Battlepanda: November 2005


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Chummy Rummy

We sure are in a hurry to let that bad man Saddam git what he's had coming. More specifically, he is being charged with the 1982 massacre in Dujail, what the Washington Realist delicately calls the 'safest', since "[i]t is purely a domestic affair--it doesn't involve Iran and doesn't involve the gassing of the Kurds, both of which might have provided Hussein's defense team with the opportunity of calling a whole host of foreign witnesses to testify about overt and covert support for Hussein during the 1980s."

More specifically, our overt and covert support for Hussein during the '80s.
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Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand in 1983
When the Dujail case is resolved and the tribunal trying Hussein goes on to other crimes, sooner or later the issue of chemical weapons use must arise. Iran is already furious that the tribunal seems unlikely to charge Hussein for his battlefield deployment of this weapon. When the issue arises, it will be difficult for Donald Rumsfeld to avoid sharing the docket, at least symbolically, with his old friend, Hussein. Rumsfeld helped to forge the U.S. alliance with Iraq that lasted from 1984 until Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August of 1991. He did so in full knowledge that the Baath regime was using mustard gas—which severely burns the lungs—against the Iranian children sent by Khomeini to launch “human wave” attacks. One Iranian survivor commented that with each flaming breath he takes, he wishes the gas had killed him. The pogrom against the Shiites of Dujail was a horrible crime. Far more horrible ones, in which the U.S. government was intimately complicit, were to follow.
-- Juan Cole


Don't get me wrong. I think the proponents of the efficient market theory did a lot of good in terms of calling bullshit on mutual funds and expensive, worthless money managers. And I certainly plan to keep my spare chunk o change in an index fund, perhaps with a few small stakes in individual companies just for the yuk of it. But the underlying premise of the E.M.T. -- that you can never consistently do better than the market because the market in the aggregate is a rational actor and never over or underprices stocks -- is just plain nuts. Forget about Warren Buffet or the Dot Com boom/bust. I consider the below exibit A when it comes to why E.M.T. is a crock. From the Financial Times via Daniel Gross:
US retail investors have regained their optimism in the stock market and are newly confident in the securities industry, according to a survey by Sanford Bernstein. However, they also appear to be deluded about the success of their own investments, with the average investor reporting that their US equity portfolio has grown 9.6 per cent over the past 12 months.

This is a statistical impossibility, as the S&P 500 benchmark index has gained only 5.5 per cent over that time, and shows that investors continue to be uninformed.
Now, I understand that the E.M.T. does not say that individuals are rational, quite the opposite. It simply posits that there are enough rational individuals in the stock market to keep everything priced correctly through arbitrage. But I don't even think that can be true, if the average investor is so deluded as to overvalue their returns by almost 80%. There is a lot of dumb money swilling around the stock markets. And even people who do have the information to price stocks properly based on fundamentals find it difficult to take advantage of that knowledge given the dizzying short-term irrationalities of the stock market. Here's a very perceptive bit from Jane Galt, who's been banging this drum for a while:

Bubbles generally become apparent to experts years before they pop. Contrary to popular opinion, many people on Wall Street knew that stock prices were irrational long before the bubble collapsed.

So why didn't they say so? Well, some of them wanted to sell fat IPOs to gullible suckers. But many of them did say so, only no one paid attention. The problem with newspapers isn't that they need advertisers; it's that they have incredibly short attention spans. Journalists tend to cover a beat for a few years, and then move onto the next thing; that's how you move up in a media organization. Thus, they tend to check expert's predictions against months, rather than years, of data. And in the short run, bearish experts were wrong.

It is a maxim of traders that "the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent"; that is why few people on Wall Street tried to act on their knowlege that the stock market was overvalued by selling short. They knew it was going to bust, but they didn't know when, meaning that they couldn't be sure they'd be able to cover their short trades long enough to make a profit

"Where's our no-confidence vote?"

Nice one from The Carpetbagger Report:
Now, there's plenty of interesting angles about Canada's parties and positioning for the upcoming election — my friend Michael Stickings is covering this nicely — but I can't help but notice a difference in standards. Paul Martin fell yesterday because of a minor corruption scandal that he had nothing to do with. George W. Bush, in a different system, is directly involved in several devastating scandals and Congress won't even convene a hearing. Worse, Bush offers no apology and makes no effort to make amends.

Where's our no-confidence vote?

Indeed. What exactly is the secret ingredient allowing the Bush government to rise above it all? Stephen Colbert has the answer (be sure to watch the video -- it's funny)

By the way, all those right-wingers crowing over their part in bringing down the rotten, rotten Canadian government should be dying a thousand deaths inwardly by now, if they had a sense of shame, that is.

Blame culture

The French work less because they are a bunch of leisure lovin', 2 hour lunch takin', grandmaman visitin' nation of slackers while Americans work so darn much because of our vaulted Puritan ethics and inborn desire for consumer goods over family time. Cultural differences, right?

Except the French were working 10% more than us as recently as the 1970. Man, 'culture' sure moves fast nowadays.

Matt Singer from Left in the West puts it very well indeed:
Interesting, so what some would put forward as mere individual choice is really the result of the active structuring of the economy? You wouldn’t say.

Hmm, maybe there is good reason to look to social engineering, since it, um, seems to matter.

'Culture' functions as a 'just-so story' in these contexts. Explaining away differences between nations while glossing over the differences in institutions that underly those differences by using the language of individual choice/responsibility. The great thing is, there are usually enough mutually contradictory stereotypes about every country/culture/group to justify any outcome. For example, if we turned overnight into a nation of conscious scrimpers who worked short weeks in order to do stuff around the house and spend time with family, I'm sure it would take no time at all for conventional wisdom to declare that our colonial past has predictably produced a proud, resourceful people who valued self-reliance and close-knit communities over paid work and money-grubbing.

HR 550 -- it's a no-brainer

(Via Pam at the Pandagon)

Take 30 seconds out of your life to sign the voter confidence petition in support of HR 550 -- the house resolution that calls for a voter-verified paper trail from all voting machines. This is such a no-brainer. Diebold makes our ATMs, so we know they have no problem manufacturing machines that gives a paper record for all transactions. Why isn't our voting process deserving of the same amount of care and respect? And why is it that out of the 159 members of the house who are co-sponsors of HR550, only 9 are Republican?

Go, sign the petition.
And go to Pam for the links if you want to bother the House administrative committee.

The Dorgan Diversion

My first instinct on hearing that a Democrat, Senator Bryan Dorgan, was caught up in the Abramoff investigation was the same as Kos -- we can't be seen to protect our own while going after Republicans. Then I read more about it and realized that Dorgan has actually done nothing wrong. Nothing. The Republicans have got nothing except a $5000 donation arranged by the now-radioactive Abramoff, but notice that unlike, say, the Duke-stir, this is a contribution that went to his political group and duly filed with the FEC. True, Dorgan wrote a letter that favored the Louisiana Coushatta tribe, where the money actually came from. But there's no reason to suppose that he wrote the letter on a quid pro quo basis. Firstly, $5000 is a measly sum, he'd be pricing the Republicans right out of business. Secondly, he's got plenty of poor Native Americans in his state that the letter benefits, and furthering the welfare of his constituents is Dorgan's job. Thirdly, giving money to politicians whose positions furthers your interests is called 'lobbying'. You might not like it, you might think it distorts our democracy, but it's legal. There's an institution called K street, you might have heard of it. Jack Abramoff is a lobbyist. He's never tried to hide that fact, and he is not being persecuted for the lobbying activities he conducted in an above-board manner. But a Democrat is being smeared for being connected to Abramoff through his regular, legal lobbying activities. That is like being accused as an accomplice in a bank heist because you used to hire the guy who robbed the bank to mow your lawn.

Kos' "If Dorgan becomes collateral damage, then so be it" attitude is wrong.
This is the standard M.O. for the Republicans -- the echo-chamber smear campaign of lies based on a fragment of fact, the minimization of their own monumental wrong-doings with attempts to draw equivalence between completely disparate behaviors. If Dorgan is innocent (and I see no evidence that he is not) then we need to stand behind him instead of offering him up as a sacrificial lamb. That would be playing right into Republican hands.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Good and Bad news on the Econ front

Some unexpected good news on the housing front -- record new home sales in October. Even the characteristically bearish Calculated Risk conceded "
This is a very strong report. The pronouncements of the demise of the housing market now appear premature."

The bad news, however, is that it looks like the yield curve is about to invert. In plain English, this means that the short term interest rate is on the verge of overtaking the long term interest rate. This is a screwy state of affairs that is as good an indicator for a recession as any.

Susanna Clarke on Crook Timber

The good people at Crooked Timber put together a panel on Susanna Clarke's excellent Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you've not read the book yet, I highly recommend it (and may I also be as crass to recommend that you obtain it through my Amazon Affiliates ad on the bottom right hand corner of this blog). And if you have, I highly recommend the seminar, and especially Susanna Clarke's reply to the issues raised.

Both Belle Waring and Maria Farrell were disappointed that all the central/more interesting characters in JS&MN are male. I understand their frustration at the short supply of compelling central female characters in fantasy fiction. Indeed, female characters are underrepresented and underdeveloped in many if not most genres. But the onus should not be placed on women writers to make up the difference. That would be an unfair burden, a tax on their creative powers.

The more fundamental source of the problem is societal, cultural. Starting from childhood, girls often watch cartoons or read stories where it is necessary to identify with male characters, but the reverse is seldom true. Micky Mouse and bugs bunny are loved by girls and boys. But boys are sure to be taunted and teased for admitting a liking to, say, My little pony. As a result, is it not surprising that women writers like Susanna have no problem crafting exquisitly nuanced characters like the adorably curmudgeonly Mr. Norrell, while even quite accomplished male writers often end up crafting their obligatory female love interests out of stock cardboard.

The good lord made 'em stupid

Pharyngula has a hilarious selection of quotes from fundie evolution doubters. This, however, is my favorite. The sensible side of me thinks "No, it must be a hoax." But it is so perfect in its stupidity, I just have to share...

Believe it or not, you were perfect when you were born. You were obviously healthy if you are posting here today, you hadn't sinned, and were making choices and using your free will, though they were small choices. Unfortunately, later in your life you made some bad choices and now you are a sinner, but remember, God MADE you perfect.

One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn't possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

Most foolish war since 9 B.C.?

That't the opinion of Martin Van Creveld, "a professor of military history at the Hebrew University[...]author of "Transformation of War" (Free Press, 1991) [and] the only non-American author on the U.S. Army's required reading list for officers". He's got some other choice words about this war...

What had to come, has come. The question is no longer if American forces will be withdrawn, but how soon — and at what cost. In this respect, as in so many others, the obvious parallel to Iraq is Vietnam.[snip]
A withdrawal probably will require several months and incur a sizable number of casualties. As the pullout proceeds, Iraq almost certainly will sink into an all-out civil war from which it will take the country a long time to emerge — if, indeed, it can do so at all. All this is inevitable and will take place whether George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice like it or not.

Having been thoroughly devastated by two wars with the United States and a decade of economic sanctions, decades will pass before Iraq can endanger its neighbors again. Yet a complete American withdrawal is not an option; the region, with its vast oil reserves, is simply too important for that. A continued military presence, made up of air, sea and a moderate number of ground forces, will be needed.

First and foremost, such a presence will be needed to counter Iran, which for two decades now has seen the United States as "the Great Satan." Tehran is certain to emerge as the biggest winner from the war — a winner that in the not too distant future is likely to add nuclear warheads to the missiles it already has. In the past, Tehran has often threatened the Gulf States. Now that Iraq is gone, it is hard to see how anybody except the United States can keep the Gulf States, and their oil, out of the mullahs' clutches.[snip]

For misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them, Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial along with the rest of the president's men. If convicted, they'll have plenty of time to mull over their sins.

That's strong stuff. Increasingly, the consensus seems to be "We came, we broke it and now we have to leave because we can't fix it."

(HT Matt Singer)

Social Security v.s. Private Pensions

As the post below explained, the private pension situation is a total SNAFU. It's dragging down our companies AND sucking up taxpayer dollars. Bruce Webb makes the great point that this state of chaos makes a powerful contrast between the 'market' solution and the government solution to our retirement problem (scroll down for his comment when you click through to the post).
The Right has established a series of equivalences: Social Security = Socialism, Social Security = Failure, Left Liberalism = Socialism and out of the mix match imagine that they have proven the case "Social Security proves that Left Liberalists are Socialist failures" and so frees them to go have a round of drinks and pound themselves on the chest.

If we can just knock 'Social Security = Failure' out of the mix the entire narrative comes crashing to the ground. 'Social Security failure' is the poster child for the whole "Government is not the solution, government is the problem" movement. Without Social Security failure they pretty much got nothing. And as regular posters here know, in reality they really do have nothing when it comes to this topic.

The counter narrative "Social Security is fully funded going forward, while company managed pension funds are defaulting left and right. Who do you want to trust with your retirement" if effectively delivered would be tremendously powerful, if only because it comes out of literally Left field and smacks the Right in a place they don't even believe they needed defending. "FDR was right, Ayn Rand was wrong, and the Cato Institute just wasted the last 24 years". The Right will react will baffled fury, they had this one in the bag, 'how dare they destroy our carefully constructed narrative proving FDR was a fool!'

Our backwards backdoor socialism

For a prime example of a screwy situation our fear of 'socialism' and worship or corporate entities have landed us, look no further than the sorry state of Defined Benefit pensions in our country.

The New York Times reports that "Pension officers are putting billions into Hedge Funds". I'll let Vox Baby's excellent post explain exactly why this is a terrible idea. But in a nutshell, this is why they're doing it: Hedge funds, though riskier, have a higher theoretical rate of return if all goes well. Thus, a company can 'justify' (I use that word loosely) committing less money to their employee's retirement today, because the rate of return is theoretically going to be so excellent. And what if the investment turns out to be a disaster and the company end up coming drastically short, ah, but that's where Uncle Sam steps in in the guise of the Pension Benefit Guarentee Corp (PBGC) and bail everybody out. There is no downside to the company for doing this. It just means more money for the company today, more risks for the taxpayers tomorrow. Are they going to be irresponsible and underfund pensions? You bet.

Why do we have the PBGC? Because as a nation we are not prepared to let people who played by the rules end up having to eat cat food. But we also want the facade of unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism. We even disguise our government assistance in a corporate shell, but everybody knows that the PBGC does not and cannot pay for itself.

We're spending plenty of taxpayer dollars trying to increase the welfare of average Americans, but we're loathe to do so too directly. Instead, we subsidizing companies through backdoor means like the PBGC or tax breaks for providing insurance to employees , to induce them to provide benefits to their employees. What a backwards way of doing things. First of all, it's unfair -- all Americans deserve decent healthcare and retirement options, but only employees of some companies enjoy employer-provided healthcare and pension, which are in turn supported in part by everybody's tax dollars. Secondly, as we've seen above, bad behavior is rewarded. Thirdly, it's a damned inefficient way of doing things -- even with all the taxpayer support, employee pensions and healthplans are still a huge drag on the competitive abilities of our companies (G.M., anybody?).

I am assuming that you all read Paul Krugman's excellent column about how Americans are plunged into anxiety because we rely too much on our employers for stability in our lives, and that stability simply is not there any more as businesses face more competition and bearded, benevolent paterfamilias type owners have long been replaced CEOs with MBAs with zero loyalty to employees. I'm assuming that you've read it because it's really, really good. I didn't link to it at the time because I've been linking to Krugman an awful lot lately, and I didn't want to act like such an embarrasing fangirl. Anyhow, here's the relevant paragraph for our purposes today:
We like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, not like those coddled Europeans with their oversized welfare states. But as Jacob Hacker of Yale points out in his book "The Divided Welfare State," if you add in corporate spending on health care and pensions - spending that is both regulated by the government and subsidized by tax breaks - we actually have a welfare state that's about as large relative to our economy as those of other advanced countries.

The resulting system is imperfect: those who don't work for companies with good benefits are, in effect, second-class citizens.
On the same topic, Mark Thoma's impassioned "The old deal is broken" deserves to be read.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Mommy trap

This scathing article by Linda Hirshman about the elite stay-at-home mom phenomenon is the antidote to a thousand NY Times fluff articles about the "Opt-out revolution". She doesn't deny that elite women are choosing to stay at home in droves. But what drives their choice? And what are the ramifications of that choice on our society? If you are interested in the subject, it is read the whole thing material. But it is long, so here are a few choice snips:

Here’s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, “A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.”[snip]

Why should society spend resources educating women with only a 50-percent return rate on their stated goals? The American Conservative Union carried a column in 2004 recommending that employers stay away from such women or risk going out of business. Good psychological data show that the more women are treated with respect, the more ambition they have. And vice versa. The opt-out revolution is really a downward spiral. [snip]

A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives. At feminism’s dawning, two theorists compared gender ideology to a caste system. To borrow their insight, these daughters of the upper classes will be bearing most of the burden of the work always associated with the lowest caste: sweeping and cleaning bodily waste. Not two weeks after the Yalie flap, the Times ran a story of moms who were toilet training in infancy by vigilantly watching their babies for signs of excretion 24-7. They have voluntarily become untouchables.

I do not wish to denigrate family life. And I enjoy domesticity too much myself to agree whole-heartedly with Hirshman's dim view of it. But to misquote Shakespeare, nothing is either good or bad, but context makes it so. For instance, I love to cook (as does my boyfriend). For me it is a wonderful, relaxing, creative hobby. But I would not like to live in a society where cooking duties are automatically allocated to me because I am female -- that would make it drudgery and oppression even if I were to spend exactly the same numbers of hours each week cooking the same food. What is the context in which people ditch their jobs to stay at home and sprog? Inevitably, it is the woman who makes the sacrifice.

The top reason stay-at-home moms give for their choice is "it's better for the child". I suppose the argument is that having a Ivy-league educated woman wait hand-and-foot on kids maximizes their development in a way that daycare cannot match. But how much better? Lets use money as a crude yardstick and unit of measurement for human achievement and effort. We will be generous and assume that every elite stay-at-home mom loses only 50% of her lifetime income as a result of leaving her career to have kids. This means that, assuming she has two kids, they will have to each make a whopping 25% more as a result of her sacrifice in order for the family to "break even". I doubt that is a likely result even if the mom in question takes the trouble to watch little Johnny 24/7 for signs of every impending bowel movement so that he would not ever be subjected to a soggy diaper.

Yes, I understand the brute reductionism of lives into dollars is detestable. But sometimes a little bit of brutality is needed to cut through the bull.Intangibles benefits are cheap to bestow. If we as a society really value a stay-at-home parent so much, why is it that men almost never make this choice? I think it is more likely that this trend reveals the low value we place on women as a society rather than the high value we place on having a stay-at-home parent. In short, Hirshman is onto something.

Oh, the humanity...

Now that this is happening, can this be far from our future...?

[A doctor's waiting room circa 2020. A man and a woman sitting apart are waiting for their appointments]

MAN: Oh oh. Here they come.

WOMAN: Quick, pretend you're reading that magazine and maybe they'll go away.

[Enter cheerteam with pompoms]

CHEER: If Pizza leaves you feeling ill, ask your Doc for the Purple Pill! Goooooo Nexium!

WOMAN: I don't suffer from heartburn.

[Cheerteam briefly huddles to confer]

CHEER: If you're feeling kind of sad, pop some pills and you'll be glad! Z-O-L, O-F-T! That's what does the trick for me!

MAN: Would you please go away?

CHEER: If you've been letting down the Missus, you will want to know what this-is...

MAN: Get out! Now!

CHEER: Sheesh! Take a chill pill.

Natural rights vs. rights under the law

Robert's Stochastic thoughts have some interesting further comments on the music downloading discussion. As I argued in my post on this matter, intellectual property rights are granted on utilitarian grounds -- that is, their aim was to encourage the creation and propagation of music. Thus, if it can be shown that the aggregate effects of those laws is to stifle the very things it's supposed to encourage, there should be no arguments against withdrawing those rights granted by the law. According to Robert, people are coming to the wrong conclusions because they confuse the difference between Natural rights (things that are inviolable and absolute in Robert's eyes) and Rights under the law (rights that are established by the law to secure positive utilitarian outcomes.)

I think the emotional power of the idea of property rights is (see post below) based on a failure to accept a difference between rights under the law and natural rights, so existing laws or laws from a century and a half ago are seen as descriptions of natural rights which can not morally be eliminated.

Also, I think, people switch back and forth between arguments based on respect for rights and consequentialist arguments without noticing. That is, a reasonable defence of existing property rights is that with such rights we have a prosperous society and countries which tried something very different ended up very poor. If one asks people to imagine a world in which collective ownership say leads to prosperity and decide if it would be just or unjust, they become irritated. Most people find the question of whether a law is a good instrument towards an aim or an expression of natural rights totally boring.
Ah, but don't you see, Robert, if you come all the way to my utilitarian-moralist vantage point, you won't have to be exasperated with people for not seeing the difference between Natural Rights and Rights under the Law, which seems to me to be a rather arbitrary way of putting things. In my mind, no rights are absolute, but they are necessary constructs in a functional, healthy society. Rights should simply be granted when upholding those rights assiduously in all cases yields the best utilitarian result and ditched (as in the case of the IP rights) when they no longer do. I don't think that this damages the case for human rights or the right to free speech any because I have a hard time envisioning a world in which upholding human rights assiduously would yield a negative utilitarian result, don't you?

I think it is a very human thing to crave some external authority for our laws and institutions. In the olden days, of course, this was done directly by claiming divine backing for our laws and governments. The secularized expression of this tendency is moral absolutism, which omits the God but retains the naive believe that our values and beliefs are valid for all time, which quite naturally leads to problems as society and (in this case) technology evolves. Robert wants to have it both ways -- the comfort of moral absolutism for one group of rights (the 'natural' rights) and the convenience of utilitarianism for another (the rights under the law). But the more consistent approach would be to accept that there is no such hard and fast distinction.


Don't get me wrong. I'm completely with Murtha -- lets withdraw as soon as practically possible. We never should have been there in the first place. And we're not doing any good today. So let's leave before we dig ourselves in any deeper.

But we mustn't fool ourselves. Withdrawal might be the best choice available. But it is not a good choice by any stretch of the imagination. There are no good choices left on the table. We are leaving Iraq in an ugly, fractured state, ripe for massive bloodletting, a renewal of oppression and fanatical Islamicism. I am reminded of the Washington Realist's ominous comparison of Iraq with Yugoslavia prior to their civil war. Here's the ZenPundit:
The loyalist paramilitaries are chomping at the bit, arguing that fire can only be fought with a fire that Washington does not have the stomach to do itself. They're probably correct - the insurgency can be defeated militarily ( or significantly degraded) but not without getting your hands dirty by slaughtering (or at least jailing) Sunni clansmen en masse until the insurgent networks collapse. It's a pragmatically ruthless tactic with a record of success in strangling guerilla armies that goes back to the Boer War, but it requires a Lord Kitchener type leader to carry it out and is exceedingly difficult to do and still look like you are the guy wearing a " white hat".

Here's the WaPo article that he's talking about.
BAGHDAD -- The leader of Iraq's most powerful political party has called on the United States to let Iraqi fighters take a more aggressive role against insurgents, saying his country will only be able to defeat the insurgency when the United States lets Iraqis get tough.

"The more freedom given to Iraqis, the more chance for further progress there would be, particularly in fighting terror," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Shiite Muslim religious party that leads the transitional government and whose armed wing is the most feared of Iraq's many factional forces.

I have a feeling the "freedom" he's talking about has nothing to do with purple fingers. It would be ironic, would it not, if the United States expended all this blood and treasure to rid the Iraqi people of Saddam's death squads only to put Shiite death squads in their place.

Has it started already?
Gunmen dressed as Iraqi troops stormed the home of a senior Sunni leader Wednesday, killing him, his three sons and a son-in-law, Iraqi police said. Neighbors told authorities that at least 10 Iraqi army vehicles stopped outside the western Baghdad house of Kadhim Sarheed Ali al-Dulami in the early hours of the morning.

Jim McDonald of Making Light asks "Is there any reason at all to assume that these weren’t actual Iraqi troops, not play-acting insurgents “dressed as Iraqi troops”?"

I hope that we learn one lesson from this whole debacle -- you don't start wars (or allow wars to be started in your name) based on lofty principles ("Isn't freedom great?") or emotional blackmailing ("Isn't Saddam a bad man?"). Go into it as a only as a realist, or the war will make a realist out of you after making a mockery of all your good intentions.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A picture to ponder

From Brad Setser, a chart of global current accounts. You see the only bar that's in negative? That's us. Yep.
Image hosted by
What can't go on forever doesn't, right?

And talking about things that can't go on forever, keep an eye on Calculated Risk -- the big story on the housing front right now is ballooning inventories and reduced transaction volumes, even as average prices are still creeping upwards.

Of Pinochet and MP3s

The blogisphere provides us with some good examples illustrating the two approachs to crime an punishment -- the utilitarian social-good maximizing model and the "moral justice" model where punishment is intended to be, well, punitive. The good thing is, in the majority of cases, those two models are aligned -- the jailing of Worldcom's ex-CEO Ebbers, for instance. That is both a desirable outcome from a utilitarian point of view (future CEOs are warned by Ebber's example into staying honest, thus reducing future incidence of fraud) and from a "moral justice" point of view (the &^^&%&* had it coming.) But there are many cases where the two models differ substantially on what our course of action should be. I subscribe primarily to the utilitarian model, but belive (paradoxically enough) that sometimes there is a place for the "moral justice" model. The bottom line is, it is important to society that justice is consistantly applied, and seen to be consistantly applied. This is ultimately a utilitarian good, even if in certain instances the punishment does not lead to a direct decrease in a particular crime.

This is why, despite the fact that I would be a card-carrying utilitarian if only I can find somebody to issue me with a card, I believe Pinochet should be punished even if though the direct utilitarian argument for jailing him is weak (he is old, and could not reoffend; strongman dictators are megalomanics unlikely to stay their hand at the prospect of international justice decades down the line). For someone as evil as Pinochet, justice must be seen to be done. Our society functions on the assumption that crimes would be punished. The trust in that assumption would be damaged if we let Pinochet live out his remaining days in ease. However, I disagree with Mark Kleiman in calling this punishment 'retribution'. It seems kind of unhealthy to encourage victims' families to salve their wound through the suffering of the perpetrators. Even if we torture Pinochet for years and then execute him in the most painful manner possible, that would not compensate the families for their loss.

From one of the most heinous crimes possible, we go to the most frivolous -- contravening copyright laws by downloading music online. In this case, I agree completely with Matt Yglesias' utilitarian argument -- the utility derived from free downloads is several time greater than the damage done to the recording industry in lost sales. It simply does not make sense to keep downloads illegal to protect the recording industry at the expense of the general public. The industry's "moral justice" argument falls flat because the concept of copyright was originally granted to the music industry for utilitarian reasons -- that is, to encourage the creation and dissemination of music. We know that the creation of music is not discouraged by downloading (the bottom 3/4 of artists benefit from downloading as it gets more people to listen to their music). And the dissemination of music is greatly aided. Like countless other industries, the recording industry has been hurt by advances in technology. To try and cling to the advantage they had prior to this technological advance should be recognized as ugly rent-seeking behavior rather than protecting their "rights".

The way I try to square the circle and reconcile those two models of justice is to think back to my conception of morality. Those of you who have been with this blog from the beginning will remember that I believe in morality, but not moral absolutism. To me, a good moral principle is one that will give the best utilitarian result when followed assiduously. Morality and the language of rights is necessary because it frees us from the otherwise-crushing burden evaluating utilitarian claims on a case-by-case basis, and provides a compelling rhetorical framework for us to place our behavior within. For instance, pre-marital sex used to be a much more damaging behavior prior to the advent of contraceptives. There is a utilitarian case for curbing this behavior, and I find it unsurprising that it is accompanied by a contemporary morality that condemns it as immoral. With the advent of reliable contraceptives, and the consequent lowering of the social costs of pre-marital sex, I find it equally unsurprising that the moral disapprobation gradually lessened. This is how it should be. The problem arises when people try to cling on to the belief that their morality is absolute -- that somehow premarital sex was and thus will always be immoral, or that it isn't and thus was never immoral.

What does this mean for us when we consider Pinochet and MP3s? Well, I hazard to speak for us all in saying that we all still consider murder and torture utterly egregious both from an utilitarian and moral point of view. Thus Pinochet should be punished and seen to be punished. But with the MP3s, there is a disconnect between the best utilitarian outcome and the rhetoric of rights currently wielded by the recording companies and backed by the law. The moral assumptions (intellectual property is equivalent to physical property) that underpins those laws no longer give the best utilitarian outcome when followed assiduously. It is time to reconsider them.

*This post underwent substantial changes from when it was first posted as I re-read Mark Kleiman's post on Pinochet and retribution. I know this is bad blog etiquette (bletiquette? blogiquette?). Oh well.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Minimum wage raised

(Via the Carpetbagger Report)

In my post arguing against the EITC, I agreed with Matt Singer in preferring a rise in the minimum wage to the EITC as a way of helping low-income families. In that post, I assumed that Econ 101 holds (always a tricky proposition) and that an increase in the minimum wage must necessarily be accompanied by a significant fall in employment levels. But is this really so?

TAMPA -- Before last year's elections, a political action committee backed by the likes of Publix Super Markets and Outback Steakhouse had some hair-raising predictions about the effect of bumping up the minimum wage.

Thousands of jobs would be lost if voters increased the state's rock-bottom wage to $6.15 from $5.15, said one e-mail sent out by the Coalition to Save Florida Jobs.

Jobs would be outsourced overseas, the e-mail said. Even companies that paid above the minimum wage would be forced to raise pay for everyone, said retailers and restaurants that opposed the amendment.

Today, though, it's hard to find much wreckage in the Florida retailing and restaurant industries, the two groups that bankrolled the Coalition to Save Florida Jobs.

Seventy-one percent of Florida voters passed the increase, and since the new minimum wage was implemented in May, retail stores and restaurants have added tens of thousands of employees.

"I don't think it's going to kill jobs because you need the people to do the work no matter what," said Walter, owner of Highland Park Furniture, which has a license to use the trade name Macy's Furniture & Mattress Clearance Center. "But it might hurt profits, and it sounds better to say it's going to hurt jobs than hurt profits."

I think that last quote there is something we all need to keep in mind in the debate over raising the minimum wage. We are not living in the text-book world of perfect competition -- otherewise there would be no such thing as profits -- money left over after the business has charged what the market would bear. People at the bottom of the employment ladder has the least bargaining power, their slice of the profit pie is small. By raising the minimum wage, we artificially raise their bargaining power so that they can demand a larger slice. But as long as they are not demanding a bigger profit pie, why should the market care how it is being divvied up?

So yeah. If you raise the minimum wage sky-high, say $30, you are going to cause a lot of unintended consequences as labor-intensive businesses go bust, the economy suffer and employment levels plummet. But you can bet you're not going to see those effects with a small increase in current minimum wage level such as the one Florida recently underwent.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Juan Cole on White Phosphorus

As usual, it is the last word. Terrific, thoughtful stuff.

Yes. WP is a nasty incendiary and Fallujah was a terrible mistake. We were awfully careless with civilian lives, and we should take some responsibility for that.

But the dKos crowd and Cindy Sheehan
(whom I otherwise respect) should quit calling WP a chemical weapon. It's not. And they're making our side look bad by overstating the case.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

The day is no longer with us, but we still have most of the feast. I've alreay had two slices of pie for breakfast. And for lunch I think I'll just keep on pulling meat off the bird accompanied by stuffing as the fancy takes me and gorge on the little fancy rolls that took two and a half sticks of butter to make.

Leftover Thanksgiving blogging is almost as tasty:

-- Via Mark Thoma, we have a fascinating article about how the pilgrims on the edge of starvation were saved not by Indians who taught them how to farm, but by privatization! When families were given their own plots to farm and tend rather than having all work and harvest be in common, production leaped as people were given incentives to work harder in their fields.

-- Via Brad Delong, a terrific post by Autopope, giving thanks for being born when he was: "1. Born any time prior to 1942: I die before the age of 5. (I was peculiarly susceptible to bronchitis as an infant, and would have died around age 2-4 without the ready availability of antibiotics.)" I too, need to be thankful for being born in the present day -- I had a cyst that weighted almost two pounds that had to be removed when I was thirteen year old. I don't know for sure that it would have killed me if I lived in an age where surgical removal was not an option. But life would have certainly been grim.

-- The Republic of T has a post in which Terrance hand-wrings about the origin of Thanksgiving. Well, I have to say I never understood that point of view. It was indeed a terrible calamity for the Native Americans when the white man arrived, but back in those days conquests and even genocidal conduct were not seen as transgressions. OK, that last sentence sounds horrible and relativistic in the worst way. But let me explain myself: The warlike Maoris of New Zealand set sail for the Chatham Islands in 1835, where they slaughtered, enslaved or ate every member of the peaceful Moriori group. Not long after, the Maoris themselves were conquered by the superior firepower afforded by the standing army of the British Empire (Yes, I am lifting this example wholesale out of Gun, Germs and Steel). Are the Maoris victims or oppressors? The whole of human history is a litany of brutality. It's pointless to cast moral aspersions for one particular episode over another. If the circumstances were such that the American Indians had the superior technology and manpower, they would surely have set sail for Europe and taken it over in a similar fashion and we might be typing all this in their language.

So, T. I hope you enjoyed the turkey and skipped the guilt. I'm sure many of the human customs, feasts and traditions we cherish has its roots in something we find objectionable today. What Thanksgiving is about now is family, togetherness, a roasted bird, pies, crescent rolls, cranberry jelly, candied yams and good cheer. Long may it live.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Gobble Gobble

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The T-day game plan

--1 14-lb turkey, soon to go into brine. To be stuffed and roasted.

-- Corn bread pudding -- to be gently reheated

-- Green beans -- trimmed and ready to be microwaved. Yes, so the taste won't be optimal. But they're more of a nice green statement at the holiday table than actual food.

-- Potatoes, already peeled, cubed and sitting in water. To be boiled and mashed with an obscene amount of butter.

-- Rolls in dough form -- to be shaped and baked.

-- 2 pies, pumpkin and apple, to be filled and baked.

Everything is made from scratch, except for the stuffing (because pepperidge farm stuffing is yum) and the cranberry jelly (because...I secretly prefer the canned stuff to homemade).

And yes, it's practically an all Food Network Thanksgiving.

A thought: Somebody should come up with a tabletop appliance that is like a toaster oven but square in shape. It would be worth its weight in gold for pies on major holiday occasions, and frozen pizzas when a whole oven takes too long to heat up, and otherwise do everything accomplished by a toaster oven without taking up hardly any more counter space. C'mon, appliance people. We're not talking rocket science here. Just a tiny tweak on existing technology. It's certainly would be more useful than an all-in-one breakfast sandwich maker.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

History only rhymes

There's a very cool new blog on the block. It's called the Washington Realist, and true to it's name, it's all about our international affairs from a hard-nosed pragmatic perspective. He draws some parallels between Iraq and Bosnia, but not the hopeful ones suggested by, say, Jackson Deihl in this WaPo op-ed.
[Deihl] equates Bosnia's Serbs with Iraq's Sunnis--perhaps in his desire to paint both with the brush of genocidal villainy--but the more logical comparison from the point of view of actual politics would be the Sunnis of Iraq with Bosnia's Muslims--both the "statist" nationality trying to rule over two other groups that did not accept their legitimacy to speak for the country as a whole. The Bosnian Serbs wanted not to dominate Bosnia but to take control of what they deemed Serbian land, expel non-Serbs to create facts on the ground, and leave the rest to be independent or be absorbed or dominated by Croatia (essentially the American plan in creating the Bosniak-Croat Federation in Washington in 1994)--they have had the least interest in Bosnia as Bosnia--much in the same way that many Kurds aren't really interested in Iraq south of Kirkuk or what happens in Baghdad. And of course the democracy crowd wants to forget that the nationalists who plunged Bosnia into civil war, including, I'm afraid, war criminal Radovan Karadzic--were ELECTED in elections in 1990 deemed to be "free and fair." It may be cute to call Karadzic and Mladic "insurgents" but again, if we fail to ignore how premature democratization in Bosnia helped to unleash civil strife, we learn the wrong lesson.

This sounds right on the money to me. The main problem with the rose-tinted view that purple fingers are going to be the solution to Iraq's ills is that the ethnic tensions are exacerbated rather than eased by voting -- the Sunnis know they cannot outvote the Shiites, leaving sabotage and terrorism as the "logical" way to wield power.

Cheating the system

Here's a little something that will curb the high-blood pressure and murderous rage caused by automated phone menus that so gets in the way of appreciating the holidays. Paul English has put together a cheat sheet of the codes you need to punch to get through to a real human as quickly as possible at over 100 of the biggest companies.


(Image from Kos)
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And wouldn't you know it. As soon as public sentiments starts turning against the Bushies, the media starts smelling blood. Here's the usually meek and mild Wolf Blitzer ripping into White House communications director Nicholle Wallace. It's hilarious stuff.

"BLITZER: Was it a mistake for the White House
to compare what John Murtha was saying to Michael Moore, the liberal filmmaker?

"WALLACE: You know, I think that words have such power in this debate. But if you look at the policy that Michael Moore advocated for the duration of last year's presidential campaign, it is the exact policy that the congressman proposed.

"But you know, again, I think the president and vice president have set the tone for this debate. I think we've made perfectly clear over the last five days that our differences with Congressman Murtha are in our visions for the best way forward in Iraq.

"We believe -- as do 79 United States senators, as do more than 300 House members -- that what he proposed, which is an immediate withdrawal or a withdrawal based on an arbitrary timetable, is the wrong way to guarantee victory in Iraq.

"And I think that, as people head home over the holidays, as people think about our troops over there fighting, it is comforting -- and everyone should be comforted by the fact that the Congress, both chambers, spoke clearly and embraced the current administration policy about the way forward in Iraq.

"BLITZER: Because when I heard the president speak about Congressman Murtha on Sunday and the vice president speak about Congressman Murtha on Monday, neither one of them brought Michael Moore into the picture.

"So I'll repeat the question: Was it a mistake for the White House on Friday to start bringing Michael Moore into this whole discussion involving John Murtha?

"WALLACE: I answer your question again directly: No, it was not a mistake."

When Wallace again said that Murtha "advocated an immediate withdrawal from the battle space in Iraq," Blitzer shot back.

"BLITZER: He didn't advocate an immediate withdrawal. He said over the next six months, and then to keep the troops in neighboring states like Kuwait, Qatar, over the horizon, to go back in if necessary.

"WALLACE: Well, look, you've had him on your air for a lot of the last five days and I think he's probably articulated his position much more clearly than I can do. We disagree with the. . . .

"BLITZER: That's what he articulated the first day when he made his long statement.

"WALLACE: Well, I'm not sure what you want to debate me on, Wolf.

"BLITZER: I'm not debating. I'm just saying he didn't call for an immediate withdrawal.

"WALLACE: Well, what he is advocating differs from current White House policy. And, frankly, I only saw two other Democrats, Democratic colleagues of Congressman Murtha's side with his position. But this is a healthy debate to have.

"BLITZER: I want to be precise on this, Nicolle, because words matter.

"WALLACE: Absolutely.

"BLITZER: The resolution that was in the Congress used the words 'immediate withdrawal.' And there were three Democrats who voted for that. Congressman Murtha talks about a six-month phased withdrawal and then keeping troops in the region, which is significantly different.

"WALLACE: We still oppose anything other than a conditions-based withdrawal from Iraq."

Blitzer then asked her to reconcile that position with Monday's agreement among Iraqi political factions that there should be a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Later in the show, Blitzer turned to Jack Cafferty, whose job is to keep an eye on viewer e-mails.

"CAFFERTY: You're getting a lot of high marks from our viewers for that interview with Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director. Played a little hardball with the lady. . . . [P]eople said that they enjoyed you kind of pinning her ears back a little bit.

"BLITZER: Well, thank you.

"CAFFERTY: Well, you're most welcome.

"BLITZER: She's a very nice lady, by the way.

"CAFFERTY: Well, she's probably not real thrilled with you right now, but. . . .

"BLITZER: No, but she's a very nice person. I know her.


"CAFFERTY: Don't be trying to suck up after you beat her up on national television.

"BLITZER: I knew her when she was Nicolle Devenish. She's now Nicolle Wallace. She's a lovely woman.

Can you even imagine an exchange like this on CN-frickin'-N a few month, nay, a few weeks ago?

Like Josh Marshall said. There's nothing that newly-spined the press is doing now that couldn't have been done anytime in the last two years. Especially in the run-up to the '04 election, when it could have really fricking made a difference. Oh well. Better late than never.

Temporary pain, long-term gain?

Today's high oil prices are giving green companies a big boost when it comes to developing environmentally friendly products and petrochemical substitutes. Here's a good article from the NY Times documenting the recent progress in this field:
A few years ago, scientists at Cargill Inc. learned how to make rigid, transparent plastics from corn sugars. There was just one problem: they cost a lot more than the oil-based plastics they would replace.

But that was before the price of oil shot up and companies came under pressure from consumers and investors to find economically sound ways to adopt "green" packaging and other environmentally friendly products and processes. This year, Wal-Mart, Wild Oats Market and many other retailers, as well as food suppliers like Del Monte and Newman's Own Organics, all embraced corn-based packaging for fresh produce.

Sales at NatureWorks, the Cargill subsidiary that makes the plastic, grew 200 percent in the first half of this year over the period last year. "The early adopters were more influenced by environmental concerns than costs," said Kathleen M. Bader, chairwoman of NatureWorks. "But now we're competitive with petrochemicals, too."

I guess both rabid environmentalists and complacent market types are half right. The market types are right in that the free-market economy is a powerful engine for progress, and that when the economic incentives are there, innovative solutions and technological progress happens startlingly fast. But the environmentalists are also right in saying that the market is hopelessly myopic -- everybody could see the oil crisis coming, but the market did not respond until recent geopolitical events and price shocks bring home the fact we're right on top of it. And it was the uphill struggles of the green-crowd who laid the groundwork for the technology that brings us affordable corn-based plastic and solar panels etc. etc.

To rope in a shaggy-dog metaphor, it's like we're all sitting in a stage-coach drawn by powerful horses (the economy, see) complacently browsing in the green. The environmentalists and peak-oil believers are screaming "the Indians are coming" while trying to get the horses moving. But the horses don't see the Indians yet. They won't start to run until they feel the first arrows graze their rump. It should be up to the government to crack the whip and get things moving so that we stay ahead of the crisis, but they're too distracted by the horses' lobbyists.

O.K., bad metaphor. My point is, the recent surge in oil prices has good unintended consequences. It would be even better if our government is prepared to put in the regulations (milage requirements for cars, things like the Kyoto agreement) that will further spur development in green technologies directly. The worst thing to do is to act in such a way as to desperately keep oil prices low in the short term (such as ANWR), because there is only so much oil in the world, and eventually, unless the one iron law of economics is repealed, price is either going to shoot up more precipitously or that shit is going to completely run out. Better to feel some pain now and start kicking the habit.

A possible mechanism for Hypnosis?

I've always been a tentative believer in hypnosis, even though I've never been properly hypnotized. When I was in college, I did go to a "cope from your studies" workshop where they used guided imagery to teach you how to relax by pretending you're on a lovely beach. And I tell you, I was there. I braced myself against the salt air, and felt the sand squishing between my toes. Now here's a mechanism to explain how it happened:

The new experiments, which used brain imaging,
found that people who were hypnotized "saw" colors where there were none. Others lost the ability to make simple decisions. Some people looked at common English words and thought that they were gibberish.[snip]

Bundles of nerve cells dedicated to each sense carry sensory information. The surprise is the amount of traffic the other way, from top to bottom, called feedback. There are 10 times as many nerve fibers carrying information down as there are carrying it up.

These extensive feedback circuits mean that consciousness, what people see, hear, feel and believe, is based on what neuroscientists call "top down processing." What you see is not always what you get, because what you see depends on a framework built by experience that stands ready to interpret the raw information - as a flower or a hammer or a face.

The top-down structure explains a lot. If the construction of reality has so much top-down processing, that would make sense of the powers of placebos (a sugar pill will make you feel better), nocebos (a witch doctor will make you ill), talk therapy and meditation. If the top is convinced, the bottom level of data will be overruled.

This brain structure would also explain hypnosis, which is all about creating such formidable top-down processing that suggestions overcome reality.

Does this explain people acting totally out of character under hypnosis and such? I don't know. But the brain imaging suggest that hypnosis is a powerfull piece of evidence that hypnosis is a real phenomenon in some degree, and no something to be reflexively cynical about anymore.
(I have been trying to get back to that beach. I've even downloaded a 'complete relaxation' audio file from the net. But it was embarrasingly cheezy, with the hypnotist speaking in this dramatic faux-whisper and New-aged music in the background. How can I relax when I'm cringing?)
(HT Brad P.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Cutting and running on Operation Smear

(Via guestblogger Steve at the Washington Monthly, who is doing a phenomenal job)

I remarked on how convenient the phonecall from Jean's Marine was when she made her thinly veiled attack on John Murtha. So I was hardly surprised when her Marine with an impeccable sense of timing turned out to be a Right-wing flack. But the story gets better. He's a right-wing flack that is running as far from Jean Schmidt and her ill-advised slanders as he can.

Perhaps we have finally reached that point. Maybe the Republicans finally went one swift-boating too far. The American people are not buying the Murtha smear, so the Republicans are in retreat mode. Contrary to their rhetoric, the Republicans are quite capable of cutting-and-running when its politically advantageous.

Don't Mess with Texa's computers

Heh heh heh! Sony is going down.
The crisis at Sony BMG Entertainment worsened Monday when the Texas attorney general sued the record label, saying it violated the state's new anti-spyware law.

Also Monday, a consumer rights group filed a lawsuit against the No. 2 record label that also cites spyware concerns.

The lawsuits follow Sony's recall of nearly 5 million copy-protected CDs that contain a hidden file susceptible to viruses when played on a Windows-equipped computer. The company has asked retailers to remove more than 50 CD titles from store shelves and to replace them with non-copy-protected versions expected in stores by the end of the week.

Rise of the Megamansions

In the two years since they moved into their voluminous 8,000-square-footer on the edge of Virginia's suburbs, the Bennett family has not once used their formal dining room, where the table is eternally set for eight with crystal, an empty tea set and two unlighted candles.

Not even guests use the palmy, bamboo morning room beyond it; and the museum-like space Bonnie Bennett calls the Oriental Room -- all black lacquer and inlaid pearl, fur, satin and swirling mahogany -- is also gloriously superfluous.

"It's kind of stupid, because we never sit in here," said Bennett, 32, who bought the largest house she could for the investment.

8,000 square feet? Holy moly.
She bought it for an investment, eh? I wonder how that's going to turn out for her in the next few years.

I used to work as a canvasser (raised money for the DNC back in the '04 election cycle). We knocked on an awful lot of doors. Maybe 50 a day. Sometimes people are nice enough to invite me into their homes, so I saw the insides lot of different houses. What always struck me was how people liked to huddle in smaller spaces -- the kitchens, the nooks, the cozy sitting rooms. When I visit huge houses with outsized living rooms, they always seem kind of uninviting, no matter how deftly decorated it is. A house should be designed for living in, not as a shrine to consumerism.

And in case you were wondering, the size of the house is a poor indicator of whether the owner would give generously. And the big, shiny car is actually a negative indicator.

Debunking the Right-Wing Talking Points

Peter Daou has a comprehensive de-bunking of the top ten (only ten?) talking points that comes from the right over and over again from the Republicans. From "history will vindicate us" to "we have to fight them over there so that we don't have to fight them over here". It's all there, laid out and demolished in short order. Good work.

The other white flight

This WSJ article starts off just like any other article about white flight:
Over the past 10 years, the proportion of white students at Lynbrook has fallen by nearly half, to 25% of the student body. At Monta Vista, white students make up less than one-third of the population, down from 45% -- this in a town that's half white. Some white Cupertino parents are instead sending their children to private schools or moving them to other, whiter public schools. More commonly, young white families in Silicon Valley say they are avoiding Cupertino altogether.

But then you get to this paragraph and find out that this time the whites aren't in flight from blacks, but from Asians.
Whites aren't quitting the schools because the schools are failing academically. Quite the contrary: Many white parents say they're leaving because the schools are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests. . ."
My favorite paragraph:
Some whites fear that by avoiding schools with large Asian populations parents are short-changing their own children, giving them the idea that they can't compete with Asian kids. "My parents never let me think that because I'm Caucasian, I'm not going to succeed," says Jessie Hogin, a white Monta Vista graduate.
I don't get it. Do parent always struggle to move their kids to a school where they are as close to the middle of the class as possible? Or is it only an issue when race becomes involved? The pride of "Little Suzy is always getting the highest score in the class" becomes the doubt of "Is she getting dragged down by her substandard school?" when it is obvious that most of her classmates are black. What might otherwise be construed as "Johnny really needs to brush up on his trigonometry" becomes "Ack! He's being crushed by a class full of Math Machines!" when his classmates are predominately Asian.

This also got me thinking about a subject I've always felt puzzled by -- the reverse affirmative action that discriminate against Asians in the Californian education system. I can understand a program that seeks to redress historical discrimination and continuing inequities by giving black students (a disadvantaged group) an edge. But since Asians have never been a privileged group compared to the rest of the population in the U.S., what is the rationale behind setting a higher bar for them, unless it's just to make everybody else feel more comfortable about not having too many asian faces in the class?

Limbaugh refers to Murtha as an idiot

I should know better than to go to Media Matters. It just does bad things for my blood pressure. Today was even more outrageous than usual though. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh got off on a screed about John Murtha, most of which didn't especially offend me and would be easy to brush off as simply wrong-headed. It was when it got to be about personalities that really got my hackles up. Limbaugh, who dodged the Vietnam draft with a little help from a cyst up his considerable ass, referred to Congressman Murtha (Korea and Vietnam veteran, Bronze Star, 2 Purple Hearts, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Navy Distinguished Service Medal) as " the useful idiot of the moment", and said he's " just getting his fifteen minutes of fame like Cindy Sheehan got". Grieving mothers and distinguished veterans beware: Rush has got your number!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go throw up for a while.

Understanding our Current Account Deficit

Paul Blustein has two of the best articles I've seen about our current account deficit in terms of clarity and human interest. Go read them both:

For now, the imbalance between the United States and Asia benefits the economies on both sides. Asians get jobs in export firms such as HJC Helmets, and their American customers get high-quality, inexpensive goods including clothing, cars and appliances. The United States also gets cheap capital from Asia because the dollars that Asians earn for their exports often end up invested in the bonds of the U.S. Treasury and mortgage-finance companies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These purchases of U.S. securities help keep interest rates low, which in turn helps fuel the housing boom and create new U.S. jobs that replace the ones lost to imports.

"We get cheap goods in exchange for pieces of paper, which we can print at a great rate," said Allan H. Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University.

However, the mountain of U.S. bonds that foreigners are accumulating means the United States is going deeper into debt to fund its import binge, to the tune of about $3 trillion as of this year.

If it were any other country behaving in this reckless fashion, disaster would not be far around the corner. But we are not any other country. We are the United States, thus there are some factors working in our favor:

a) We are considered too big to fail.
b) Our creditors are central banks rather than private investors. They act not to maximize profits on their investment but to grow their economies and maintain stability. They know if we fail, we'll drag them all down into recession with us.
c) The dollar is the world's default currency, which has several implications, not least of which is the fact that we hold all our debt in our own currency -- if the dollar goes down, our debt shrinks automatically. Not the case if you are Argentina.

"She asked for it" attitudes still alive

People suck:
A new ICM opinion poll commissioned by Amnesty International indicates that a third (34%) of people in the UK believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner.
For instance, more than a quarter (26%) of those asked said that they thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than one in five (22%) held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners.

But I have to say, I'm not entirely surprised. There is one female relative of mine (and she's not even that old) who thought that the central park jogger who was brutally raped and left for dead had it coming for being female and running through the park alone at night.
I wonder how much of the damage done to rape victims occur after the attack, either from the victim-blaming attitudes of the society if she chooses to pursue her case, or in the shame and guilt she feels because she internalized those attitudes.
I wonder how much women who are not raped lose nevertheless because of the curbs placed on their freedom through fear of rape -- is that skirt too short, is that makeup too provocative, is walking alone in the dark tantemont to asking for it.
I wonder how much men who are not rapists lose nevertheless because women are taught to treat them all as potential rapists.
(Amanda has more at the Pandagon)

Monday, November 21, 2005

It's not the's the excuse making

The can-you-change-your-name-and-still-be-a-feminist? argument is one of those that I feel like I have to have just about every 6 month or so. And it's always the same. Always, I find myself arguing with people on my own side, always we end up flustered, red in the face, vaguely chargrined. It always got very personal very quickly if you are female. Well, no longer, because Amanda Marcotte has written a post that is the last word on this issue. Hallelujah, she has set me free.

I'm not going to quote from it because it is one of those subtle, drawn out posts that starts off talking about one thing and sneaks its main topic on you mid-way through in such a way that it all comes together. Just go read.

Selective hindsight

Good catch by guest blogger Steve at the Washington Monthly. The White House rhetoric on Iraq is stuck uncomfortably between offence and defence, between "I was wrong, and so were you" and "I was right all along".
Consider Dick Cheney's speech this afternoon (text, video).

"In a post-9/11 world, the President and Congress of the United States declined to trust the word of a dictator who had a history of weapons of mass destruction programs, who actually used weapons of mass destruction against innocent civilians in his own country, who tried to assassinate a former President of the United States, who was routinely shooting at allied pilots trying to enforce no fly zones, who had excluded weapons inspectors, who had defied the demands of the international community, whose regime had been designated an official state sponsor of terror, and who had committed mass murder."

Cheney isn't trying to share responsibility for a war most Americans believe was a mistake; he's back to where he was in 2002, arguing that the invasion, war, and occupation of Iraq were not only the right call, but were absolutely necessary.

This isn't an easy needle to thread. The Bush gang will grudgingly concede that Iraq had no WMD, or nuclear program, or ties to 9/11, and in their weaker moments, admit that Saddam Hussein did not pose an imminent threat to the United States. Simultaneously they'll argue that the war was essential from the beginning. The White House wants to have its yellowcake and eat it too.

Another choice nugget of hypocrisy jumped out at me when I watched Cheney's speech
this afternoon -- he is hell bent on maintaining that the president cannot be blamed for intelligence 'failures' in hindsight, yet he wants to use the revealation of the Oil for Food scandal to justify the invasion post facto.
Finally, according to the Duelfer report, Saddam Hussein wanted to preserve the capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction when sanctions were lifted. And we now know that the sanctions regime had lost its effectiveness and been totally undermined by Saddam Hussein's successful effort to corrupt the Oil for Food program.

Erm, Mr. vice president? If you want to argue that it is unfair to take the unflattering facts we gained after the invasion into account when judging the decision of this administration to go to war, you can't try to simultaneously use a convenient one to justify the invasion. M'kay?

Here comes the New Progressives

I tuned in to the panel on New Progressivism hosted by the Center for American Progress and Washington Monthly on C-span today. It seems like New Progressivism is focused relentlessly on bread-and-butter economic issues, with a rather bland sauce of pro-family, pro-worker rhetoric dressing up a passionately wonky heart.

Well, good! If you are more interested in policy rather than politics, this is what you want to hear. There were no Big Ideas on display. Just practical ideas that could have big impacts on families. It does come across as a little bit bloodless, but given how radioactive many sane liberal ideas like universal healthcare has become to the American public, incremental changes with progress they can feel in their pocketbooks might be a lot more effective than trying to sell them a full bill of goods at once.

Some random thoughts:

1)Paternal libertarianism: A lot of buzz on this, but there is something that feels doomed about trying to promulgate something that is literally an oxymoron. And besides, why would you want to fashion a description for your policy by combining two ideas with (to me, anyhow) negative cultural baggage? Which is too bad, because the underlying concept that the clunky term "paternal libertarianism" seeks to describe is good. Simply put, as the volume of choices we are asked to make increase, we need more guidance to help us make choices that are good for us. More information is not always useful because we are already overloaded with information, therefore the optimal option for the most people should always be the default. A better choice of terms to describe this process could be "structured choice" or "path marking".

2) I can see that the panelists are really proud of themselves when giving their answers to the question: "What is the morality underlying your policy" -- Yay family, we have values too, etc, etc. But something doesn't quite sound right to me. Maybe it's because I know their well-rehearsed answers are honed by many articles on how the Dems need to find good framing. It just doesn't quite ring true for me yet.

3) Kevin Drum is younger than I expected him to be from his photo on the ol' Cal Pundit blog.

McCarthy makes a comeback

Gee, when I think 'Great American Hero', Joe McCarthy isn't usually the first guy to come to mind. I'm sure Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) also thinks that if only we kept sending enough cannon fodder to Vietnam and didn't succumb to Jane Fonda's siren song, we would have won.

Everything is so plastic for those, people -- fact, history, rule of law. The only thing that cannot yield is their ideology.

'Tis the season for shameless commerce

O.K., O.K. I know the Christmas season doesn't technically start until after Thanksgiving. But I know I'm thinking present-ey thoughts, and I bet you are too. I've recently joined the Amazon affiliates program, so when you click on one of the Amazonlinks of my site and end up buying something, you'll end up supporting this site at no cost to yourself (apart from the cost of the item, of course.) Think about it.

Need some suggestions? Fine. How about...

-- In the wake of the Gene Sperling Pro-growth Progressive dust-up, isn't it time to revisit some classic works on globalization? How about Joseph Stieglitz's awesome Globalization and its discontents or In Defence of Globalization by Jagdish N. Bhagwati?

-- Want a more gift-ey recommendation? If there is still anyone in your life who yearns for a digital camera, I cannot recommend the Canon Powershot SD400highly enough. I have had this camera for a while now, and it is my baby. It's compact as can be without being oddly shaped, it's easy to use and takes great pictures with no effort. I would also like to praise Canon's aftersale service. I cracked the LCD screen soon after I bought my Powershot. It was totally my fault, but (after writing them a really, really contrite letter), they fixed it for me free of charge! Which reminds me. Protect your Powershot with a nice leather case.

In addition to the standard Amazon stuff, I am also bringing my own modest wares to the marts of commerce for this holiday season. I give you the 2006 Dodo-the-Schnauzer calendar -- twelve months of cuteness for $18.50. And if I may say so, the pictures are superior to the "Just Schnauzer" calendars in the mall, because I start with the world's cutest schnauzer and they don't. Perfect for the dog-lover in your life.
Image hosted by
How can you say no to this face?

Support independent publishing: buy this calendar on Lulu.

They want us to go

Those who think we should stay in Iraq because we cannot 'cut and run' and leave the Iraqi people in a lurch should consider the fact that, in a recent poll taken by the Brits, they found that 82% of Iraqis are 'strongly opposed' to the presence of coalition troops in their country.

We came. We fucked up. Now we've outstayed our welcome.

Damn. Atrios beat me to the "exit strategy" joke.

Here or here.

Yes, I know all you good liberal blog adherents out there have already seen it, but we here at Battlepanda would be remiss in our duties if we didn't add our little bit of bandwidth to the media pig pile. In all honesty, I'll admit the urge to give the guy a break on this one. Yes, it's the kind of harmless, head-slapping goof-up we've come to expect, and with all the substantive things this guy's done horribly, horribly wrong, I'm inclined to give him a pass on pulling a Gerald Ford.

What really embarrasses me is seeing just how, well, bitchy this guy can be. Witness this exchange with a journalist at that same event:

"Respectfully, sir -- you know we're always respectful -- in your statement this morning with President Hu, you seemed a little off your game, you seemed to hurry through your statement. There was a lack of enthusiasm. Was something bothering you?" he asked.

"Have you ever heard of jet lag?" Bush responded. "Well, good. That answers your question."

I think it's past someone's bedtime.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

In which Jane Galt reveals herself to be completely detached from reality

What happens if viability goes back to at or near the point where a woman is likely to detect the pregnancy? I know that this may not happen, since right now we can't save a baby whose lungs have not sufficiently formed, but I think it's possible that in the future we'll develop some sort of artificial womb-like thing for even earlier preemies than those we now save.

This poses a real problem for women, doesn't it? Because I don't think that many of us would endorse widespread abortion for viable fetuses, which is what common first trimester abortions would then amount to. And yet, whatever the rhetoric the pro-choice side uses about women controlling their bodies, the main reason that most women seek abortions is not that they don't want to be pregnant; it's that they don't want a baby. If nine months of abdominal swelling, acid reflux, and hemorrhoids were an occasional side effect of sex, most of the people I know would probably just endure it rather than have a doctor vacuum out their abdomen with a painful and bloody surgery.

Yeah...pregnancy is just a walk in the park compared to the horror of an abortion. Gah! What is Jane Galt smoking? Is she seriously comparing an outpatient procedure with a 9-month process culminating in either major surgery that cuts through your abdomen (your abdominal muscles are never the same again) or labor, an experience so traumatic that sixty-two percent of women who experienced prolonged labor as well as forty-seven percent of women who experienced normal deliveries agreed with the statement that "it was so painful I thought I was going to die"?

If anything, I find her main point to be even more suspect. Pushing back viability dates in theory means nothing unless women contemplating abortion could really have the choice of putting the foetus in an artificial womb instead at no cost to herself and at no developmental disadvantage to the foetus. I suspect that by the time we reach the stage where first trimester foetuses could be safely brought to term in an artificial womb, the whole abortion issue would be moot because the whole pregnancy issue would be moot -- nobody would want to go through such a process if it could be taken care of completely in vitro.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

For or against the EITC?

Most of the analysis I've seen seem to assume that the Earned Income Tax Credit distorts labor markets less than a rise in the income tax. Matt Singer poses a contrarian view:
The EITC works basically as a negative income tax for working families. Low-income workers who are eligible for the credit actually receive money back from the government despite paying no income tax (although, in reality, this "refund" actually just offsets payroll taxes). Now, some people like to describe the EITC as America's most effective anti-poverty program, but it, like high payroll taxes, is actually a disincentive to America's employers to provide higher wages[.]

[T]he EITC doesn't guarantee a minimum income, it doesn't create quite the same level of perverse incentives, but it does effectively give businesses something for nothing.
Now, I would like to hear more empirical information on what the effects of the EITC has been, but Matt certainly presents an interesting argument. Certainly, the total number of jobs sustained in the low-end of the economy would be larger with an EITC program than with a higher minimum wage. If standard economic theory is worth its salt at all, the EITC must surely decrease the price of labor unless there is absolutely no unemployment in the economy. In effect, the taxpayer subsidizes businesses into creating more, albeit crummier-paying, jobs. But the big infusion of tax dollars required to pay for the program might negate the benefit of that extra employment. If one has no moral reason for preferring that everybody must be kept working all the time, it might be cheaper to institute higher minimum wages, and redeploy part of the tax dollars we would otherwise spend on unemployment benefits for those who are rendered unemployed by the higher minimum wage.

Another way of thinking about it is this: With the EITC, jobs that do not create enough value for the employers to pay the employee the market wage are subsidized by the taxpayer. Therefore it is partially a circuitous way of making busywork for people. We might as well have them breaking rocks.

We don't want to cut and run...just yet

Despite the chestbeating and mudhurling last night from the Republican house, and Bush's assurance that "America will never run.", it seems like there are quiet moves in the opposite direction of their rhetoric:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq has submitted a plan to the Pentagon for withdrawing troops in Iraq, according to a senior defense official.

Gen. George Casey submitted the plan to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It includes numerous options and recommends that brigades -- usually made up of about 2,000 soldiers each -- begin pulling out of Iraq early next year.

The proposal comes as tension grows in both Washington and Baghdad following a call by a senior House Democrat to bring U.S. troops home and the deaths of scores of people by suicide bombers in two Iraqi cities.

PGL of the Angry Bear blog comments:
So there we have it – the whole furor over Murtha’s proposal was a smoke screen. The Bush Administration wants to pull the troops home in time for our November 2006 election, but they wanted it to appear to be their idea and not a proposal from the Democrats. Will the Iraqis be able to maintain order in their nation within a year? Not likely. So by his own logic, George W. Bush intends to “cut and run”.