighborhoods. While it might seem strange to label rehabilitation treatment as honest work, ultimately all we are talking about is a financial incentive to get better.

One obvious objection is that a program of this sort creates perverse incentives: a casual drug user running out of money might go on a binge and show up at a rehab clinic to collect welfare. This argument, though, is flawed: rehab counselors are generally good at separating the addicts from the sometimes-users, and it hardly makes sense for a casual user to go on a binge which will result in an addiction for a few months of welfare; the consequences of addiction are far more severe than that.

Moreover, its not so clear that we can even use the language of economics and talk about financial incentives when it comes to drugs. Research into drug policy has shown that drug users do not respond to incentives rationally. For example, during the period 1980-1999, the US government has remarkably stepped up its enforcement of drug laws; one would expect that, as a result, drugs prices would rise because drugs would be more difficult to smuggle; but in fact, prices have fallen 70-80% -- a phenomenon no one can quite explain. See this paper for an exploration of the irrational behavior of drug users.

Having said that, I am still not sure that giving welfare to those in rehab is a good idea: the success rates of rehab programs are about 20%. Therefore, 80% of money would be wasted right off the bat; worse than wasted, in fact, since it would likely be used for the purchase of drugs, undermining the very point of such a program.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

From Machiavelli:

For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary
to beat and ill-use her.

My Russian translation of The Prince has "...if you wish to posses her, it is necessary to beat and ill-use her." Which is the correct rendering? If only I knew an Italian speaker I could ask about this...

This would be funny if it weren't sad.

Conservatives in the blogosphere have made much of the disparity in GDP per capita between US and Europe: measured at purchasing power parity, GDP per capita is 40% higher in the United States. See this Instapundit thread on whether Sweden is poorer than Mississippi to see how this fact is used in the blogsophere.

However, when you consider GDP per capita per worker hour, the difference goes away and the advantage of the US is about 5%. This means that the disparity in GDP per capita is not necessarily due to inherent weaknesses in the European model, but rather simply because the average European works less than his American counterpart.

Do Europeans choose to work less or are they constrained to do so? The data seems to support the former. The difference in hours per worker is not primarily due to higher European unemployment or to a higher proportion of part time workers; rather, most of the difference lies in the hours per full time worker. Furthermore, the decrease in European hours worked over the past 30 years has happenned even in countries with comparatively low tax rates, such as Ireland. It stands to reason that while higher taxes in Europe do have some negative effect on hours worked, the lions share of the difference is due to personal preferences.

Claiming that Sweden is poorer than Mississipi based on GDP per capita data misses the point, given that Swedes, as other Europeans, choose to substitute leisure for wealth relative to Americans.

(Link via Mahalanobis)

Saturday, July 03, 2004

"...the world's first metrosexual superpower..."

-- Slate, referring to the European Union.

In February, Robert Brandon, the chair of the Duke Philosophy department, was asked why registered Republicans are under-represented at Duke.His response:

We try to hire the best, smartest people available," Brandon said of his philosophy hires. "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.

The conservative part of the blogsophere was up in arms about this comment; see Andrew Sullivan and Eugene Volokh. Erin O'Connor interestingly remarked that the real reason for the lack of Republicans in academia is a "systematic, unacknowledged contempt for conservative, or even moderate, views."

All right: lets say humanities departments do have a bias against conservative scholarship that accounts for the lack of registered Republicans on their faculty. If so, one would expect that the number of Republicans at technical institutions, where science & engineering professors make up a majority of the faculty, would be dramatically higher than the number of Republicans in such universities as Duke.

Not so! According to a study done by the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, Democrats outnumber Republicans by an average of 10-to-1 in the Ivy League, with some variation: 4-to-1 at Northwestern and 30-to-1 at Brown. However,the study could not find a single registered Republican on the faculty at MIT.

I'm ready to accept that an established contempt for conservative views could be used to explain why humanities, and perhaps social science departments, lack registered Republicans; but how, apart from Brandon's logic, to explain the lack of Republicans on science/engineering faculties at universities like MIT?

For a bit more thoughtful exposition of Brandon's logic, see here.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Interesting: Public Ownership in the American City by Edward Glaeser argues that corruption was one of the the main reasons why cities moved to government ownership of utilities and public transportation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, local governments often subcontracted the provision of water, street sweeping, transportation to private firms; but quite often the contracts went to firms owned by city bosses. It was also common for private firms to bribe officials to get the government to purchase/sell goods at an unreasonable price. Public opposition to this was one of the main reasons, Glaeser argues, why cities began to provide transportation/utilities services themselves.

Shorter Paul Krugman: Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" fools you into thinking lots of things are true that actually, umm, arent true; but it criticizes Bush, whom I dislike, so its a good movie. By the way, not all of the facts in the movie are wrong. And if conservatives don't like Moore's deceptions, why don't they criticize Bush for lying?

Read Krugman's column here. David Koppel writes about the misleading bits of "Fahrenheit 911" here.

Update: By the way, not everything in the Koppel piece is kosher -- some of the things he calls "lies" are just slants he disagrees with -- but most of his criticisms are valid. A bit ironic of me to post something thats deceitful to demonstrate that...Moore's movie is deceitful; but the Koppel piece is nevertheless the best debunking I know of, if you ignore its ridiculous bits.

More on the center in American politics: from a Slate article on John Kerry's religious rhetoric,

As you may already know, one of America's two political parties is extremely religious. Sixty-one percent of this party's voters say they pray daily or more often. An astounding 92 percent of them believe in life after death. And there's a hard-core subgroup in this party of super-religious Christian zealots. Very conservative on gay marriage, half of the members of this subgroup believe Bush uses too little religious rhetoric, and 51 percent of them believe God gave Israel to the Jews and that its existence fulfills the prophecy about the second coming of Jesus.

Liberals could read these statistics and sneer about "those silly Republicans" were it not for the fact that it's the Democrats who hold these beliefs. And the abovementioned ultrareligious subgroup is not the so-called "Religious Right" but rather the so-called "African-Americans."

In my previous post, I wrote about Michael Berube's sarcastic take on whether John Kerry is significantly to the left of the American public, just like Bush is significantly to the right of it. Religion, as well as affirmative action and taxes, are issues where Kerry's position strays from that of the average voter.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

I spent a few minutes today browsing Michael Berube's site (Berube is an English professor at the Penn State who writes primarily about politics). A few comments:

1. Berube, in a remarkably humourless way, mocks this New York Times article (free copy) about the growing convergence of American public opinion.

The article presented empirical evidence demonstrating that Americans have reached a consensus on most political issues of the day (abortion, gun control, death penalty, affirmative action, etc.) ; this consensus puts them firmly between the positions of the two major parties. It goes on to speculate about the causes and effects of this.

Back in the primary days, I've observed Deaniacs tended to have problems with statements like this because in their anti-Republican zeal they tended to assume all America was ultra-liberal at heart, just like they were. They tended to dismiss articles about the nonpartisan center in American politics, believing instead the center rests with Dean and his supporters. I don't know whether Berube supported Dean, but, true to form, he ignores all the supporting evidence in the article, cites the speculations, and ridicules them rather childishly. The real polarizing figures on the American landscape are Tom Delay and Bush, he intimates.

That may very well be so. But the thrust of the article -- the central point the author has unsuccesfully tried to communicate to Prof. Berube -- is not that both parties are made up of demagogues, but rather that opinion polls show a considerable disconnect between the opinions of the average Republican/Democrat and the opinions of the average American. This is a point Berube did not seem to get -- perhaps reading comprehension is not his strong suit?

2. Berube links to this piece about modern liberals and Iran. Conservative commentators have long criticized the lopsided view many liberals seem to take towards human rights abuses -- listening to most liberal commentators, one comes away with the impression that 90% of the human rights abuses in the world are committed by the US & Israel.

The piece, by Danny Postel, ruminates for quite a while about why this is so. It spends quite a bit of time vividly contrasting the current I-don't-care attitude towards Iran with the excitement, fund-raising, and commitment given to Latin American solidarity movements a decade earlier -- "...American leftists went to Guatemala to support the student radicals, wrote about them, made films about them, raised money for them, brought them on speaking tours of the U.S. to spread the word about their struggle, no such luck for their counterparts in Iran." The conclusion?

...U.S. imperialism is simply not the issue for [Iranian students] -- and this, I think, is a stumbling block for many american leftists because it is the central issue for us. We're better at making sense of situations in which the U.S. Empire is the foe and building our solidarity with other people around that. That was the case in Guatamala...

So its not that leftists are hypocritical; they are just obsessive and stupid.