March 31, 2003

A pure and simple land grab   {Comments: 16}

It looks like the preemption strategy is starting to catch on: Mayor Daley ordered an invasion of Meigs Field late last night.

Out of the loop   {Comments: 1}

Josh Marshall is exactly right:

The White House is in such a state of pandemonium and implosion that they are discarding the policy - indeed, they are positively undermining it - in the hopes of insulating the president from the immense fall-out that they can see barreling down the track. Consider also that, saying the president was "out of the loop" - seemingly a family failing - on the central policy of his administration is a devastating admission of incompetence on its own.
Also, De Spectaculis steps back from all the bickering over the apparently flawed military strategy to remind us that it was a flawed diplomatic strategy that got us into this mess to begin with.
Performances like this   {Comments: 1}

Digby responds to Rush's rant about everybody's favorite Commentator-General.

March 30, 2003

Instead, a musical illusion:   {Comments: 0}

I guess it's doubtful this will apply to anyone who's reading this... but just in case you'll be in Indianapolis on May 10 or 11, you should come see The Trio of Minuet at Clowes Hall. It's a children's opera in two acts - I wrote the libretto, and my friend David Sasso wrote the music. We've been working on it for maybe a year and a half, and it's kind of incredible that things are finally coming together. (I'll probably do a much longer post on this a little later, as the performance gets closer.)

If you'd like to come, tickets are available now from ticketmaster. There's also more information about the opera at the ICC website (they're doing the production), including sketches of costumes and set designs, and photos of some rehearsals.

If you're interested but can't make it, let me know, and I can probably get you a videotape. WFYI is supposed to do a professional recording, which will be broadcast in the Indianapolis area and perhaps beyond (?).

March 28, 2003

Primarily ideas   {Comments: 1}

Gary Hart has a weblog! Doesn't sound like it will be a daily affair, though:

I plan to use this blog for just such a discussion. From time to time, I'll post my thoughts on current policy matters, as well as share some stories about where I'm traveling and the people I'm meeting. I'll also ask some of my friends to share their thoughts as well. I cannot promise to be as skillful at this as many of those who have made the blogger universe such an important part of the internet. However, I'm committed to using the Internet as a vital tool to engage people on critical policy matters and the future of our country.
Targeting young voters via the internet is a major component of the Hart campaign strategy, so this makes sense... but it still came as a surprise to me. We'll see if he can keep it interesting. Check out the comments.

Disclaimer: In some kind of technical sense, I'm a Hart campaign volunteer, even though I haven't done anything besides send them a couple emails. I know I should get off my ass and go beg them to help out, but for a campaign focused on building grassroots support from students, they sure seem disorganized. Maybe the blog will help?

Two to tango   {Comments: 197}

Matthew Yglesias reminds us just how important Canadian trade is:

One of the goods the US imports in large quantities from Canada, for example, is car parts. Not parts that go to your local mechanic, but parts that go to car factories where they put them together into cars. No parts, no car factories. Bad news. Similarly, we get a lot of electricity from Quebec’s hydro power system - no electricity is not good for business. All this is by way of saying that while we could crush Canada like a bug (it's utterly dependent on the US export market) if we were so inclined, we’d probably have to give up several of our limbs in the process.
There's more trade between the United States and Canada than between any other two economies in the world. In fact, if Ontario were considered separately, the US and Ontario would have the world's biggest trade relationship... followed by the US and the rest of Canada.
15 min   {Comments: 0}

yin suggests the quality of the Survivor shows is declining... although I guess I'm puzzled about how you can even talk about quality in a case like this.

But I sincerely hope the show doesn't get canned, because an old friend of mine, Seth Patinkin, is apparently one of the finalists to be in the next round. Word is he's leveraging his connection with John Nash (Seth's doing a math PhD at Princeton) into a Survivor appearance, but I'm guessing there's more to it than that.

March 27, 2003

Asian invasion   {Comments: 0}

I'm not sure what to make of this. Obviously the Japanese are justified in building up their military, and perhaps it will afford them a bigger role internationally. But it's also the first step toward a frightening arms race in the Pacific.

Unfortunately, this may be what the Bush people are looking for - I seriously doubt they'd be doing this without the blessing of the US. After all, we wrote their constitution.

Commentator-in-chief   {Comments: 1}

Chris Sullenthorpe has a fun article about the cable commentator-generals, but he doesn't even mention the fact that Wesley Clark will probably run for president. In the comments to my earlier post on this, Haggai pointed out that general Clark would make a terrific National Security Advisor, which may be what he's looking for.

But I wasn't ready to rule him out as a serious contender for president, and I don't see this stint as Aaron Brown's backup helping him much. It seems to me we should be measuring him against other candidates for president, not gruff retired generals or (even worse) oily, hand-wringing anchors.

I'm a lot more interested in what he has to say about the politics of the war than the military strategy... and I get the impression he is too. Not surprisingly, his criticism the war has been totally downplayed (actually, not played at all) by CNN.

ALSO: Salon has a profile, but I can't read it all since I won't pay for it. They're really wearing me down over there.

Offline   {Comments: 0}

The Register has some more circumspect speculation about what may have happened to Al Jazeera's website, although there doesn't seem to be any doubt that the site has suffered DDoS attacks in the past couple of days. According to this article in the WP, the attacks probably originated in the United States.

Too swift on my toes...   {Comments: 0}

The latest:

Snoop Dogg is being sued by a man who left a message on his answering machine which the rapper included on his album. John Doe claims he left a voice mail for the rapper, [whose] real name is Calvin Broadus, last October. Snoop Dogg then used the phone message he left as part of a song to taunt rival, rap-mogul Suge Knight.

John Doe is suing for common law appropriation of voice and intentional infliction of emotional distress, according to court papers filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.

I'm not sure about "intentional infliction of emotional distress", but I've often wondered just what provision in the law allows hiphop artists to appropriate just about anything in their music. Maybe it's considered a quotation, like the one above? Or maybe it's somehow protected as parody?
The master plan   {Comments: 0}

Go read Josh Marshall's article on what the neocons are really after.

UPDATE: So I guess this is just part of the plan (thanks, Sean Paul).

This man is magnificent   {Comments: 0}

Kevin Drum is surprised that Ari Fleischer has his own fan club, but I'm not. There's something magical about the White House press secretaries... ever since Mike McCurry's acrobatic question-dodging during the Lewinsky affair I've had a little bit of an obsession. I was even thinking of sending Ari a gift when I saw that he'd registered at Target - but then I realized I'd probably be investigated, and probably not by the press office!

Asian contagion   {Comments: 0}

Canada and Hong Kong have both moved to quarantine SARS sufferers - this a day after China admitted there have been 797 cases of the illness there. If it's true that SARS is related to the common cold, this may end up being as big a story as the war... and it'll start with the bizarre secrecy of the Chinese government.

March 26, 2003

One man's terrorist   {Comments: 0}

Mark Kleiman has some incisive comments about the DOD's predilection for calling the Saddam Fedayeen and other irregular fighters "terrorists."

Short-term strains   {Comments: 1}

Calpundit links to this story about the Bush admin's latest insult to Canada - this time it's a veiled threat to trade (and by the way, they're our biggest trade partnerby far). It would be nice to assume Paul Cellucci was off the reservation, but the comment looks remarkably similar to what Bush himself said to Mexicans - the only difference being that the Mexicans (or at least their relatives in America) can expect to meet with actual violence. You have to wonder what they're saying to Vlad behind the scenes.

Nerves of steel   {Comments: 0}

The steel tariffs Bush imposed just after entering office in 2001 were illegal, according to the World Trade Organization. At the time, the tariffs were seen as a potentially dangerous blow to international relations, and were criticized by the right and left. Russian firms were some of the worst victims of the policy, one of the reasons they imposed a ban on American chicken.

Typically, when a country imposes tariffs like these, they're stricken down by the WTO after years of legal battles. But in the meantime, the damage is already done - both in terms of the relevant foreign industries and any retaliatory action. Obviously the Bush administration's policy here is the root problem, but it also underscores the need for an international trade authority with some teeth.

UPDATE: Josh Chafetz takes this as a sign that some international institutions do work. I'll be happy to call this a victory, but three years of illegal tariffs can do a lot of damage. Retaliations like the Russian ban on American chicken (which is itself subject to some WTO investigations, I believe) wouldn't be necessary if we had a faster trade authority with some real power.

Escalation watch   {Comments: 0}

The North Koreans are threatening to quit the armistice. This comes after a week of direct threats to the Japanese, apparent preparations to test-launch a long-range ballistic missile, and claims that the US will invade the DPRK as soon as Iraq has been dealt with.

The Bush administration needs to deal with this problem now. If the plan is to ultimately negotiate an agreement whereby the North Koreans accept some kind of aid (a light water reactor, maybe?) for giving up their plutonium and uranium, they need to start talking. If the plan is to allow our allies in the region to do our negotiating for us, they need to find a way to motivate those allies. And if - as seems to be the case - they don't have a plan, well, they damn well better get one.

Our home and native land   {Comments: 0}

Matthew Yglesias explains why he's always posting about Canadian politics. I'd actually been wondering what was up with those posts... I've been watching them pretty closely because of some dotted connections I have with the country (various trips to Canada, friends, that Quebecois last name of mine) and it's made me want to get to know the political situation there a little better. Whether I'll start posting about it seriously myself is still up in the air, but I do think there's a lot to be gained from paying our friends to the north a little attention, now and then.

Also, there's this:

Lastly, though, I write about Canada in part just because one of the biggest problem with blogs is that it's hard to offer something different from what a thousand other bloggers are doing. You don't see a lot of Americans writing about Canada, so if that can be a part of my niche, then so much the better.
Not a a bad idea...
Countergambit   {Comments: 0}

The latest on the war is that Iraqi military forces (not the Fedeyeen Saddam, who've given us the most trouble up to now) are mounting two large counteroffensives against coalition positions near Baghdad and Basra. In the latter instance, a large force of tanks apparently broke out of Basra and headed due south, presumably toward coalition forces in Kuwait.

To me, this is really ominous news. It seems to mean that Iraqi forces are operating under some kind of central control, probably timing the attack to take advantage of the sandstorms throughout the area at the moment. While it doesn't seem likely these forces pose a serious threat, this news doesn't bode well for the Republican guard surrendering. It's looking more and more like we'll be faced with a bloody urban fight for Baghdad.

UPDATE: It's turning out to be a highly coordinated attack. According to Sean Paul, the Iraqis managed to retake one of the Basra airports, and have some British troops surrounded. Very bad.

Hate crime?   {Comments: 0}

Jeff Cooper links to this frightening incident in Indianpolis Monday. Still no indication about what the motive was - but Indianapolis isn't exactly known for its organized crime...

On the rolls   {Comments: 0}

I've added several new sites to the blogroll and rearranged things a little. I'll probably spend some time in the next week or so categorizing things, since it's all a little jumbled at the moment.

March 24, 2003

Command and control   {Comments: 0}

Another interesting thing about these accusations is that they seem to be directed at the Iraqi regime, when US officials have said repeatedly that Saddam is losing control of his forces - that they haven't seen any organized resitance. If Saddam has lost control of his forces, it hardly makes sense to blame all this "perfidy" on the Iraqi regime.

Flagrant foul   {Comments: 0}

I'm listening to US officials condemning the tactics of enemy forces in southern Iraq and I'm wondering if they really expected these guys to stand up for a "fair" fight. All day they've been throwing around the Rules of War (along with some pretty creative interpretations of the Geneva Conventions) as if this war were some kind of basketball game. Torie Clarke even compared the Iraqi resistance to terrorism.

Obviously these kinds of tactics - dressing as civilians, or pretending to surrender - have awful consequences for future encounters, and will probably cost Iraqi civilian lives in teh long run. But terrorism? I can't really imagine Iraqi soldiers fighting a pitched battle against American forces - but maybe that's what US officials mean by a fair fight? Sounds more like a slaughter to me.

By the way, let's not forget who started this war. How do you suppose Americans would react to an attack on the US homeland? I'm guessing we'd find the bastards responsible, lock them up at an offshore military installation, and feel totally justified in taking away their civil rights.

Extortion   {Comments: 0}

WFYI - that's Indianapolis Public Radio - has chosen to go ahead with their spring pledge drive this week. They'll be back to their quality programming, just as soon as they've reached their goals...

MORE: Jeff Cooper agrees.

March 23, 2003

Call me unconventional   {Comments: 0}

Rumsfeld and his generals are making a lot of noise about the Geneva Conventions for US POWs. The specific complaint - that the Iraqis were humiliating them by asking them questions and showing them on television - seems a little thin. But the question I have is how this squares with our treatment of Taliban POWs, who as I recall were blindfolded in outdoor pens at Guantanamo, and against the Geneva Convention.

Doubtless someone will condemn the analogy, since the captured afghans were "terrorists" - and ultimately I think that's how the US escaped its responsbilities, by labelling them "illegal combatants." But I think what makes something like this a convention in the first place is that it's applied uniformly - and the US failure to toe the line with the Taliban (regardless of the particularities) renders the declarations today a little flat.

Half flip   {Comments: 0}

Just saw Anecita Hudson on CNN... kind of exploitative if you ask me, but it confirmed my suspicion that Joseph Hudson is half Filipino. This won't make much difference to most people, but I am also half Filipino, and I felt an additional layer of connection with him because of that. There haven't been too many half Filipino public figures, with the unfortunate exception of Andrew Cunanan (!), so I feel compelled to point out that Mr Hudson comported himself with dignified defiance. I sure hope he makes it home.

No fly zone   {Comments: 0}

In Chicago.

Assymetrical information   {Comments: 0}

Haven't been posting in a couple days, mainly because I've been in St. Louis, but also because since the war started I've had much less to say. I don't know why I expected the reverse to be true - I guess I underestimated the speed with which the war would develop, the speed with which my eyes would glaze over. For some reason I've read less and watched more; and I get the sense that others are doing the same.

Mickey Kaus had a post Friday (sorry, can't figure out the permalink) about the role of blogging in wartime where he sounded a lot like I did last week:

During war, for example, there's a tendency to buy the government's line for a few days - in part out of patriotism, in part in order to not offend sources, in part to not offend viewers and readers. Blogs can be a source of skeptical analysis - see item below - especially when the "facts" come so fast and furious they simply can't be analyzed fast enough (even without a pro-government bias) except by harnessing the distributed analytic power of the blogosphere! ... Bloggers can also speculate about information that reporters are constrained from disclosing for security reasons. (Since they're only bloggers, no enemy would believe them!) ... And there are some bloggers - "Salam Pax" being the most obvious example - who are simply in a position to know things others have a hard time finding out.
I think this is partly right - some bloggers have been able to provide some interesting analysis of the war, and others have done a terrific job of synthesizing the vast amount of information floating around out there (just how has The Agonist has become my most trusted news source?). But for the most part, all these reports are a conflicting mess, and that makes it hard to respond on any but the most basic factual level - probably the weakest level for bloggers, who like me tend to be sitting at their computers, chattering about events thousands of miles away.
March 20, 2003

The first day   {Comments: 0}

Well I've given up on trying to keep close track of events here... again, The Agonist is doing a terrific job of updating events in real-time. He seemed a little concerned that he didn't have time to give any commentary/analysis, but the service he's providing is phenomenal. I hope the bandwidth isn't putting him in the poorhouse - and if it is, I hope he'll make it known.

After 24 hrs things seem pretty good on the war front. None of the most immediate dangers for the war itself - chemical weapons use, burning oil wells, house-to-house fighting, terrorist reprisals - have really materialized. I find that I'm impressed with the Bush admin's apparent restraint and precision with the use of military force... if only their diplomacy were so accurate! I don't by any means think we've passed the dangerous stage of this - and obviously nothing the US can do militarily will reverse the bankrupt policies that brought us to war in the first place. But for now at least - until the smoke clears - there's reason for optimism.

MORE: If you're feeling optimistic too, Michael Kinsley is a good cold shower.

The crux of the biscuit   {Comments: 0}

A quick thanks to Ruminate This, Apostropher, and The Scope for the links.

Eliminate this   {Comments: 0}

Lisa English tells us how to help fight the elimination of the estate tax, which due to a sunset provision has to pass through Congress again before 2010 to stay in effect.

Close to home   {Comments: 0}

Protestors have shut down Lake Shore Drive!

Looking presidential   {Comments: 0}

Does it strike anybody else as strange that Wesley Clark - a probable contender for the Democratic nomination in 2004 - has spent half the day on CNN explaining military tactics? I guess it will help raise his profile, but he certainly doesn't look very presidential.

Empty flasks   {Comments: 0}

ABC has this report about ricin in the Gare de Lyon (the Paris subway).

UPDATE: It turns out the flasks were found back on 3/17, although this may not be partcularly ressauring.

UPDATE: The BBC makes it sound like the flasks were full, not empty. That is somewhat reassuring.

The home front   {Comments: 0}

According to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in AZ, along with other such facilities, may be the target of Al Qaeda terrorist operations. CNN and FOX are reporting the the FBI is looking for one individual in particular who recently evaded surveillance and is a trained pilot; I can't confirm this from the FBI website.

UPDATE: His name is Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, accoridng to the NYT.

Strategic misrepresentation   {Comments: 0}

Counterspin theorizes that the Tariq Aziz defection rumors were disinformation by US intelligence designed to flush out Saddam's location - apparently with some success.

Breaking news   {Comments: 0}

Some war-related stories:

Iraqi oil wells ablaze

US artillery strikes inside Iraq

War draws condemnation

Bush administration questions Hussein video

Turkey opens airspace to US

I plan to be here through the day, but check out The Agonist for real-time updates.
March 19, 2003

Talking strategy   {Comments: 0}

Maybe it's a little soon to be speculating on the war plan (!), but here's how I see it so far. Recent weeks have seen more and more talk about the "shock and awe" plan of bombing Baghdad back to the stone age in the first 24 hours. Instead, we seem to be seeing precision attacks on leadership positions. So, after setting up an expectation of spectacular attacks (with lots of collateral damage) in the minds of Iraqis, doesn't what we're seeing now look exceedingly rational and precise?

There may even be something to the fact that the attack began right at daybreak... Iraqis woke up this morning not to widespread destruction, but to precision attacks against leadsership targets. I'm reading this as a wider strategy to win the allegiance of the Iraqi people. We'll see how it works out...

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias also wonders if "shock and awe" was misinformation. If so, CNN et al are doing a great job of keeping it alive - "we'll know it when we see it" and all that.

War and utility maximization   {Comments: 0}

Matthew Yglesias writes:

Probably the strongest point the anti-war bloggers have made in the past couple days is pointing to this "Salam Pax" post explaining that he is less-than-enthusiastic about the prospect of having his country bombed by the United States.

This raises, I think, an important normative issue. Normally, one would think that one of the strongest justifications country A could have for waging war against country B is that the population of B favors such a course of action. Now it may or may not be the case that Salam is speaking for the majority of Iraqis on this point, but even if he is not, his post reminds us that some of the civilians killed in war will be civilians who were against the war. If you're comfortable applying a brute utilitarian calculus to these sorts of decisions, it doesn't really make a difference whether the dead civilians were pro- or anti-war, but if you're not this seems to matter.

If you're looking at the interests of the Iraqi people as a whole, I'm not sure you have a whole lot of tools at your disposal - here, the "brute utilitarian calculus" is the weapon of choice. When you have this many players, is there any other practical way of summing utilities? I can't think of any.

You could argue that including death (the most extreme possible outcome for an individual) in the analysis skews the equation so much that it's impossible to make any kind of rational choices. This is similar to the argument I made against creating a market for kidneys - that allowing death as a potential outcome puts entire fortunes in play, as the relevant utility function approaches infinity. Weighting death according to this kind of skewed utility - in the context of war or otherwise - just leads to the point where any risk of fatality is enough to paralyze us. If individuals consciously assume responsbility by supporting the war, their preferences don't exhibit the same distortion; but especially with a large population, won't a single naysayer will be enough to make the system impractical?

How did things get so messed up?   {Comments: 0}

According to MSNBC: No compensation for the Turks, overflight rights for the US, and Turkish troops in northern Iraq.

Further reading...   {Comments: 0}

War related news/analysis of varying scope:

US forces to use depleted uranium

Plastic sheeting and masking tape

Rounding up Iraqi-Americans (via TalkLeft)

Al Qaeda attacks a "near certainty"

The rejigging of the western alliance

The hidden costs of peace

Fred Kaplan's gameday preview

Also, check out Fred Kagan's disturbing take on the possibility of further escalations from the DPRK while we're distracted. Here's the apt comparison with Pearl Harbor:
This same combination of hostility, damaging policies and military weakness convinced the Japanese that the time had come to attack in December 1941. Interestingly, they had no expectation that they could defeat us in a war then. They hoped instead to force a change in our policies by attacking when we were distracted. What might the North Koreans try in a similar vein if they, too, become convinced that an attack or its plausible threat could lead to a negotiated settlement instead of all-out war?
To me this seems like a stretch, but who knows? There are plenty of other parallels to be drawn between the Japanese of 1941 and the North Koreans of today. But I think the conventional wisdom (and it's called wisdom for a reason) is that the Koreans are looking for some bilateral negotaion here, not a war.

So it's kind of odd when Kagan concludes we need to call up more military forces to respond to the potential threat. Maybe there's less incendiary approach we could take here?

I think the word is dignity   {Comments: 0}

The Guardian has published some emails Rachel Corrie sent to her family before she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer. Obviously they present a certain perspective on the conflict, but I found them more interesting for the insight they give into her personality - why she was there to begin with, how the experience was changing her, etc. Definitely worth a look.

UPDATE: I just wanted to express my unqualified revulsion/disgust at the related comment strings over at LGF. It's been a while since I spent any time on some of the more conservative blogs, and maybe today wasn't the best time to go back...

Kiss me and I'll kiss you back   {Comments: 0}

Smiling Politely has added me to his blogroll, so I'll return the favor. Amazingly, his blog is newer than mine! Today there are some interesting links about the legality of the war.

March 18, 2003

Gaming the Turks   {Comments: 0}

Apparently the Turks are going to vote again on whether to allow American forces - although it's not clear that this concession will come soon enough for the current schedule. As I understand it, American hardware has been in Turkey for some time, but off-base.

The Turks have really been dragged through the mud for their opportunism, and no doubt cynics will have the same reaction to this late-breaking change of heart. But as I've explained before, the Turks have more at stake here than just a payout from the US government. The US invasion of Iraq will have huge unintended (but not unforeseen) consequences for Turkey. They're facing a humanitarian crisis of colossal proportions, whether they choose to aid the US or not. A Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq could have political consequences as well.

But US troops on that northern front would minimize the political danger to Turkey, and US payouts would help defray the costs of the refugee crisis in terms of damage to the Turkish economy. So why didn't the Turks vote to provide bases for US troops before?

The only satisfying answer seems to be the bungled diplomacy of the Bush administration. Because of widespread opposition to the war in the Turkish public, the Turkish parliament had incentives to vote against providing bases, especially when there was still talk of a diplomatic solution; the US apparently failed to offer and a compensation package that neutralized those incentives. Now that war is a certainty, they're backed into a corner, so in a sense, we've called the bluff. But the potential consequences for Turkey - historically a close ally of the US - are grave.

UPDATE: Now it's looking like the vote is only for flyover rights, which won't help much with the refugee problem. At this point Turkey intentds to send troops into northern Iraq, which could be a nightmare scenario if Turkish troops clash with Iraqi (or Turkish) Kurds.

Developing institutions   {Comments: 0}

Mark W. Anderson (via Sean-Paul Kelly) has a compelling draft manifesto for the role of weblogs in society.

The president's precedent   {Comments: 0}

Eugene Volokh says the precedents set by our war in Iraq won't matter:

[P]recedents chiefly influence those who care about equality and consistency and those willing to defer to the precedent-setter's judgment. The Chinese government, to take Howard Dean's example, fits neither category. When China is deciding whether or not to invade Taiwan, it will focus on its own interests, not on being consistent with what other governments have done. And Chinese officials are unlikely to be influenced by America's judgment about when a war is just: They simply don't respect our views the same way that we might respect our own Supreme Court or Congress.
I expect it's true that the Chinese will act in their own interests, but won't America's projected reaction figure into the equation somewhere? I suppose I'm making his argument for him here, since China will shocked and awed by the demonstration American military might... or maybe they'll be emboldened by our failure to deal with the DPRK?

Truth be told, my biggest concern about the precedents of this war isn't for countries like India and Pakistan. I'm much more concerned about how a successful war might reinforce destructive behaviors on the part of our good president. After all, the person he seems to be best at convincing is himself!

Just a war   {Comments: 0}

Lawrence Solum has some informative resources on just war theory.

Link propagation   {Comments: 0}

It's not clear to me why Archpundit is such a good source for local Chicago news/analysis, since he has a huge section on his sidebar devoted to St. Louis (and he's Archpundit, after all).

March 17, 2003

Don't believe everything you read   {Comments: 0}

By the way, one thing about wartime is that suddenly we're faced with disinformation and propaganda, where in peactime we might have been more able to trust the media (?!). I think that's where blogging becomes so important - this network of informed and challenging readers has the potential to really chew through the bullshit sensationalism/hysteria. While there isn't much in the way of primary sources, the collective synthesis and digestion of the blog world is at least as strong as that of the traditional press, and it's incredibly important.

I for one (after my exam tomorrow, at least) intend to step up the blogging activities as the war begins, and I hope others will do the same.

Shock and awe   {Comments: 0}

As the war gets closer, there are plenty for reasons for alarm. The heightened alert status and all of the 10 minutes Bush spent on interpreting yet-to-occur terrorist attacks are probably are probably the biggest surprises for the night. It only seems logical that terrorists would time their attacks to coincide with the beginning of a US invasion of Iraq; Bush seemed to think there might be Iraqi terrorists in the mix as well. There's also the potential for terroist attacks against any occupation force - probably the biggest threat, after Bush himself, to the fragile hopes for an Iraqi democracy.

Then there's Saddam, who - if he hasn't left or been ousted within the next 48 hours - will be up against a wall, with literally nothing left to lose. If he was willing to use chemical weapons against his own people, will he really hesitate to use them against American troops, or Israel, or whoever else hppens to be standing by? He may have other nasty surprises in store for us as well... I fully expect him to blow up his oil wells before the 48 hours have even elapsed. This would be tragic not only from the perspective of paying for the occupation/reconstruction, but also because of the huge impact burning oils wells would have on the environment.

Obviously it's alarming that we're going into this with our international reputation in tatters, against the will of the people of the world, not to mention the UNSC. This will have consequences for almost anything we do on the international stage, but it's particularly relevant for the reconstruction/occupation period, or if the war goes badly. To his credit, Bush seemed to set the disagreements aside in his speech tonight, but the damage here is severe.

All along, one of my biggest objections to this war has been the precedent it sets for US intervention elsewhere. I've never seen the possession chemical weapons as a legitimate casus belli, but the idea of throwing the vile Saddam Hussein out of Iraq and founding a dempocratic government there holds some attraction for me. Obviously we've failed to bring the rest of the world into the fold on this - which is why people like Tom Friedman and Josh Marshall have been backing away from their pro-war stances in recent days. But to me, the problem we're facing with war in Iraq is way bigger than Saddam Hussein or wmd. What we're really talking about here is starting a war where there is no imminent danger to us. Our leaders, based on information invisible (still!) to the public, have determined that Iraq poses a threat, and they are resolved to remove that threat by force. In the past, this kind of war has always been known as a war of aggression.

But a successful war in Iraq will be a vindication of this policy, which may lead not only to further military adventuring by the Bush admin, but increased (and justified) paranoia on the part of some already paranoid countries. I'm talking not just about North Korea, but about Pakistan, Iran... even India, China, and Russia. It's this threat of a rearranged balance of world power that I most fear. And it's this threat that has me torn about the war effort, even on the eve of the invasion.

Fuzzy math   {Comments: 0}

Matthew Yglesias comments on the latest projections for Medicare insolvency:

Obviously, these sorts of predictions are more art than science, but I'm guessing that the combination of costly war, costly tax cuts, costly occupation, and costly addition of a prescription drug benefit is not going to make the situation any better.
Hear, hear. These kinds of insolvency predictions for Medicare and Social Security are almost impossible to gauge because it's never clear whether they include payouts from the current payroll tax surplus, or whether those surplusses are being allocated against future disbursements (a "lockbox"). Of course, there's no such thing as a lockbox - even under Clinton, we were using that surplus to buy back govt bonds - that is, to pay down the natl debt.
A long way from celebrity   {Comments: 0}

Brad DeLong has an interesting economic analysis of how positive feedback links are affecting your blogroll... mostly so far I'm apparently suffering from "linkrot".

Speaking of links, thanks to Jeff Cooper, Amygdala, and The Agonist for their links in the past couple days. Glad I can help with their b1...

March 16, 2003

The death of nonviolence   {Comments: 0}

The more I think about this the more disturbing it is. The IDF obviously has a mandate to defend Israel from terrorist attacks, but I don't see anything suggesting Rachel Corrie was assoiciated with terrorists. Instead, she was engaging in the kind of legitimate non-violent protest that we associate with some of the 20th century's biggest heroes.

In other words, this is behavior to be encouraged. Arrest her? Maybe. Run her over with a bulldozer? I'm having visions of Tiananmen square.

Let's put this in historical context   {Comments: 0}

Dick Cheney's appearance on Meet the Press this morning was, well, notable for its coherence. Obviously he didn't say anything to change my mind, but I at least some of the motivations were laid out. For me, only one shocker:

We’ve been forced, partly because we were hit on 9/11, to come to grips with that very real possibility that the next attack could involve far deadlier weapons than anything the world had ever seen.
Not to suggest the threat isn't serious, or even draw a structural parallel with the situation, but didn't we drop not one but two atomic bombs (via Metafilter) on Japan in ww2? Claiming that the world has never seen nuclear weapons used before betrays a serious lack of humility and perspective on the part of the vice president.
Dos Mais   {Comments: 0}

Got to see Moreno Veloso +2 at the Old Town School Friday night. I've been anticipating this concert for a long time, since Music Typewriter has been one of my favorite albums of the last year. For those who don't know the music, it combines samba and traditional Brazilian music with tastefully manipulated electronica. I was a little worried about how the sampled sounds would operate in a live performance, but everything came together perfectly, thanks to the nimble drum-machining of Domenico Lancellotti. (According to this Guardian old review, Domenico has his own album forthcoming.)

Along the same lines, what I usually wonder with this kind of music is how highly planned things are. They did some of the songs just as they are on the album, which suggests a lot of planning and polishing. Other songs were changed dramatically, but the arrangements were complex - sudden tempo changes, etc - stuff they weren't doing on the spot. Their stage presence had exactly the opposite message of course... they were disorganized, spontaneous, and charming. But the real creative power seemed to be located in the precision of the electronica, which is naturally pre-sturctured and planned.

At any rate, I had a great time, and when they come back to Chicago I'll get tickets in second. Looking for their next album, too.

March 14, 2003

Microsurgery   {Comments: 0}

CSMonitor has a cute little article (via Metafilter) about extracting all French linguistic influence from English. It's a pretty trick, worthy of OuLiPo even (although to be consistent, the techniques of OuLiPo are probably verboten). Don't know what we'll do when the Germans start voting against us. Oh, wait...

A question of priorities   {Comments: 0}

First a lethal blast on a Mumbai train; then the discovery of a cache of bombs in a Delhi train station; and finally this afternoon a bloody confrontation with Kashmiri militants.

But check out this hour's top story at the Times of India.

The scale of weird ideas   {Comments: 0}

Calpundit theorizes that Colin Powell has threatened to resign if the US goes to war without a UN resolution - and that this threat is what's kept us from going in up to now. I think this is highly unlikely. A couple of months back, Powell might have been our first best hope of avoiding a war, but something changed in him. In recent week he's closed ranks with the rest of the Bush people, and now it's to the point where they're using him to project that multilateralist image, but he's also the one ratcheting up the warlike rhetoric at the UNSC.

People have been saying a lot of things today about Bush's 30-second news conference, the motivations behind the timing, etc. What interested me about it was that Powell came along, just to stand there, mute, next to his president. They're spending his credibility hand over fist... and they couldn't do it without his blessing.

Peace dove and budget hawk   {Comments: 0}

The NYT has some good character development on Carol Mosely Braun. Still no website, but it's pretty damned funny to see what comes up when you type in go ahead and try it.

Questions of travel   {Comments: 0}

I've been doing a pretty awful job of updating the blogroll lately, but to make up for it I've just added several big fish to the list. In addition to the lefties, I'm also adding cloudtravel, which is a travel-blog. This will be of particular interest to my sister, who runs the online travel magazine The Long Trip Home. No links, unfortunately, but as I discover more travel related sites I'll be adding them, probably in a section all their own.

March 13, 2003

We've got the treasure!   {Comments: 0}

All this week Slate has had a wonderful series on Montreal by Gary Shteyngart. Mr Shteyngart has apparently spent this week trying to see Montreal through the eyes of one of his favorite authors, one Mordecai Richler. I myself hadn't heard of Richler, but I liked Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook enough that I'll take his advice and pick up a copy of Barney's Version.

The articles are great travel writing, but I especially enjoyed them because I've spent some time in Montreal. A friend and I have made a habit of driving up there for a couple of days at a time (usually in winter, when the weather here in Chicago just isn't cold enough for us). Typically we sneak up through the cold Canada night, stick around for a couple of grand dinners and a breakfast of eggs benedict, and smuggle back a case or two of French wine.

For what I guess are demographic reasons, we don't usually end up in the same places Shteynhgart's been visiting - the Auberge de Jeunesse is a far cry from the Ritz-Carlton. But the flavors (literally and figuratively) are familiar, and Shteyngart puts them all in their places. More than anything, he makes me want to go back for a few days... maybe this summer? In the meantime, I suppose I can settle for a good book.

Stalemate   {Comments: 0}

The latest: Mr Powell is considering dropping the resolution altogether. So much for getting everyone's cards on the table. Meanwhile, all of the pieces seem to be in position.

I wonder how much of this will even be remembered after the war. If we successfully capture Saddam and quickly gain control of the country, will the diplomacy start up again? It's hard to imagine France and the rest of the opposition refusing to play a role in postwar Iraq. On the other hand, getting Saddam and taking control may not be so easy.

After the hit   {Comments: 0}

Jeanne d'Arc is doing a great job covering the corporate interests and the Christmas presents they'll be getting after the war. The stuff about Halliburton is esecially nauseating:

The Bush administration, preparing what would be the most ambitious U. S. rebuilding project since the aftermath of World War II, expects in coming days to award a construction contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars to begin remaking Iraq, U.S. officials said Monday.

The huge umbrella contract, the first to be awarded, would pay for construction and repairs to roads and bridges, as well as schools, hospitals and mosques, officials said. Other large deals are under negotiation to jump- start a reconstruction effort that would follow an overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

A handful of U.S. construction giants - including San Francisco's Bechtel Group Inc. as well as Halliburton Co. and Fluor Corp. - were invited to bid for the work on an emergency basis. Analysts said the companies hope to win the contract and position themselves for such future projects as the repair and development of the country's oil industry.

It's interesting that British firms weren't invited to bid for the work. From what I heard of the British parliament debate yesterday, it sounds like they're incensed about the Bush admin's failure to include them for these contracts. It does look like the Brits will get some of the oil contracts, but as I understand it, under international law the occupying powers will have to honor contracts made by the departing government. It's sure to be a big brawl, since Russia and France have all the contracts now.
Power to the people?   {Comments: 0}

Nathan Newman has a couple of posts on the legitmacy of the filibuster as an institution. He agrees with the Republicans who've been calling it "undemocratic", but he doesn't think it needs to be thrown out. He goes on to say we should impose a 60-vote supermajority rule for judicial appointments.

First of all, it's hard to see how a filibuster is undemocratic. I guess if you take democracy to mean "majority rules" then there's an argument to be made; but democracy American-style stresses individual rights almost as much as the power of the majority. This means, for instance, that we have a Bill of Rights that protecting minorities from being overrun by majority interest.

But filibusters aren't even discussed in the constitution - they're actually part of the instutional rules governing the functioning of the Senate. They're designed to protect strong majorities from being manhandled if they're a vote or two shy - which means they protect the status quo.

But even though 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster, allowing filibusters isn't the same thing as requiring a 60-vote majority in the first place. The thing is, filibusters have a high cost politically, so the strong minority has an incentive to use them only rarely. That's why, from an institutional design perspective, they're so ingenious. Requiring 60 votes on every issue - whether we're talking judicial appointments or legislation - would make it next to impossible to get anything done. But having a disincentivized 60-vote option availiable protects the strong minority when it really matters.

March 12, 2003

Absent a congressional declaration of war   {Comments: 0}

The 1st Circuit should have a ruling on presidential war powers in the next couple days, according to this WP story. Courts dismissed a similar case in 91, but apparently this case has more merit since Congress has (some would say prematurely) passed a resolution authorizing a war. This is what interests me most:

The plaintiffs in this case argue that the constitutional founders wanted to forestall a monarchical executive who might squander the treasury and thousands of young lives on war. By giving Congress the right to declare war, the plaintiffs argue, the Founding Fathers situated war-making powers in the most representative wing of government.
I had always thought of this as a separation of powers issue, but it makes sense to vest the power to declare war with the most representative branch of government. I don't have any illusions that Bush would fail to get a declaration, but in a time of rapidly expanding executive power, this is attractive. Given our new strategy of deficit-funded preemption, the stuff about a monarchical executive squandering the treasury seems awfully relevant.
Nuclear family   {Comments: 0}

I think the documents referred to in this article must be related to the framework agrement, which promised the DPRK a light water reactor. Still, it's awfully strange that they're allowing this to continue.

March 11, 2003

The closest thing to a war on terror   {Comments: 0}

Re Richard Perle's comment about Seymour Hersh being "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist"; it occurs to me that this tells us as much about what Mr Perle thinks of terrorists as it tells us about what he thinks of Hersh. Why is Hersh a terrorist?

Because he sets out to do damage and he will do it by whatever innuendo, whatever distortion he can - look, he hasn't written a serious piece since My Lai.
Note that Perle doesn't bother with Hersh's arguments. Instead he goes right for the jugular - Hersh's tactics. By declaring innuendo and distortion out-of-bounds, he relieves himself from any responsibility for what Hersh actually says. And of course, the same goes for real-world terrorists. Rather than acknowledge their ideologies and causes, Perle places them - al Qaeda, the Palestinians, the Chechans, even Saddam Hussein - in the evil category.

It's true that not everybody plays fair, but in at least some of these cases, our enemies are rational actors. Why not deal with them as such? I guess it's easier to just call them terrorists and leave it at that.

March 10, 2003

The science of economics?   {Comments: 0}

I don't know if Scientific American generally thinks of economics as a science, but they don't seem to have very scientific standards when it comes to their economics contributions. They've showcased Terrence Healey, a biochemist and administrator at the University of Buckingham who apparently dabbles in economics, in an interview about the economics of science funding.

He has this to say about the growth of the Japanese economy:

I very rapidly discovered that, of all the lead industrial countries, Japan--the country investing least in science--was growing fastest. Japanese science grew spectacularly under laissez-faire. Its science was actually purer than that of the U.K. or the U.S. The countries with the next least investment were France and Germany, and were growing next fastest. And the countries with the maximum investment were the U.S., Canada and U.K., all of which were doing very badly at the time.
This is about as far from a scientific argument as one could imagine. There's an incredible number of inputs to GDP growth, and I can't imagine that government-funded scientific reasearch, as a tiny, tiny fraction of GDP, has a controlling influence on growth. Then there's the problem of whether scientific research conducted today would be relevant to growth today or growth tomorrow. And then there's the whole issue of scientific research as a public good, which he apparently has left for an upcoming book.

George Solow showed that in the long run, technological change is the only source of growth for an economy. But that doesn't mean that all growth is related to scientific research, especially in the rapidly growing economies of East Asia. Japan or Korea's impressive growth may have had something to do with technical change, but the kinds of technologies we're talking about here are not new science. Rather, they're things like better infrastructure and human capital, and the already existing technlogies that come with those things. For countries like the UK and US (and by now, the Japanese as well), introducing better education or infrastructure alone may not produce the same miracle results, because it's no longer possible to pull in technical changes that have worked elsewhere. Finding better technologies instead becomes a matter for scientists.

Ill be the first to concede that in free markets (as long as they have decent patent laws and enforcement) private firms have incentives to provide some new science. But no matter how you look at it, certain kinds of research will be left up to the government. The first example that comes to mind is the internet, which started out as a military and scientific research platform. Ultimately, we have seen and will continue to see huge productivity growth, but a single firm, or even a coalition, would've had no reason to build it.

MORE: Here's an unforgiving review of Kealey's first book, also via Scientific American.

Additives   {Comments: 0}

I'm adding several weblogs to the blogroll, but I'll only mention one for now, Rebecca's Pocket, as in what's in it? I single her out because I just read and enjoyed her book on weblogs. A lot of what she says is common sense, but her attitude and approach are wise even beyond the realm of blogs (!).

Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again   {Comments: 0}

According to this article from the London Times (via tedbarlow), Bush Sr is making some noise about his son's approach to foreign policy. This isn't really a surprise, after the high-profile article by Brent Snowcroft a couple weeks back, but considering W's obsession with loyalty, this may be one for the tabloids.

He knows a lot about foreign policy   {Comments: 0}

Gabriel Wildau (via CalPundit) takes apart Howard Dean's performance on Meet the Press yesterday, and I'm inclined to agree with him. For someone who's making this stand a central part of his push, Dean sure didn't sound like he knew what he was talking about. But then, I've gotten that impression from him all along.

A much more consistent/compelling policy statement comes from Gary Hart in yesterday's Post.

Dropping the dismal   {Comments: 0}

Today Odyssey was about economics and finding ways to work around the rationality stipulation for utility. On the whole I wasn't very impressed with what they had to say on the issue, although Philip Mirowski made the sensible enough argument that trying to endogenize altruism and other extra-rational behavior is simply not the realm of economics. Most of the professors I've encountered here at school seem to share that view - they'll bring up extra-rational behavior, only to brush it aside as difficult to seriously address with the tools of microeconomics. There are people doing serious work on this stuff, most notably Amartya Sen, who focuses on situations where individuals - seemingly irrationally - act in the interests of others. (There are zillions of related links, but unfortunately none seems to give access to any of Mr Sen's very accessible writing.)

About Odyssey, I should mention that I've always been a fan of the show, but less so recently. Along with a lot of people, I went through that Gretchen Helfrich crush stage, but these days I find her shows really stale and self-satisfied. Probably it's the parade of academics... the perspective of some of these people is so limited - which would be fine, except that there's rarely anything to anchor the discussions in reality. The show works best when there are non-academic "experts" there to balance things out a little - journalists, policy makers, she even had Rick Bayless once. Now that was worth listening to.

A new world order   {Comments: 0}

I don't know how many posts I've read about hawks on the left recanting, but I can't resist counting my friend in Mexico part of the trend. He wrote just now decrying the US govt as "the biggest freaking thugs on the block". I guess the business about no "official" retaliation against Mexican Americans for a no vote has really hit home down there.

My own position has changed somewhat as well, just in the month that I've been writing here. I'm still opposed (with shades of ambivalence) to a war, especially where the justification is weapons of mass destruction. But I've become increasingly terrified by the Bush admin's handling of the issue, from the bungled intelligence gathering activities to the veiled threats against Mexican Americans. I'm starting to see this war as one that will change the world order for the worse, and it's put me in the extremely uncomfortable position of hoping that we won't succeed, because of the frightening precedents it would set.

(Lest this be taken the wrong way, I'm referring to our political efforts, not the military campaign - if we're going to war, I'm hoping for a short war, and more importantly one that puts a democratic government in Iraq.)

Killer app   {Comments: 0}

I recently started using Mozilla, and I appreciate it so much I feel it deserves some free advertisement here. The browser is, to be sure, slightly less stable than the Internet Explorer I was using, but in exchange I get the ability to eliminate popup ads, or even banner ads (though I haven't yet used this feature, thanks to Matthew Haughey's guilt trip).

By the way, the change isn't any kind of Microsoft protest - I used to be one of those people who spent time investigating workable workarounds for Microsoft products, but Bill Gates's hefty donations to the third world have pretty much won me over - or a least, I'm not unduly prejudiced against his products anymore.

March 9, 2003

Undervaluing your spare kidney   {Comments: 0}

Brian Weatherson responds to my response to his post on the arguments surrounding organ sales:

We could allow organ sales but ban private organ purchases, by having only the government, or maybe only the government and insurance companies, be the only legal buyers of organs. Now there are problems with such a policy, particularly in settling on how we reach a fair price, but I have no idea how this is worse than simply banning all sales. That the government would be undervaluing your spare kidney if it were offering $10,000 for them is hardly a reason to prefer a policy where it has no monetary value.
This makes sense enough. I was going at this from more of an economic perspective - right now there's a big welfare loss because those who would pay can't get to surplus organs can't consummate a legal sale. So, allowing person-to-person sales would elminate the welfare loss, but then there would be a shall we say awkward ethical situation as regards the people who couldn't afford to make a purchase. Having the government do all the purchasing seems like a good enough idea, but if there's still a shortage, there will still be a welfare loss since those who can afford to pay more than the government pays will still be unable to do so. And if the organs sales are related to life-threatening conditions, presumably there will be people willing to pay quite a lot to get their hands on an organ.

I guess the government could avoid a shortage by picking the price that would bring in exactly the right number of organs needed to fill the need; depending on how high that price was, it might or might not be worth it. You couldn't stray much from that price though, because you'd end up with either a surplus (talk about ethical problems!) or a shortage, which would still leave you with a welfare loss, essentially the same problem you had when you started.

He goes on:

But maybe this can be turned into an argument. So let me add a third possible argument against organ sales - that all proposals for who the organ buyers may be are unacceptable. Again, I have no doubt that the McGrath’s original conclusion - that none of the existing arguments in favour of a ban work - is true. But there is a third possibility for a future argument here, although given the range of possible buyers (or buyer types) that would have to be excluded there is some danger that it could not simultaneously be finite and sound.
This I find a little confusing... if the line of argument is that there are no acceptable organ buyers, how could we have that argument collapse because we've chosen to make exclusions? At any rate, I'm convinced at this point that having the government purchase the proper number of organs successfully sidesteps the problem of the wealthy having priviledged access to organs. It does still leave the issue of harvesting organs wholesale from those most willing to accept compensation - the poor.

Maybe a line of argument could focus on the sellers - after all, at any offered price, there will be some people who are willing to make a sale. But since making that sale involves grave risks to the seller (anywhere from diminished lifetime health to death from surgical complications), potential sellers are ultimately cornered by their means. There's an equity problem in there somewhere!

ALSO: There was a question as to my identity... so far I've failed on my promise to provide some easy-to-find biographical information on this site, but in the meantime this post explains that my name is Paul Goyette, and in the interests of openness I will even go so far as to confirm that I am, in fact, male.

How they fight terror   {Comments: 0}

Haggai emailed this response to my post on the long-term effects the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed will have in the war on terror:

Re: your post on terrorist organizations replacing their captured/killed leaders and possibly retaliating, the Israeli strategy for targeting terrorists is much more complex than is sometimes portrayed in the media, which too often portrays each Israeli act as bringing a Palestinian reaction that happened solely because Israel struck first. As damaging as I think the current Israeli government's refusal to take any diplomatic steps is, I have little or no disagreements with how they fight terror. Here's an article that deals with the policy at some length.
Do check out the article.

I didn't mean to paint Israeli strategy as simple or naive with respect to the terrorist threat. I don't think Palestinian terrorists attack first and foremost because they are retaliating for the retaliations, and I'm pretty sure there would still be attacks absent the IDF reprisals (in fact, we've seen this). But it's impossible to look at the situation and say rationally that taking out terrorist leaders has diminished the long-term threat to Isreal. In the short term, it may make terrorist operations more difficult, but ultimately - unless you think all Palestinians are terrorists - the lack of a diplomatic approach is catastrophic for any hope of peace.

So, I'm not suggesting they put the breaks on ther counterterrorism operations - I've got no beef with Israeli military and intelligence tactics, which are probably the most accurate in the world. I just think it stinks as a long-run peace strategy.

Self-congratulatory nostalgia   {Comments: 0}

So, I've been doing this for about a month now, and I wanted to post about how great that is, but I'm having a hard time getting excited about that. I'm definitely enjoying myself. A lot of things aren't quite as I expected... I didn't think I would have this much to say; I expected to get some flames (and I probably will, if I ever get any readers); I thought my posts would be less formal and more spontaneous than they seem to be (although my comfort level has increased considerably); I expected my best (and most interactive) readers to be people I already knew, which hasn't been the case at all.

Anyway, it's been a good month and here's to another one (yes, I actually happen to be drinking a glass of wine, a pinot grigio for those of you keeping score). I've just changed the title at the top... not the URL of course, since that was kind of disastrous before, but just the header, just for fun. I'll probably do more of that, maybe change the design a little? Lots out there to try.

I've added two more usual suspects to the blogroll, PLA and Counterspin Central. Not to belittle these two valuable, informative sites; but I'm going to try and focus on non-political blogs a little more, just because I've had so much fun with a couple of them. I've been kind of blogged down by the ceaseless international-political content, and again and again I'm awed by what else is out there.

March 6, 2003

No longer a problem?   {Comments: 0}

We've heard a lot in the past couple of days about how the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed is a long-term blow to al Qaeda. Some have suggested that in the short term, the threat level will increase because terrorists isolated by Mohammed's absense will push up their operations. Maybe that's plausible, but the implication is that after a few probably failed attacks in the short term, we'll all be a lot safer.

This flies in the face of everything I understand about terrorism. Taking one individual out of the picture might delay or even prevent some current operations from taking place. But won't someone else step up and fill that role eventually? That's certainly the way it's worked in Israel; I don't know how many times I've read about this or that terrorist leader being captured - or, more often, assassinated - and yet the terrorism continues, even escalates. In fact, terrorist attacks seem to correlate directly with the amount of retributive action taken by the Israeli government. Do we have any reason to think al Qaeda will be different? Yet right now we're being told that in the long term, American interests are safer. I simply don't believe it.

By the way, I'm not trying to suggest that we mustn't defend ourselves from terrorists; obviously we have to do what we can to defend ourselves from imminent attacks. But maybe there are other kinds of actions we might take as well - non-military actions - that could help reduce the threat level. Ultimately, military action can't eliminate the terrorist threat - certainly not without turning the United States into a vast global empire. But in the long term, fostering democracy and reducing poverty in the world will take away the medium in which terrorism grows.

MORE: This terrifying statement of US policy makes a similar argument about a better connected world minimizing terrorist threats, but it comes to startlingly different conclusions about how we should bring that better connected world into being. Specifically, it correlates the presence of strong US military forces ("exported security") with prosperity in the developed world, and argues that we must therefore expand our military presence in the developing world ("the Gap"):

Until we begin the systematic, long-term export of security to the Gap, it will increasingly export its pain to the Core in the form of terrorism and other instabilities.
This is an argument for creating a vast American empire in the developing world. I don't think I've ever seen anything so frightening from the US government.
A small premium to do the right thing   {Comments: 62}

According to CNN, Ford will sell the hybrid version of its Escape SUV at a loss in order to break into the market. I thought this was interesting in light of Calpundit's post on SUV profit margins (here is my response to that post).

Obviously this behavior isn't a surprise if automakers (and according to the article, Toyota and Honda do the same with their hybrids) feel there's potential for long-term profitability. But it is a surprise in light of the Bush admin's policy on hybrid cars - namely, that they're an inferior technology. Presumably, the losses incurred by Ford would be covered - at least partially - if Bush pushed hybrid technology instead of hydrogen. That Ford is building hybrids anyway says something about the viability of the product - both technologically and from a profit standpoint.

For your reading pleasure   {Comments: 0}

I've added a couple more blogs to the blogroll: Rittenhouse Review, and Brad DeLong's site, which will probably be required reading for me. I've also added Metafilter, which is an incredible resource, probably the most compelling blog I've seen yet.

March 5, 2003

Faking it   {Comments: 0}

According to this LA Times story, Steve Winfield, the interpreter for Dan Rather's interview with Saddam Hussein was faking an Arabic accent. What are they thinking over there at CBS? If they really wanted that authentic Arabic sound, couldn't they have aired one of the Iraqi translators, or even found an Arab of their own? I guess it's no surprise that Hollywood does the sinister Arab thing better than Saddam himself!

The phony peace   {Comments: 0}

According to this CNN article, we're already flying 750 missions a day over southern Iraq:

Military sources said the change is in response to the Iraqis moving mobile surface-to-surface missiles, mobile surface-to-air missiles, early warning radars and anti-ship missiles into the southern no-fly zone.

Those systems are being struck by coalition aircraft as soon as they are located through reconnaissance efforts, officials said, because of concerns the systems could be within range of U.S. troops in Kuwait.

Slate has this in-depth look at what a war with Iraq might look like from a military standpoint. But they don't really mention the possibility of ramping up current operations until they reach fever-pitch.

I have to admit I don't know much about the legal side of the no-fly zones, but it seems a little strange that they're already destroying radar systems and anti-ship missiles. Are they concerned about a preemptive Iraqi attack? More likely we're already at war.

March 4, 2003

The right place to be linking to   {Comments: 2730}

Brian Weatherson wonders if I should be linking to his site, after I said that I'm not by nature an argumentative type. I guess I have no choice but to take issue with him!

Seriously though, he has an interesting breakdown of the arguments for the government banning the sale of human organs:

There are two kinds of arguments for banning a course of action that people might have wanted to take. First, there is the flatly paternalistic argument that the ban prevents individuals doing things that they want to do, but which are really not in their interests. This is the Government as the ropes around Ulysses model, and it only works if you assume you know more about what is in individual’s interest than they do. Secondly, there is the game-theoretic argument that taking some options out of play will mean that the decisions made by all players lead to an outcome that is preferable for all. Here the role of government is to rule out, by fiat, defections in Prisoners Dilemmas.
I'm not sure how the first kind of argument applies to organ transactions - maybe if I'm the one selling my kidney then I'm doing something that's not in my interest? The second argument makes more sense to me, especially if there are equity considerations in play. And to me this last point is key... there's no question that legalizing these transactions would lead to a more efficient allotment of organs; but if lives are at stake and the only currency available is money, the poor will die. Now, it may be possible to construct a market without this result, but if not - if the actors are threatened with death - won't that skew prices in such a way that we all line up in order for who has the most material wealth? Or is this just another way of saying some things shouldn't be for sale?
Ouvroir de Conspiration Potentielle   {Comments: 0}

For whatever reason, some bloggers - possibly led by Mandarin Design Daily? - have decided to try and generate a wordbust with the word "oulipo." At this point their little conspiracy only generates 21 hits on Daypop, which from what I can discern is far too few to accomplish their goal.

Nobody seems to know what oulipo is, but whoever originated this business is obviously having a little fun with it. For those who don't know, OuLiPo, or Ourvoir de Litterature Potentielle, is a consortium of mostly literary figures who concentrate their creative energies on highly constrainted systems. Georges Perec, for instance, wrote an entire novel, La Disparition, without making use of the letter e (Gilbert Adair has since translated it into English as A Void). Other members have included Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, Harry Mathews, and the artist Marcel Duchamps.

At any rate, the choice of "oulipo" for a conspiratorial wordburst is ironic, because it's just this sort of word game that the group itself would countenance. Their version would probably be a little more sophisticated - finding ways to use a word meaningfully without calling attention to it so bluntly. But still, the joke has legs. The internet has given us a million external opportunities for constraints, and a limitless audience of accidental readers.

By the way, I should mention that the original name for this site, counterfactual, was inspired by OuLiPo and the new Google News site, which generates the top news stories via a weighted search algorithm. I thought it would be interesting to have a site where fictional hard news stories would be generated randomly from search-generated results. Obviously I abandoned that idea before I even got started, and that's part of the reason I abandoned the name too. But I think there's a lot to be done with the idea of highly constrained creative writing on the internet. Maybe I'm stuck in the wrong circles, but it amazes me that there isn't more to be found along creative lines. I've been throwing around the idea of starting a strictly creative/literary blog, and maybe this will be the kick in the pants I need to actually do it.

UPDATE: Here's a skeletal website for OuLiPo and a partial online version of the OuLiPo Compendium. I've never been able to find much in the way of online OuLiPo resources, but that's probably because most of the key figures are quite old. I guess this wordburst campaign will mean more links...

Cultural calculus   {Comments: 0}

According to this article from ArabNews (via Amish Tech Support), McDonald's has a new sandwich called McArabia out in he Middle East. Good for them! In India last summer I was totally impressed with the way McDonalds had carefully adapted its menu to that culture and its unique dietary requirements. When I got back, I tried to find other countries where they'd done the same thing, but apart from a Mexican sandwich called McNifico there wasn't much. In India almost everything on the menu is different, because nobody eats beef. You'd be amazed what they do with a lentil/potato patty.

By the way, McDonald's really needs a boost right now. Their stock is way down, in part because of mismanagement, but also because foreign markets just aren't as receptive to American fast food these days... of course, no surprise there. But I've read articles comparing them to KMart.

Homeland insecurity   {Comments: 1153}

By the way, this was a couple days ago, but I'm still shocked that they're surveilling the Bloomington campus of Indiana University by plane. Too bad the students there don't have a squadron of MIGs with which to respond.

Indiana, we're all for you   {Comments: 0}

Forgot to post this yesterday, but I added three weblogs to the blogroll: Tom Spencer and The Bloviator, both IU alums; and The Hoosier Review, bringing back some colorful memories with all that talk about the IU Student Association. I'll watch this last one closely - it looks like a great source for IU news.

One more for today: David Appell's blog, Quark Soup, has several insightful (and very readable) science posts, starting with the one about Gary Taubes and the Atkins Diet.

MORE: OK, I can't resist this one: I actually used to be this guy's editor, back in my days at the Indiana Daily Student. Too bad I don't have the authority to edit him today!

March 3, 2003

A price on your head   {Comments: 0}

Slate has a cute piece by Steven E. Landsburg about the dollar value we typically place on an individual life. He explains:

So, how do we find out how much a life is really worth? One of the best ways is to measure how much extra you have to pay someone to take a dangerous job. If lion tamers and elephant tamers have comparable skills and comparable working conditions, but lion tamers earn $20,000 a year more than elephant tamers, it's probably because that's what it takes to compensate someone for the risk of being eaten by a lion. And if that risk amounts to, say, an extra half-percent probability of dying on the job, then you figure that the value of a life must be $20,000 per half-percent, or $40,000 per percentage point, or $4 million.

So, once you carry out that experiment, how much does a typical life turn out to be worth? Professors Dora Costa of MIT and Matthew Kahn of Tufts point out that it depends on exactly when you asked the question. As incomes have risen, so has the value of life. The increase is more than proportional: A 10 percent rise in income is generally associated with about a 15 percent rise in the value of a life. Between 1940 and 1980, according to Costa and Kahn, the value of a life increased from about $1 million 1990 dollars to between $4 million and $5 million 1990 dollars.

Landsburg goes on to poke fun at the strange way that future lives work out to be more valuable than present lives. I presume these data are not available in other countries, but I think the measure might be a valuable economic and/or cultural measure. I'd expect wide variation in the figures, and only a partial correlation with GDP per capita.

UPDATE: I didn't catch this before, but Landsburg is the author of The Armchair Economist, which is for the most part equally cute. He does have a tendency to oversimplify things - an old English prof of mine would have called him "reductive" - and it doesn't serve him very well where non-economic factors are at play... but that's a tendency almost all economists seem to have.

Escalation watch   {Comments: 0}

BBC news has this report:

North Korean fighter jets flew just metres from a US reconnaissance plane in international airspace early on Sunday and shadowed it for 22 minutes, a Pentagon spokesman has said. The spokesman said four North Korean MiGs at one point approached the RC-135 plane as close as 15 metres (50 feet), with at least one of them locking onto it with its fire control radar.
It doesn't mention this in the article, but an RC-135 carries about 32 people. It's not the same kind of plane that went down in China after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet. But, as that incident showed, this kind of behavior can lead to serious problems.
A friend in need   {Comments: 0}

Castro has made an interesting offer to help with the NK crisis. Too bad Bush hates him as much as Kim Jong Il... but maybe the Japanese will work with him?

His bowtie is really a camera   {Comments: 0}

At first I was shocked by the revelation that the NSA is surveilling other countries' UN delegations for strategic advantage. But maybe I shouldn't be - the story does say that many diplomats to the UN assume they are being bugged. At any rate, this won't help our efforts to win over other nations for the war effort. Rather, it's the kind of intimidation you'd expect from a country with a strategy of preemtion.

By the way, I'm also suprised that this story hasn't made it into the American press... does that have implications for its veracity?

Profit margins   {Comments: 0}

Kevin Drum has this interesting observation/question about SUV profit margins:

So I watched 60 Minutes tonight, and in the segment on SUVs I heard once again about how the profit margin on these vehicles is anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 or more. This compares with ordinary cars, which we are lead to believe are practically sold at a loss.

I've heard this so many times that it must be true, but what's the explanation for this? The same companies compete in both the car and the SUV market, so shouldn't competitive pressures force the profit margins to similar points? Isn't that how this whole free market thing is supposed to work?

For one thing, the competitive pressures at work here probably not the same as those in perfect competition, which is the model that usually pushes profit margins down. The market for cars and SUVs is probably more like an oligopoly, where firms react to other firms' prices in setting their own. This leads to an equilibrium, but it isn't necessarily profitable for the ologopolists... that depends on how the firms' cost structures match up. I posted last week about the anti-trust class action suit over milk in Chicago, which is a classic case of oligopolistic competition on price: Dominick's and Jewel were eacting to each others' prices in a way that made it seem like collusion, when actually (or at least, this was the verdict) they were just competing. Competition in oligopoly often seems like collusion, precisely because prices don't act like they would in perfect competition.

If it's true that cars aren't profitable, that could also be the result of an oligopoly situation, although I don't have any explanation for the differences between the markets for cars and SUVs. But SUV's are a different kind of product, so demand is probably different. That would affect the profit margins regardless of the supply-side.