February 28, 2003

Declare the pennies on your eyes   {Comments: 0}

Maybe this site will come in handy: the Tax Observer apparently responds to reader questions, a great public service. Unfortunately all my problems are all with the state, so unless Tax Observer is familiar with the Illinois code, I may have to bite the bullet and get a real accountant. Blah.

No more than contingency plans   {Comments: 1}

Nicholas Kristof's latest column about NK is really disturbing. There aren't a lot of specifics, but he seems to think the Bush admin is closer to a military approach than we've been led to believe.

The hawk faction believes that the U.S. as a last resort could make a surgical strike, even without South Korean consent, and that Kim Jong Il would not commit suicide by retaliating. The hawks may well be right. Then again, they may be wrong. And if they're wrong, it would be quite a mistake.

[...] Ironically, the gravity of the situation isn't yet fully understood in either South Korea or Japan, partly because they do not think this administration would be crazy enough to consider a military strike against North Korea. They're wrong.

I hadn't read much of Kristof before the past couple of months, but his reporting and analysis on North Korea has been superb. Apart from Josh Marshall, I haven't read anybody else who really seems to take this issue seriously - everyone else seems to be distracted by Iraq. But Kristof is well connected, and he seems to have a real sensitivity ot the issues involved.
An army in northern Iraq   {Comments: 0}

Josh Marshall describes the Bush admin's cold hearted betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds.

[...] the deal we've just cut with the Turks belies much of the democratization argument. Now, for reasons I'll try to get into later, I'm something of a turkophile. But the administration's apparent decision to allow the Turkish army to range at will through Iraqi Kurdistan -- the one place in Iraq where something like democracy is taking root -- doesn't bode well for any grand democratic experiment.
I'm not sold on his argument - for one thing, I think the Kurds in Northern Iraq have a lot to fear from Saddam if there are no US military forces up there, so it might be worth making a few concessions. But I do have serious questions about whether Bush is serious about democracy in Iraq - much less the rest of the Middle East.
Americorpse   {Comments: 0}

It looks like Bush has changed his tune on Americorps - according to this WP article, the new budget will cut the program's enrollment considerably:

[...] the omnibus spending legislation approved by Congress earlier this month caps AmeriCorps enrollment at 50,000 for 2003 -- no increase. The administration has told Congress that an accounting change required by the White House Office of Management and Budget will leave AmeriCorps with a $64 million shortfall in its $100 million trust fund for volunteers' scholarships.

Based on these figures, the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic group, calculated that AmeriCorps will have only enough funds for 28,000 slots.

What a disappointment. After 9/11, Bush made a lot of noise about providing opportunities and incentives for Americans young and old to serve their country, and not just in a military capacity. But apart from the callout associated with the federalization of airport security (which Bush opposed, in any case) I can't remember hearing anything else about it. And it's probably the only significant way Americans could hope to be support the war against terror here at home.

By the way, Bush announced this now-defunct Americorps expansion right after 9/11, echoing the ideas of John McCain, who has called for one or two years of required service - military or otherwise - for all Americans. Obviously McCain's idea is a non-starter, but adding volunteers to Americorps seems like a great step toward getting Americans involved in their government - and at a time when Americans want to get involved. But Bush has faced a lot of criticism from the right after the biggest expansion of government in recent memory, and the Americorps expansion was probably a good place to shore up his base. Too bad.

Market testing   {Comments: 1}

This CNN article about extinction level events isn't very comforting. You almost get the feeling their probing they're audience to help put together a contingency plan.

February 27, 2003

Regime change   {Comments: 0}

Finally, some hope that the oppression will end!

People all over the world: Join hands!   {Comments: 0}

One of my main motivations in creating this weblog was to learn more about the blogopshere, which has fascinated me for a couple of years now. But somehow, finding a voice has become my primary concern now that I'm actually writing. This makes sense - it's so much harder to be removed from this kind of thing when you're actually doing it every day.

To fix this, I'm going to try a couple of things. First of all, I'm going to try to link to one new weblog per day - at least until I have a somewhat longer blogroll. Originally I had planned to link only to sites I looked at with some frequency, but I think this will be more interesting. My second idea is to write a serious post once a week on blogging more generally - maybe that way I can keep my head in the clouds?

The first of my blog-a-day posts was yesterday's link to Jeff Cooper's site, Cooped Up. Today I'm linking to Amygdala, where after a little wandering I ran into this great post defending the latest Star Trek incarnation. Evidently he's a fan.

Moo   {Comments: 0}

Another local story: the anti-trust lawsuit against Dominick's and Jewel has been thrown out. We talked about this case some in my econ class and saw how this pricing behavior can be the result of normal competition in an oligopoly, although it's not clear whether that was the case here.

Four weeks of trial came to a quick end with Circuit Judge John Morrissey's six-page opinion that said lawyers who brought the class action suit failed to show clear and convincing evidence that the state's antitrust laws were violated.

Morrissey wrote that if consumers felt Jewel and Dominick's overcharged for milk, they could shop elsewhere, or even boycott the stores.

"I do not mean to oversimplify, but in our aforementioned free market and society, the defendants have competed, not conspired," Morrissey wrote. "If their milk prices are out of line, the remedy is a seasoned campaign of consumers doing the things this court has said, and not an action at law."

The strange thing about the decision is that the Morrissey's secondary argument - that consumers could simply shop somewhere else - isn't part of anti-trust law at all. It will be interesting to see whether this forms the basis for an appeal.
A course in marital theory   {Comments: 0}

I can't find it online, but Chicago Public Radio had a piece today about pending marriage legislation that would require Illinois residents to take pre-marriage classes before they could get a license. This strikes me as bizarre... the Illinois State Assembly is going to tell me how to handle my marriage? Not likely.

As simple as decapitation   {Comments: 0}

Dick Morris sees the coming conflict as more of a coup d'etat than a war:

By using aerial bombardment to disrupt the regime's communications with its minions and employing e-bombs to overload their computers, American strategists are enhancing their chances of killing or capturing Saddam without having to damage all of Iraq. Even if the dictator escapes alive to hide out somewhere in a cave near Osama's, his regime will be toppled and the coup will have succeeded.

[...] In a sense, we are returning to the polite notions of war of the 18th and early 19th centuries. When the British captured Philadelphia, they figured the American Revolution would collapse. When they burned Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812, they felt they had won the war. Union generals were forever trying to capture Richmond to end the Civil War. Then generals like Ulysses Grant realized that the key was to destroy the other side's army - and the modern meat-grinder war was born.

By focusing on capturing the instruments of power in Baghdad, we are returning to the earlier idea - but in a different context.

This is interesting, but it seems unlikely that we will be able to kill or capture Saddam so easily. If we knew where he was, wouldn't we have assassinated him already? This is a man who has multiple body doubles and has been in power for 23 years... he even survived a war with the mighty United States of America. I think he knows how to take care of himself.
The entanglement strategy   {Comments: 0}

Haggai has a grave warning for the unexpected new coalition government in Israel:

[...] the Palestinians didn't accept Oslo as a devilishly clever strategic move in their struggle to destroy Israel, although that struggle continues today - they accepted it because the international situation at the time left them with no choice. Arafat himself is clearly beyond hope as a potential peacemaker and has to be replaced for there to be any chance of progress. But if Israel ignores the importance of much of the international community's view of the conflict, there won't be peace either. Military force, which is completely necessary and justified in fighting terrorism, isn't enough to bring peace - not by itself.
The whole post is worth a read.
Better than a sharp stick in the eye   {Comments: 0}

It seems to me Iraq's decision to destroy its Al Samoud 2 missiles will make it much harder for the Bush admin to get intl support for the war effort - although according to this NYT atricle, "the allies also already maneuvering." Saddam is playing this perfectly right now; every move is timed perfectly, and international support for war is diminishing with each passing day. I suspect there will be plenty of delay in destroying the missiles though, since Iraq will need shortly.

Correct, as usual!   {Comments: 0}

Everybody is eulogizing Fred Rogers today, and of course they're right to. I have the fondest memories of his show, and from what I've read today he was - remarkably enough - the same person in person as he was on television. One thing that surprised me - it turns out he wrote his own songs.

Stuck at orange forever?   {Comments: 0}

Now that the Orange Alert is over, this article from Mary Lynn F. Jones (via CalPundit) is a little out of date:

By maintaining the same high alert level for three straight weeks, the government has effectively boxed itself into a situation where we may be stuck at orange forever. As a result, it's time to color the terror alert system useless, once and for all.

It seems likely that we will never go to green, or "low risk," because after September 11, the government will never again be able to essentially guarantee that we're free from the risk of an attack. Same goes for blue, or "guarded." Government officials appear worried that if we return to yellow, or "elevated," something bad will happen and they'll get blamed for telling us to relax a bit....All of which is to say that we are now looking at spending the majority of our lives at orange.

But I do think it's strange that they waited as long as they did to lower the threat level. Communications have apparently decreased considerably, and we haven't seen a terrorist attack. On the other hand, they may have to raise the level again soon, if there is a threat of attacks to coincide with our invasion if Iraq.

UPDATE: According to my econ prof, experts recommend a threat level that equates the likelihood of a threat with the chances of some real event - wrecking your car, or being struck by lightning - so that people will have a better idea of what to prepare for. The problem with this, of course, is that terrorist acts aren't random events, and it's much harder to judge the likelihood of success when you have such a small data pool.

February 26, 2003

Wine and wisdom   {Comments: 0}

Jeff Cooper's weblog rates a special mention here, first of all because Jeff is a prof at Indiana University (which has a special place in my heart), but also becuase he mixes his political/legal commentary with weekly wine recommendations. Maybe I'll go buy a bottle of his last suggestion, a cheap Penfold's Shiraz-Cab.

Try, try again   {Comments: 0}

I couldn't fail to notice the story about famous French chef Bernard Loiseau who killed himself when his rating decreased (for the record, it went from 19/20 to 17/20). Marco Pierre White tells us about the stressors these tops chefs face. Obviously there's the temptation to be appalled at the disconnect between the world we ourselves inhabit and the one these chefs are catering to. But with the premiere of my opera coming up so soon, it's easy to relate to the pressure of reviews and ratings. I go from inviting all my friends and imagining a great success to picking at the work we've done, tearing it apart even, bracing for disaster. And that first review - by the Indianapolis Star - will mean everything.

Don't worry, though, I'm only 26 - plenty of time to switch careers if things don't work out!

One dimensional crusaders for the common man   {Comments: 0}

Also by way of Slate, the WP's Gene Weingarten calls Robert Burrows's self-published novel Great American Parade the worst novel ever published in the English language. No big surprises - it turns out to be a clumsily didactic treatment of the Bush tax plan in the form of a novel. But what interested me about it was how it got reviewed in the Washington Post; after all, it was self-published, so it didn't have navigate the highly credible and authoritative editorial process we submit to when we play by the rules.

When I googled Mr Burrows's novel, there were dozens of hits, all from college papers that were tricked into reviewing the book when they got their free copy in the mail. Even the Indiana Daily Student (an old employer of mine) had a review. What I'm wondering is: can this really work? Apparently the author printed up 2000 copies and sent them to college campuses around the country, hoping to generate buzz from the ground up. In this case it failed, probably because the novel was no good, but maybe this is something to think about... if, for instance, the novel were published online, reviews in college campuses around the country could really get it going. I'll have to run out and tell all my novelist friends.

A more jaundiced look   {Comments: 0}

New York has chosen the Libeskind design for the WTC site. Slate's Chirstopher Hawthorne had some interesting analysis of the design on Tuesday:

Like Muschamp and many other critics, when I first saw a model of the Libeskind scheme at the World Financial Center I felt in it an emotional power that was lacking in the other schemes, which, despite moments of architectural inspiration, tended to be rather cold, even tactical, on the whole. Libeskind's proposal, on the other hand, succeeded as a coherent, artistic whole: It suggested leaving the WTC pit as an unfinished hole in the ground contained by rough-hewn slurry walls, around which would grow a new crop of translucent towers, including a sharply peaked tower with sky gardens on its upper floors. Of all the plans, it alone seemed to achieve a remarkable balance between mourning and our desire to reach back into the sky.

Muschamp himself has identified the proposal's "graphically powerful first impression." But with the benefit of distance, he has begun to take a more jaundiced look at Libeskind's uncanny talent for tapping into emotions like grief and our bewilderment at the range of human cruelty. Libeskind's recent success is directly traceable to his mining of this talent: I can't think of a single Libeskind design that doesn't exploit it to one degree or another. In a building like his best-known finished work, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, these responses seem entirely appropriate to the task. But in a process involving a good deal of salesmanship, as the World Trade Center dog-and-pony show has, these talents are capable of looking suspect, even tawdry. Muschamp is certainly not the only critic to have noted this. In a recent New Republic essay, Martin Filler labeled Libeskind "an entrepreneur of commemoration."

As I understand it, the design shown to the public is still very fluid, and what finally gets built may look very different. We'll have to see whether Muschamp's concerns are incorporated.
A dramatic and inspiring example   {Comments: 1}

George Bush set forth his vision of a postwar Iraq this evening - "a dramatic and inspiring example to the Middle East." Meanwhile, the North Koreans have restarted the nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

February 24, 2003

More visceral reactions   {Comments: 1}

We've heard a lot lately about Rumsfeld's attempts to fast-track missile defense. With all we know about the effectiveness of these systems, I'm not sure having one in place is going to make me feel a lot safer - especially if it hasn't even been tested. The whole thing may be a bluff (or maybe it's serious) but what amazes me about it is the timing. After all, this has been Bush's pet project since 9/11, and even before. But we're hearing about it now, because all of a sudden North Korea is in the news, flying MIGs into South Korean airspace and launching missiles into the Sea of Japan.

The problem with all this is that we've known all along about North Korea's nuclear machinations - or at least, our leaders have. And instead of engaging them in dialogue, or even taking preventative action a la our new preemption strategy, we've called them names and pushed for a missile shield to protect us when they take offense. The fact is that this missle shield is part of the problem. It creates an atmosphere of escalation and proliferation instead of negotiation and diplomacy.

By the way, there's another problem with the missile shield, besides just the fact that it doesn't work. Even before Tenet revealed that the North Koreans have missiles that can hit California, the Bush administration was still paralyzed by fear and indecision. The problem was that the North Koreans had the capacity to level Seoul or Tokyo if we attacked them preemptively or imposed a meaningful sanctions regime. But even with a missile shield, we'd still have this problem - even if we built missile shields to protect every country in the world, the North Koreans could level Seoul with artillery. No, his is a situation that will continue to escalate until we make a credible threat against the Pyongyang or sit down to negotiate. Instead, we're hiding under an improbable future technology. Will Kim Jong Il call our bluff?

A fine romance   {Comments: 0}

Speaking of changes, TNR.com is going to start charging for online access to print stories... they say 75% off the cover price, but I have to wonder what they pay for printing and postage. I can't really blame them, since I used to have a print subscription but let it run out since everything was online. Is this really the direction online content is going? A good reason to come to painpill, anyway!

You scratch my back and I'll scratch your record   {Comments: 0}

By the way, Haggai Elitzur of Haggai's Place also paid me the compliment of a link. Do take a moment to check out his site, where "a splendid time is guaranteed for all."

Who is that man behind the curtain?   {Comments: 0}

The Talking Dog has been so kind as to link to my site in his Dog Run, which has provided me with instructive descriptions of some great political weblogs. His description was kind enough (although now that I've altered the URL it's no longer current), but it did make me realize that I haven't explained who I am, or what I'm after with this site. Like I explained below, what I'm after is still a little murky, but who I am shouldn't be so hard. A capsule should go something like this:

This is the weblog of one Paul Goyette, currently a graduate student in public policy at the University of Chicago, but with curiosities and ambitions well beyond public political spheres. Most recently he completed the libretto for a children's opera entitled The Trio of Minuet, to premiere in Indianapolis this May. Before that he was a semi-willing employee of the Social Security Administration, where he failed to use his degree in Russian and Comparative Literature. When he grows up, he'd love to be a big-time jazz pianist, but in the meantime he's available for hire to those with less exacting musical taste and/or knowledge.

That should fill my narcicism quota for the evening.

Crisis of confidence   {Comments: 0}

In a low bow to all of those who have called me flaky (and they are many!) I've decided to change the name of this site to painpill. It's not that I think I feel like two weeks have cleared up the murkiness around what exactly I want out of this site, and what exactly I want to be writing about. But the further I go, the harder it is for these kinds of things to change.

And I was somewhat uncomfortable with the name counterfactual. It was a little too suggestive of an argument-oriented approach, and I'm not by nature an argumentative type. With painpill I'm looking for something a little more playful, and perhaps a little wider in scope.

UPDATE: According to my girlfriend, changing the name was a bad idea. Let the readers revolt! Somehow I've managed to alienate half my audience.

February 21, 2003

Research and development   {Comments: 0}

Is this latest attempt to speed up missile defense a bluff? It looks like these systems are far from being a able to stop an incoming missle, especially the "tumbling" missiles we're liable to get from North Korea. And anyway, will they protect Seoul and Tokyo? It's those threats (along with a certain preoccupation elsewhere) that prevent us from taking any action at the moment.

All the juicy details   {Comments: 0}

Slate takes a look at whether or not Carol Mosel-Braun is a crook... all the juicy details about her shady past dealings. It seems to me this stuff will be a major impediment to a serious run for her... the allegations are dangerous enough in their own right, but I definitely feel black candidates are held to a higher standard by the public, and are laughed off the stage much more readily. What I've read elsewhere that the Slate article doesn't mention is that Moseley-Braun was extremely charismatic and popular with voters - and not just just African-Americans.

By the way, is Medicaid fraud even a crime? Obviously hiding $28k in income from the good people at Illinois Public Aid is against the law, but "everyone does it" applies here... if this had happened at the Social Security office where I used to work, we wouldn't even have investigated the situation, because $28000 is such a small amount, and because it happens so often. I don't know how many people are doing this kind of thing, but my guess is it's a bigger drain on public funds than people think.

Turning the tables   {Comments: 0}

Some people have accused the Turks of trying to extort money from the US. It's not extortion, it's compensation. The prospect of war holds significant risks for Turkey. First of all, the Turks don't feel like they're at risk now. 94% of Turks oppose the war. But if we go to war, there will be a mass exodus of Iraqi Kurds into Turkish territory. Last time this happened (in 1991), there was a major recession in Turkey, not to mention political unrest. Now we are going to war again, and we've said we would do so unilaterally... so, there will be another flood of refugees, and more damage to their economy. They can either help us, to get aid and support to help control the situation - and this option may be political suicide for a fragile new leadership - or they can not help us, in which case they will have to absorb the shock from the Kurdish refugees without our help. So in a sense, we're the ones extorting the use of their bases, because without our help, the side effects of our war will chew up their economy.

By the way, part of the problem here is that the turks are demanding a signed agreement over this aid. That's because we promised them aid in 1991 and didn't come through with everything we promised (ie Congress didn't pass it all). The Turks are afraid the war will be short this time, and by the time Congress gets around to legislating the aid, the war will be long over. Given the history of it, i don't blame them. I don't think we're extorting the French or other allies (although Rumsfeld is threatening to withdraw troops from Germany now), but in the case of Turkey, they are the ones in a tight spot, not us.

If we don't get their help, the consequences are huge - not so much for us, although it might mean more American casualties and a longer war - but for the Iraqi Kurds and the prospects for democracy in post-war Iraq. In the previous gulf war, Saddam killed tens of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq and sent half a million refugees into Turkey. A US force in Northern Iraq could prevent this kind of massacre again and help confine the war to Baghdad, if it can successfully control the countryside and take the oil fields intact.

February 20, 2003

Wild-man antidote to Milan Kundera   {Comments: 0}

Culturebox has a great article on Edward Limonov, the author of that cult classic Russian emigre novel, It's Me, Eddie. I haven't read anything else by Limonov besides propaganda from the American expat magazine eXile (he's a semi-regular contributor) but the stuff about self-absorption rings true. Still, I don't remember taking him too seriously as a stylist... Eddie was more of a juiced-up memoir with teeth. Of course, I read it in translation, so it's harder to say.

If you want a more current emigre novel, check out Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook. I'm totally engrossed in it at the moment.

Hydrogen bomb?   {Comments: 0}

Nick Kristof's oddly titled article on the possibilities of hydrogen powered cars puts a more positive spin on things. But he only briefly mentions the problem of where the hydrogen might come from:

[...] getting the hydrogen can be a problem and can produce greenhouse gases. Hydrogen does not exist on its own but is locked up in water and fossil fuels. The goal is to use wind energy to pluck hydrogen from water in the ocean, but in the near term it's more likely that the hydrogen will come from natural gas.
Natural gas, incidentally, exists in great abundance but is much harder to move than oil because it comes from the ground in an already volatile form. Presumably, converting it to hydrogen wouldn't help.
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According to MSNBC, a North Korean fighter jet crossed into South Korean territory today for the first time since 1983. This is a frightening development, especially after they threatened to pull out of the armistice earlier this wk.

February 19, 2003

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From the BBC:

A leaked document suggests that Washington is beginning detailed planning for a new generation of smaller nuclear weapons. The document - published by an anti-proliferation watchdog and confirmed as genuine by US officials - indicates the weapons could be used against targets like deep bunkers that contain chemical or biological agents.
This is what you call a first strike weapon. Incredible. I don't doubt that such weapons would be effective, or that they would be engineered to reduce the collateral damage that make tactical nuclear weapons prohibitive. But isn't this opening up a huge pandora's box? For the past few decades, policy makers have seen nuclear weapons as too dangerous to use in tactical situtations - not because they wouldn't be tactically useful, but because the one thing we had going for us in the fight against nuclear weapons use was the line separating conventional warfare and nuclear warfare. It was that line that made the cold war strategy of mutually assured destruction possible; if anyone had crossed it, the world would have been utterly destroyed. Building and using these weapons (and the Bush people definitely intend to use them - they're tailor-made for a war against the DPRK) crosses the line at a time when nuclear weapons are weilded by more and more powers - all of whom are watching us when they set policy.

I was in India last year on the anniversary of 9/11, and in the newspaper there was a special section about it. There was a picture of a woman with an American flag crying, with roughly this caption: "This woman lost her husband in the terrorist attacks on the WTC. Americans condemned the attacks, while still defending the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." As unfair as this comparison might have been, it was a revelation to me that people outside the US see our country in light of those horrific events. That an Indian paper published the story is particularly telling - this is a country whose nuclear weapons policy isn't settled, a country surely looking to the US for guidance. Won't proliferating nuclear weapons - even small ones - at a time when our policy is to preemptively attack other proliferators be seen as arrogant American hypocrisy?

UPDATE: According to this related article on the BBC site, Rumsfeld may also be interested in depolying a neutron bomb:

An independent American nuclear watchdog organisation, the Los Alamos Study Group has got hold of and has published the minutes of a meeting held at the Pentagon on 10 January 2003 at which preparations for a conference on the testing of current nuclear weapons and the design of a new generation of weapons was discussed.

The conference is planned for this August at Stratcom, the Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska. The weapons listed are: low (radiation) yield, earth penetrating, enhanced radiation (the "neutron" bomb) and 'agent defeating'. Agent defeating refers not to blowing up enemies' agents but to the destruction of chemical and biological agents.

It's not clear to me whether we have neutron bombs now, although everything I can find says we were producing them under Reagan. Nuclearfiles.org has information about neutron bombs and their development.
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This is really disturbing. When the news first broke, they wouldn't even list which financial institutions were involved. Now, at least you can see whether your account could have been among the ones hacked. But they still haven't released the name of the "third-party payment card processor". I wonder what their liability is. When I was with the Social Security Administration, I had to deal with several identity theft cases, and it was incredible how little we could do to help these people. Generally their credit was destroyed, and they had to spend long hours bouncing back and forth between the local police, the credit agencies (who can only be reached by phone), and SSA. Obviously there are difficulties when it comes to proving these things - you don't want it to be easy to change your identity - but it would be nice to see some policies addressing this.

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Thomas Friedman makes a convincing case for war, as always. His criticism of the Bush team is intense, though:

[I]t's time for the Bush team to shape up dial down the attitude, start selling this war on the truth, give us a budget that prepares the nation for a war abroad, not a party at home, and start doing everything possible to create a global context where we can confront Saddam without the world applauding for him.
Also, Peter Beinart takes a serious look at some Bush policies past on Iraq. He still comes up a hawk, but it's not pretty.
February 18, 2003

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It's official: Carol Mosely-Braun is in the race. I tried to find out where this speech was going to be, but no luck. Should have realized it would be at the law school, since she's a grad.

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Gregg Easterbrook's appraisal of the plan for H-powered cars is devsatating, but I see a lot of hope in what he says too. Yes, it's a smokescreen by the Bush admin, and yes, the funding is probably inadequate. But it sounds like this technology has real potential, if we put our backs into it. I've been disappointed, reading the response to this since the State of the Union. It was the one thing that piqued my interest at the time.

One thing about the article confuses me. On the one hand he says that H-powered cars are not really H-powered cars - that ultimately the power comes from elsewhere and the hydrogen is just the medium for it - essentially part of an electrolysis battery. But the bulk of his argument is about how hydrogen must be obtained from hydrocarbons, which are found primarily in fossil fules. Surely the amount of hydrogen in a battery would be trivial compared with the amount of gasoline we burn now in our cars, since the hydrogen wouldn't be destroyed in the reaction.

I think he must be wrong on the first count - this technology is actually about burning hydrogen with oxygen, not charging hydrogen batteries.

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The LA Times has this quote from King George:

"Democracy is a beautiful thing, and that people are allowed to express their opinion."
Huh? Freedom of speech/expression is nice, but I think the fundamental idea of Democracy is that people's opinions actually mean something. But how many times has this president described the decision to go to war as his decision? And aides are always telling us that the presdident hasn't made up his mind yet.

Whose decision should this be? I'm not suggesting that presidents should act strictly according to polls, but in a representative demoncracy it sure would be nice if the leader showed some humility concerning his office.

February 17, 2003

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Although I myself don't much like the thought of getting hate mail (and I haven't gotten any yet, since I just started this a week ago... but if you want, my email addr is to the right, near the bottom), I'd like to think Glenn Reynolds's complaints about hate mail are a good thing. This isn't because I disagree with him (although I often do); it's because it's a sign that the demographic of the blogosphere is changing. As far back as I've been watching, the blogosphere has been bloated with warmongers, conservatives, libertarians. I've always been puzzled/troubled by this, and it's a big part of why I decided to start a site. Nowadays, I feel like the left has a serious presence too.

By the way, the other obvious explanation for this is that the American public is more polzarized now than it has been since 9/11. In the wake of those events, people came together ain support of what was going on in the political arena, and while we've seen a midterm election in the meantime, the specter of war with Iraq is really polarizing. If the public is more agitated, you might get more nasty emails (especially if you're Glenn Reynolds).

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I'm sorry to say I watched the last episode (or at least, I thought it was) of Joe Millionaire tonight. I'd only seen last week's show, but I was excited about the possibilities of deception it managed to conjure up... Of course the premise was a great deception, but they've continued to find ways to ramp it up, tricking first the participants, then the audience, and ultimately Joe Millionaire himself.

Too bad the show tonight was a big disappointment. Somehow the nice idea that the participants could fall in love regardless of this millionaire monkey business got lost when FOX wrote out a check anyway. Maybe they didn't let us savor the moment before they got to the punch line, or maybe the participants just seemed more excited (and understandably so) about the big check than they did about each other. For me though, there was something dirty (vaguely whorish?) about the whole thing, and I felt dirty too, for having watched!

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Timothy Noah writes that this year's Economic Report to the President proposes a national consumption tax to replace the tiered income tax system we currently have. There is always the possibility of exempting "subsistence goods" such as food (I know that Illinois, for example, exempts food from sales tax), but this would still be vastly different distribution of income than we have today. A flat sales tax is generally viewed as regressive because the poor tend to spend a higher proportion of their income (living "paycheck to paycheck") than the rich. But even if these effects are taken out of the picture, a flat tax is very different from the progressive rates we have now.

One thing I've never understood about this equation: if most of our tax revenue really comes from the rich, then won't putting a bigger proportion of the tax burden on the poor have a negligible effect on revenue? Either tax rates for the rich won't fall very much, or we'll have to have huge spending cuts.

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Matthew Yglesias wonders whether the algorithms that good chess-playing computers employ when they play chess are similar to the way good chess-playing humans play. Chess programs assign specific values to contingencies on the chess board - for instance, each piece will have a value, and these values might be altered by which other pieces are present. Humans might think in terms of values, but everything is more fluid, and positional (strategic) considerations often trump material or tactical advantage.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the cutting edge programs grandmasters have to face are carefully adjusted so that contingencies have the best values possible - and these adjustments are made by grandmasters involved on the programming team. So, maybe it's fair to say these computers think like great players, but only because they've been programmed with the whole body of chess knowledge and intuition - arrived at not through calculation, but directly from the head of a grandmaster, probably through a laborious trial and error process.

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Noam Schieber explains how the Democrats' inbred polling/message tactics are leading them in the wrong direction. Sick stuff. It's incredible how much these kinds of decisions are made by funding considerations.

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North Korea is threatening to end the armistice? Eventually all this bluster is going to turn into something. I have a real sense of foreboding as we move toward war in Iraq. Are these sanctions they proposed (sanctions, which according to the NK's, would be an act of war) coupled with war games in the South really going to solve the problem? I don't see where they go next - although I've felt that way for a long time.

February 16, 2003

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I think the BBC is confused... I don't see how melting water beneath the Mars's surface could create an ocean above the surface, since water is denser than ice. Still, this is exciting stuff, and it's good to see this kind of serious talk about missions to Mars in the wake of the Columbia's loss.

February 13, 2003

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Don't know what I think of this. They're redoing one up the street from me here on the U of C campus, but as far as I know they're sticking to the original blueprints. Did Frank Lloyd Wright mean for his houses to be "museum pieces" - for public consumption? His obsession with functionality makes these kinds of modifications seem appropriate, but not if you view the house as a national treasure.

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I'll definitely be watching the 300th episode of The Simpsons this Sunday, notwithstanding Chris Sullenthorpe's dirge on Slate. I don't watch the show often enough to have any sense of its decline - I'm probably watching reruns most of the time anyway. But it's a great show, and Sullenthorpe reminds us why. A friend of mine recently told me that The Simpsons was like South Park, but he was wrong. South Park is hilarious, but it just doesn't have the power to touch us the way the Simpsons do. Here's to the next 300 episodes.

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Back at the alma mater they're protesting the cancellation of Laura Bush's little poetry get-together at the White House... this is happening all over of course, but it warms my heart to see it at IU. I was actually part of that scene when I was there, although the magazine my friend and I published (which, amazingly enough given the long years it's been defunct, is still online) deliberately excluded poetry, in favor of prose. It's hard for me to get excited about the cancellation as a freedom of speech/expression issue, but I do think it's hilarious to see the nation's artistic elite reject the first lady's heartfelt advances. It's too bad American poetry is in such decline.

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This is interesting.

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It looks like Carol Moseley-Braun may actually run for president in 2004. I don't know much about her, but I've always had a somewhat negative view of her, I guess because of the "ethical impropriety" that eventually led to her losing that Senate seat to Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998 (this is starting to remind me of another disgraced former senator considering a run...). I'm not sure about the implications of her candidacy for the Democratic primaries, but I'm glad she's doing it if it means she won't run for the Senate seat. Fitzgerald is relatively weak, and her exit should clear the way for Barack Obama to claim the Democratic nomination.

February 12, 2003

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I was puzzled last week when Hugo Chavez imposed new currency controls. According to this article, Venezuela's currency reserves were down to $2B at the time, which is a critical level; but Chavez actually increased the value of the Bolivar when he imposed the currency controls. Venezuela must somehow control all currency exchange -otherwise, how could it keep the value stable without more hard currency? Also, querying the exchange rate with the New York Times or the Economist gets you the values of Chavez's controls, but the same thing on Yahoo finance gets you a much higher exchange rate. What's going on?

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Ted Barlow still can't make sense of Colin Powell's claims about Al Qaeda's partnership with Iraq, or Glenn Reynolds' bizarre response. To me it looks more like a statement of sympathy than one of collusion. But there's also the issue of how Powell was able to mention the tape before Al Jazeera even received it. Is this just good intelligence work? Or did the US somehow supply the tape?

One possibility - that Al Jazeera had the tape but hadn't mentioned it yet - has all kinds of implications about the relationship between Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera.

February 11, 2003

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British troops at Heathrow are apparently trying to stop another SAM attack on a passenger jet a la Mombasa last November. They're definitely taking this seriously - according to the Guardian, they were even considering closing Heathrow, which is the world's busiest airport.

The article mentions the Mombasa attack, but it doesn't clear up the issue of why that attack was ineffective. There were widespread rumors at the time that the airliner operated an anti-missle system, but I don't see how that's possible - according to this article, El Al is the only airline to operate such a system, and the flight in Mombasa was Arkia Airlines. The article does suggest commercial airliners are harder to hit than military aircraft, because they don't generate as much heat.

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This is definitely looking like a message to the Bush admin. The consensus against their budget is incredible... apparently hundreds of economists - including some real heavy-hitters - have come out with a statement attacking it. Who exactly is coming up with this stuff?

UPDATE: You can find the complete text of Greenspan's statement here.

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Greenspan hasn't mentioned the dividend tax yet, but apparently he's telling Congress to hold down the deficit - so, either cut spending or limit the tax cut. This is a good sign. I wonder if he read Krugman's column last week.

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Ted Barlow has several good quotes and links regarding the Bush budget.

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Alan Greenspan is testifying this morning; according to WP he's going to support the dividend tax cut. It's not clear whether Greenspan's support would change the minds of the many dissenting Republicans, but surely it will bring some of them on board.

On its own merits, a dividend tax cut doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Stocks that pay dividends are actually quite rare - even if a company is profitable, it's unlikely to pay dividends on its stock. This means that to make money, investors have to speculate on which stocks will increase in value, rather than which stocks will be profitable. We've seen this disconnect cause all kinds of mayhem in the past year, in cases where companies aren't profitable (in fact, they're fundamentally unsound) but their stock value has gone through the roof for some reason. Eliminating the dividend tax would encourage investors to purchase stocks that pay dividends and therefore create an incentive for companies to pay dividends rather than look to inflate their stock price.

There are two problems with this. First, the Bush people are trying to sell the dividend tax as an economic stimulus. But how would it foster additional investment? It's not as if people are spending moeny they would otherwise invest because of the dividend tax. People may start investing in stocks that pay dividends, but won't that just draw investment away from stocks that don't pay dividends? While this might be a worthy goal in and of itself, it's hard to see how this will stimulate the economy. The other big problem, of course, is it's expensive! They're projecting the dividend tax cut will cost $385B over the next 10 years, when we're running a deficit of about $300B.

UPDATE: Take a look at the Economic Policy Institute's statement against bush's proposed budget. There isn't much analysis there (I guess because they wanted it to fit neatly on a page), but they do break the dividend tax cut issue into two parts:

The permanent dividend tax cut, in particular, is not credible as a short term economic stimulus. As tax reform, the dividend tax cut is misdirected in that it targets individuals rather than corporations, is overly complex, and could be, but is not, part of a revenue-neutral tax reform effort.
As I understand it, corporate profits are taxed at the level of the corporation, and dividends are taxed separately (hence all the hype about "double taxation"). Shifting all of that tax to the corporation (a revenue-neutral policy) would increase the corporation's tax burden, with this burden ultimately passed on to shareholders either in the form of smaller dividends or a lower stock price. So individual investors would be in the same boat they're in now, except that the incentives for stocks to inflate their stock prices rather than pay dividends would be gone.
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I just spent some time reformatting the site. I'm still up in the air about the look - especially the colors - but I've always gone for simple things, so this should work for me. Obviously I'm still settling into the whole process of writing a blog... it's something that doesn't come naturally to me, in the sense that I've never been one to broadcast my views. As time goes on and I settle into my voice, I'm sure I'll end up making whatever changes seem appropriate. For now, though, criticism/praise (hell, even a reader or two) would be greatly appreciated. My email addr is conveniently located on the right, near the bottom.

February 10, 2003

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I talked to a friend - my main chess connection, actually - about the match, and his reaction was concern about whether chess competition has a serious future, given that it has been "solved." This, to me, is a really strange reaction, especially for someone who really understands the nuances of chess. For people at least, a sharp distinction gets drawn between tactical and positional ability. Good tactics have more to do with calculation and move order, but position is something much harder to throw a processor at. Programs like Deep Junior have been only been able to approximate positional play with the help of endless tweaking by human grandmasters, who can assign values to particular positional circumstances. In a sense, Kasparov played against the combined chess knowledge of all the grandmasters involved with the project, backed up by a processor that never makes mistakes.

Saying the game has been "solved" admits none of this nuance. I don't know whether chess programs will be able to reliably beat grandmasters down the road, but I'm not willing to give up the ghost just yet.

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CNN has an interview with Kasparov today, and he sounds a lot more upbeat about the match than what I read Saturday. I'm still disappointed by the change in him, but it seems like there's still some fight left... he talked about winning the human competition this year and coming back for another round. And it's true that he didn't lose. I guess we'll see what happens next year.

February 7, 2003

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Well, Garry Kasparov came up with a draw today against Deep Junior, in what seemed (to me, at least) to be a very strange ending. In a position he's very familiar with - a variation of his favorite opening to play as black, the Najdorf Sicilian - he made a characteristic sacrifice that the grandmasters commentating the game were enthusiastic about. Then, a couple of moves later, he offered a draw, which was declined; and then a few moves after that he offered again, and the computer accepted.

At the press conference afterwards, he had this to say:

Against any human player, I would continue fighting in the final position. Black is definitely not worse. But to win it would take a long, long time, and there is the pressure of playing the computer. The longer the game goes, the chance to blunder increases, and the computer will never make a big mistake. And a draw was a good result. Before the game the main item on my agenda was not to lose.

I came into this match wanting to dominate, but there is a gap between our desires and our abilities. I knew I would get good positions, but finishing these off is the hard part. [...] In game two I had a winning position and missed it. In game three I missed winning chances and then even blundered the draw. So I feel I outplayed it. To win the game today requires more energy and creativity than ever, and Junior symbolizes these advances. But it's still vulnerable, we saw some shortcomings here in thi match. We saw its strengths and weaknesses both. The machine will never collapse, but a human can never be so sure.

I have to register my acute disappointment not just at the draw (which was to be expected), but at the way it came about. This is not the Garry Kasparov I knew, the cocky young outsider who demoralized the reigning Russian grandmaster by sweating him through an endless series of draws. After this matchup, he was so mentally exhausted that he didn't play out a position where he had the upper hand - even when the match was on the line! The bit about the gap between our desires and abilities is really striking, beause a few years ago he'd never have questioned his own ability. It's sad to see someone debilitated to the point of complete surrender, especially someone like him.
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I didn't intend to log on and watch the whole game, but I've had it on in the background for the past hour or so and it's really fascinating... no wonder ESPN2 is carrying it live. The online commentary comes from such chess luminaries as Susan Polgar and Lev Alburt, all held together (a la Best in Show) by someone named Greengard. Kasparov is at least making it interesting - he just gave up the exchange and got a roar from the crowd! Check out Chessbase.com to listen in.

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Well, the last game of the Garry Kasparov vs Deep Junior matchup is about to start. They're tied at 2.5 a piece, but with Kasparov playing black in this last round it doesn't look good. Before game 5, Kasparov thought he'd be able to seize the initiative with a win as white, but Deep Junior shocked everyone by sacrificing a bishop early... and Kasparov had to content himself with forcing a draw.

Obviously it won't be long before this kind of match is hopeless, and it's come about much faster than people expected. Everyone was shocked that he lost the match to Deep Blue, and of course IBM immediately disassembled the victor, ostensibly so that it could be put to good use modelling proteins, but more likely because they knew how lucky they'd been and didn't want to see a rematch. At the time he felt he'd been at an unfair disadvantage because he wasn't able to review other games involving his opponent, something chessmasters routinely do to prepare for a match. But returns to increased computing power aren't diminishing fast enough, and meanwhile programmers are finding new ways to introduce basic patterns to the equation, so that computers can start to recognize the positional nuances that people see.

I'll be disappointed if he loses this match, but not as disappointed as I was when I heard he'd lost his title to Kramnik a couple years back. I've always liked Kasparov. I remember clipping the games with Karpov from the New York Times and playing through them at home - he plays a flashy style that's as exciting as it is cerebral. And of course his political activism makes him more interesting than your typical chessmaster.

February 6, 2003

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Gary Hart makes a serious showing in the latest LA Times poll - tied with John Edwards at 8%, and he hasn't even declared his candidacy. He's definitely my choice of the moment, I've been excited about him ever since the piece in TNR talking about the Rhodes Scholars flocking to him. He definitely has a chance to make a strong showing with young voters, although I can't put my finger on why.

I actually contacted the campaign with the idea of putting in some hours for them, but to no avail (I may just be bad at wording my inquiries... those kinds of messages can come off really creepy depending on how you read them). I thought of offering a cash donation, but that seemed crass. Still, I was surprised not to get a response, and for the kind of volunteer oriented campaign he's apparently going to run, it seems like geting these kinds of details ironed out would be key. That, and maybe losing a certain quote on the website:

"My greatest fear is never having another opportunity to serve my country." - Gary Hart
Kind of shmaltzy and pompous, don't you think?
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I'm totally torn up over Iraq. I see Saddam as a seriously bad guy who should have been removed a long time ago - 12 years ago actually - for the sake of the Iraqi people. The problem now is that there's no immediate justification for taking him out. Yes, Powell was completely convincing in the sense that we see now that Saddam is hiding something; the problem is that what he's hiding - chemical weapons - isn't that big a deal. And the regional risks of invading are enormous: we're creating potential terrorists throughout the Muslim world, pushing a well-armed dictator to the wall, and (most importantly) setting a precedent for preemptive action whose consequences we haven't really considered (just look at today's paper, with the NK's threatening to whip up some preemption of their own). On top of that I have deep suspicions that the war will not be as easy as the public expects... after all, there's a reason we didn't invade Baghdad in '91.

It's not all that different if we do it under the aegis of the UN, but at least with international backing the US could share the negative consequences with the rest of the civilized world... and btw they could also share the costs of rebuilding Iraq, which along with the war costs haven't been figured into Bush's ailing budget. This whole flap at the UN was a gamble that didn't pan out, but now the Bush admin won't play fair... they blame other nations for blocking military action that was a foregone conclusion with processes that Bush himself called for. This line in the state of the union that everyone was so impressed with about wanting results, not processes - doesn't it strike a serious blow against any realistic notion of intl order?

The problem now though is so much bigger than squabbling about who will support a war, or how soon we can lay down the first punches. The problem is that everything we do now is a message to the Koreans - when we say, for instance, that we will respond to chemical attacks with nuclear force, what will it say to Kim Jong Il if we don't follow through? When we line up NK and Iraq as equal partners in the axis of evil and then we attack Iraq, what does that say? Or when Bush says that he loathes Kim Jong Il... how do you respond to that? By honoring a treaty?

So... in a perfect world I don't feel like we should be invading Iraq, but I also think we've locked ourselves into a course of action where it's not possible to simply change our mind and back out... if we back away, we end up with a cold war in the Pacific (in fact, we're probably already at this stage). If we invade and things don't go well, same problem.

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No time now for a statement of purpose/purpose of statement, but just a couple things to say. I'll come through soon with some other topics of interest, political and otherwise. I'm studying policy at the moment, so political concerns will probably dominate this blog, but my interests are pretty far-reaching, and I won't fail to represent that here. So... not just graf after lame opinion graf about Iraq and NK, but occasionally something of real interest, I hope.

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The Guardian has a great breakdown of the economics of war.

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A friend of mine called up yesterday, raving about how war is inevitable. He was clearly caught up in the whole event of Powell's speech - and I think he felt that the evidence presented therein was indisputable and irrefutable (I've since read this in a number of places). After all, the intercepted transmissions plainly show that the Iraqis are deceiving the weapons inspectors, and UN resolution 1441 was clear about what the consequences to that would be. But for me, the issue hasn't changed much. Did anyone seriously believe that Iraq didn't have chemical weapons before, or that they weren't working against the inspection process? Even the French aren't making that claim. But Powell failed to present any serious evidence of a nuclear program, and to my mind he didn't show that Iraq is a serious threat to the United States.

What amazes me about my friend is that we've argued time and time again over Iraq and whether or not we should go in. Generally i'm opposed to ill-considered action (!) but with him I always end up arguing the other side of the issue. And it's those conversations for me that have been most valuable in coming to grips with the issue. So I was amazed to hear him talk with such enthusiasm about the impending invasion - it looks like the Bush admin has staged another masterful PR coup.