30 November, 2007

Most Valuable Douchebag

Cram it in your cramhole whilst ye may, LeFleur. We'll be back for Round 2.

Republican YouTube Debate

As I watched parts of the most recent Republican debate, I am struck by several things:

1) The Republican candidates are all very different from one another. If you want Franco and Pinochet rolled into one, go with Giuliani; for Reaganesque stature and confidence, take Thompson; for the neighborly Christian, you have Huckabee; crazies get Ron Paul; gun-toting border vigilantes can choose between Tancredo and Hunter. If none of these presidential archetypes appeals to you, there's Romney, the substanceless smooth-talker. And McCain's campaign is pretty much dead.

The Democrats don't appear to have these differences. I think this is because their debate is focused on policy wonkery, while the Republican debate is focused on appearances. Each Republican candidate has a very different persona, while the Democrats are very close on policy issues. So, the Democrats seem much less varied than the Republicans. Note that the Republicans are also quite heterogeneous on the issues. They never debate them, so it doesn't matter. But imagine a Democratic debate that was all about character. Obama would blow it away. The focus on policy, on the other hand, works strongly in Hillary's favor.

2) Most of the Republican candidates are repugnant and despicable. Half of them are base, calculating politicians, the other half are at least honest in expressing their xenophobic, homophobic, jingoistic views. Does anyone seriously believe a word that comes out of Romney's mouth? Or Giuliani's? No? Then why are they still the frontrunners?

3) Why is Chuck Norris there? Huckabee must be very serious about his publicity stunts.

4) This debate forced the Republicans to answer a lot of questions that cultural liberals would ask. There was a very poignant moment when a retired general who was gay asked about the candidates' views on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It was fascinating to watch the candidates awkwardly squirm when it turned out the questioner was in the audience as well as on video. Duncan Hunter explained that most men and women in our armed forces are conservative, and homosexuals make conservatives uncomfortable. Seriously?

(Oddly, in CNN's archive of clips from the debate, each video's title is the question that was asked...except for this one, which just reads "A gay Brigadier General asks a question". Apparently it doesn't matter what the question actually was.)

29 November, 2007


For those of you who live on Mars, tonight's game is shaping up to be a doozy, with speculation rampant and potentially steep consequences on both sides. Annoyingly, the game will be broadcast on NFL network, but any self-respecting Packer fan (at least those living in Wisconsin) should be able to make it out to their local sports bar. Personally, I am having trouble concentrating on my bellic theories of state formation in Latin America.

Some highlights on the run-up to the show-down:

  • The question of the week seems to be: is Romo another Favre? I for one am impressed with the kid's humility in the face of this comparison: "Brett's Brett," Romo said. "At the end of the day, anyone who tries to pretend there's another Brett is just kidding themselves. That's like saying you've got the next Jordan and all that stuff. That's just what people want to talk about. But the reality is, he's one of a kind and there'll never be another one like him. It's just neat to be able to watch him from time to time." Amen.
  • Free safety Nick Collins will play! This is great news, since there has been much talk about the Packers' soft spot in the middle, which Collins' return will shore up. Woodson is still questionable, unfortunately...but at least we will get the Harris-TO match-up and all of the attendant trash-talking hardball that entails.
  • The Mayors of Green Bay and Dallas have placed a delicious bet on the outcome of the game. All I can say is, I'm hungry for some Texas steer.
  • In the New York Times' shameless pro-Cowboys hack piece (somehow the Times can't escape its high-falutin prose and middle-America myopia even when stooping to write about sports) Cowboy's defensive end Chris Canty sounds a bit alarmed: "In order for us to even have a chance on God’s green earth, we have to pressure the quarterback. If not, we will lose."
  • And, in my personal favorite, Chris Erskine at the LA Times: "You're maybe the last American hero. A postmodern DiMaggio. A Wyatt Earp. You're about 140 years old, with the smile of an 8-year-old and a gun like Zeus." Yes, he is talking about Favre. Read on for more such beautiful prose.
Also, for the record, the Cowboys are favored by 7 points. One might say that this game is bigger than the World Cup, the World Series, and World War II combined.

27 November, 2007


Friends, I am pleased to announce that upon my return from Dallas...

...There will be beer!

Yes, that heavenly brown beverage is aging right now, precariously poised upon the precipice of perfection, and awaits eagerly the bottling process to commence pre-flight. Cheers!

Pull your carbon-foot out of your mouth...and post it online!

All this discussion of carbon taxes and caps and, most importantly, personal responsibility has me wondering just how far I go towards doing my part. After all, let him who is without sin cast first, am I right? Of course I am.

Here are some cool sites that might help you figure out just how much of a footprint you're stomping into the beautiful face of mother nature.

(supposedly #1 site)

(somehow connected to "An Inconvenient Truth, thus...Elliot approves)

(just another one, you know, never hurts to have a second [or third] opinion)
{The use of brackets is getting out of hand}

So go ahead, test yourself and face the consequences you stinking hippies!
According to one, I'm about a ton and a half of carbon per annum below average. Not exactly the type of score that I can lord over global warming-deniers and corporate fat-cats, but not a bad start. Since posting, I've turned down my heat and put on a sweater. Take that greenhouse gases!

24 November, 2007

A little vindication

It seems that others have noticed the recent ridiculousness on the NYT opinion page. Glenn Greenwald agrees with me -- and points out that it extends back some time. One can certainly notice the same vapid and smarmy caricaturizing that handicapped the 2000 election cycle at play once again. (Thanks to Matt Yglesias for the link.)

19 November, 2007

Chuck Norris Approved

Chuck Norris has endorsed Mike Huckabee for President:

We don't get much coverage of the Republican side of the race on this blog, so here I am, filling the void. Huckabee is an interesting candidate because he doesn't quite fit into the standard Republican box. Like Bush in 2000, Huckabee is running as a "compassionate conservative" (in the primary!), which basically means that he is culturally conservative AND for increases in social spending. Lots of other countries (Germany, for example) have "Christian Democrat" parties that share this basic platform.

I'd rather see a Democrat win than a Republican, but I'd rather see Huckabee win than Rudy Giuliani.

18 November, 2007

This explains quite a bit, actually

A small but revealing comment from NYT Opinions columnist (and former editor!) Gail Collins:

: There is a good reason we don’t talk more about them. The bottom line on that health care argument, which required some outside reading to comprehend, is that the Obama plan does not force people who aren’t covered by their employer or the government to buy health insurance on their own.

This in the midst of a column mocking the last Democratic debate. Note the punch line: "which required some outside reading to comprehend." This is, in a nutshell, and with very little hyperbole, everything that is wrong with the way we think about democratic politics. It reveals succinctly that we rely on candidates seeking office to provide us not only with the best interpretation of reality, but also with the basic facts and context regarding that reality. This is a recipe for disaster since, as the Bush presidency has amply demonstrated, those seeking power have few qualms about fabricating or exaggerating the veracity of those basic facts, or at least sowing a requisite amount of confusion regarding said facts to be able to act with impunity. Democracy is predicated on a decently educated and aware citizenry - but if coming to grips with the pros and cons of one of the most major social welfare programs that can be proposed takes any "outside reading", forget it. And this is from the once-editor of the New York Times Opinion section.

Musing, she wonders if

Perhaps you started watching it but had to switch off during the section on trade relations when you discovered your children had grown up and wanted to say goodbye before they left for college.

Really, can't we elect a king or something to deal with this stuff? On a roll, she concludes by supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton because

All these people believe pretty much the same thing, and when it’s time to take on the Republicans, I would prefer the candidate who knows how to change the subject and stack the deck.

There you have it: Clinton is the candidate for the unreflective, incurious, irresponsible partisan hack who believes that "all these people believe pretty much the same thing" because they belong to the Democratic party and shut up already about those misogynistic has-beens because Hillary is going to win the nomination because I say so and I write for the New York Times, so there. Seriously, with prominent pontificators such as this, what else can I conclude about the fate of the Democratic party under another Clinton?

17 November, 2007

If not Gore, then who?

A new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts our recent debates on climate change policy in an increasingly urgent light:

Members of the panel said their review of the data led them to conclude as a group and individually that reductions in greenhouse gases had to start immediately to avert a global climate disaster, which could leave island states submerged and abandoned, African crop yields down by 50 percent, and cause a 5 percent decrease in global gross domestic product.

Jesus. So how soon is immediately?

The panel, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month, said the world would have to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to avert those problems and others.

“If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the IPCC. “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

Double Jesus. That means that it is absolutely imperative that the next President of the United States be wholehearted committed to and able to deliver on a radically anti-carbon policy if we are to avoid catastrophe. But our lovingly-named pet plant, Al, is shriveling in the falling winter light, and it appears to be symbolic of the closing opportunity for Gore to join this race. But what other candidate could possibly be up to the task? Edwards and Obama, my two favorite candidates, would be by all measures exemplary Presidents. That said, I cannot purport much confidence that either (and much less Clinton) are on the way to a climate policy capable of addressing the gravity of the situation as expressed by the IPCC.

Fortunately, things are looking up in Oklahoma Senator Inhofe's world.

UPDATE: Triple Jesus. According to the International Herald Tribune, while this newest report was in the process of being published, even newer data coming in convinced most at the IPCC that they were underestimating the severity of the current threat: "The blunt and alarming final report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released here by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, may well underplay the problem of climate change, many experts and even the report's authors admit."


Check this out...a frank discussion on the War on Terror among other things.


A colleague of mine recently alerted me to a site called "wikileaks" (main page here) which serves as a repository for leaked documents from governments the world over, from the US to China to Yemen. Its goal is to democratize whistle-blowing and create "an uncensorable system for safe mass document leaking and public analysis."

Of course, democratization means that we now have to do the work that the editors of the Times used to do for us; that is, sift through the crap. And there seems to be a lot of crap, or at least randomness. All part of the fun, though, I suppose, and there is some fascinating stuff. Here we find information on an Israeli nuclear technician placed in solitary confinement for eleven years after outing his country's nuclear capabilities to the press. And - surprise! - documents showing the US has apparently violated the convention banning battlefield use of chemical weapons. The most well known document, however, (and the one that prompted a mention from my colleague) is the recently posted manual of Guantanamo's Standard Operating Prodecure from 2003, complete with the unsavory details we crave.

There are tons of issues here. (So much so that there is a blog devoted to discussing them!) First of all, who are these people (they say they are "Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and startup company technologists") and can they be trusted? Since there are no actual names attached to the site, speculation is rampant that it is a "trap" - that some governments, or government agencies, are deliberately soliciting illegal behavior for the purpose of purging disloyalty from their ranks. If this seems far-fetched, at the least it is unclear to what extent the interested government agencies (the Chinese government has been especially assiduous in clamping down on wikileaks) can penetrate the supposed anonymity afforded by the site. The encryption technology sounds good to little ol' me, but who knows how easy it would be for the CIA to do its stuff.

And, of course, there is the issue of accuracy. Are the documents real? Fake? Real but doctored? For instance, here is an absolutely fascinating discussion of the veracity of a secret document and its geopolitical implications. The questions about accuracy snowball into questions of ethics: will wikileaks allow for the politicization of leaking (more than it inherently is) by becoming a tool for political factions to selectively leak documents that are harmful to their opponents but that are not in the public interest? (Another call that we used to trust the newspaper editor to make.) Will fake documents also be used as political weapons? Is that a bad thing if it can contribute to bringing down, say, the Burmese junta? Questions, questions.

But here's the big one: given all of these uncertainties, can wikileaks contribute anything intelligible to the struggle of the citizen against government secrecy, illegality, and incompetence?

16 November, 2007

Krugman blasts Obama!

Just so y'all don't get to thinking that I'm blinded by Obama-mania, here's an attack on Barack's warm-fuzzy-unity politics. And the man has a point.

15 November, 2007

Soak the Tall: A Lesson in Optimal Taxation

Greg Mankiw suggests that it may be a good idea to tax people based on height. That's right, by the inch.

Why are *most* taxes bad? Because they distort people's decisions from the social optimum. It is sort of tricky to nail down exactly what this distortion is. Don't ever listen to an economist that tells you income taxes are bad because they discourage work. Discouraging work isn't bad in and of itself. it is bad only insofar as it people's decisions are distorted.

Consider this very very stylized example. You have $100 to invest in either railroads or steamboats. You know the exact return from each project. Invest $100 in railroads and receive $200 in one year. Invest $100 in steamboats and receive $250 in one year. However, the government has decided to tax the return (revenue minus costs) from steamboats at a 50% tax rate. So you earn $100 from project A and only $75 from project B. Thus, you choose to invest in project A and earn $100.

But is this the best social outcome? Under this tax scheme, the government earns $0 in tax dollars and you earn $100. What if the government instead taxed you a lump-sum amount? An amount that is not affected by the decision you make. Suppose they tax you $50 no matter what decision you make. Then you earn $50 from project A and $100 from project B. You choose project B. In this outcome, the government earns $50 in taxes and you still earn $100. This is summarized in the following table.

Tax SchemeReturn on SteamboatsReturn on RailroadsProfitTaxes
50% Steamboat Tax$100$75$100$0
$50 Lump Sum Tax$50$100$100$50

The idea is that the government should let each person make the best decision they can and then tax away. By altering the individual's incentives they make poorer decisions that "reduce the size of the pie". The problem is that it is simply not possible for the government to collect a lump-sum tax. The U.S. government would have to tax each person $8,000, which many people simply couldn't afford. Moreover, there would be no room for redistribution.

Some taxes can get close to a lump-sum tax. For example, taxing things that people are unlikely to change their consumption of--like tobacco or AIDS drugs. However, taxing the latter may not be in good taste. Another such tax is height. (Almost) no decision you can make will change your height. Thus, it does not distort decisions. Moreover, height is highly correlated with income, so a lot of costless redistribution can be achieved by taking from the tall and giving to the short.

Mankiw goes on to discuss various reasons why we are averse to the height tax despite the fact that it accords with our analysis.

(That was a lot more pedagogical that I thought it would be.)

One Economics, Many Recipes

I'm reading Dani Rodrik's (KSG) new book, One Economics, Many Recipes. The thesis is that neoclassical economics, when applied to developing countries, does not imply a single set of economic reforms. The book is a retort to two groups that are diametrically opposed to each other yet both disagree with this thesis. One group says that neoclassical economics does lead to a single policy recommendation for developing countries: the Washington Consensus. Only by following its dictates can developing countries become developed countries. The other group agrees, the Washington Consensus is the natural conclusion of neoclassical economics. And since the Washington Consensus is so clearly a bad policy (since it has failed so many times in the past) we must reject neoclassical economics and find a different analytical framework. Rodrik allows us to be neoclassical in our economics without being neoliberal in our politics.

He merely points out what should be obvious. Yes, if the only difference between an actual economy and the ideal Washington-Consensus economy is, say, import tariffs, then eliminating the import tariffs will lead to a benificent outcome. If all policies could be changed at once to the ideal policies, then by all means we should do it. But these first-best cases never arise. Rather, we are in a second-best world with many different distortions in the economy. Some distortions can be rectified now at a (political) cost, some cannot be rectified for a very long time. Policymakers in developing countries only have so much political capital.

Moreover, in a second-best world, correcting one distortion may actually make things worse. For example, perhaps a country has a corporation with a state-enforced monopoly on vast reserves of zinc. At the same time, there are import tariffs on zinc. The fact that the company is a monopoly causes too little zinc to be produced, but the import tariffs make it more profitable to produce zinc, increasing the amount that is produced. The result is that the corporation may produce closer to the optimal amount of zinc than they would have in the absence of either the monopoly power or the import tariff, but not both. Removing one or the other makes the entire situation worse.

The empirics of growth justify this view. The true growth miracles of the last 50 years have not adhered to the Washington Consensus. China, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India: these countries have had multifarious state-driven growth schemes. In China, the progression to a market economy was moderated by a two-track system in which the old state-run enterprises were allowed to exist until people opted out of them. South Korea's growth was driven by a variety of public/private partnerships and aggressive industrial policy. Meanwhile, there are countless cases where the Washington Consensus experiment did not pan out. Of course there are success stories as well. The point is that each country needs a growth strategy that is context-specific, not one-size-fits-all.

One concern I have for this theory is that it tries to do too much. Treating each country as a unique and special snowflake is all well and good, but from the perspective of science I am worried that it may lead to a theory with no empirically testable predictions. Insofar as there is a rigorous framework to determine the correct strategy for each country, that can be tested, but I am skeptical that this rigor can be maintained.

For more: Here is an article about Rodrik. Here is Rodrik's blog. Here is a seminar on this book hosted by Crooked Timber.

Lessig supports Obama!

Read all about it.

I, of course, love his attack on the Democrats' (or rather, Clinton's) strategy of "tiny speak", or saying as little as possible to offend as few as possible. (The Republicans, on the other hand, are sticking with the time-honored strategy of loudly and apparently unselfconsciously proclaiming painfully obvious untruths, which is usually pretty much a home-run, electorally. Now imagine what could happen for the Democrats if they mixed bold rhetoric with a policy position that was something less than an assault on reality or a transparent recourse to obscurantism?)

Elliot: defend your city.

The height of Washington elitism brought to New York City:

Last night, the D.C.-based Atlantic magazine celebrated 150 years of thought at the Kimmel Center Loading Dock at N.Y.U. In a striking display of awful judgment, the VIPs (Arianna Huffington, Moby, the Mayor) were allowed (forced) to mingle on stage. The poors sat in chairs in the auditorium and watched.

That's right. The actual party with the food and the booze took place on stage, while everyone who was invited but not really invited got to sit in theatre-style seating and observe the goings-on.

Here is some video of the event.


Apropos our discussion of carbon emissions, here is a newly-launched website that has data on carbon emissions for 50,000 power plants. Also, dig the name.

And, a much better use of graphs and charts than economics.

14 November, 2007

Rational choice and the Church

Your dear Elliot has recently been quite wrapped up in researching Mexico and Paraguay in comparative perspective, buying turkeys, and writing encyclopedias.

That said, Last week I read one of the most interesting things I have this semester: Anthony Gill's Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church in Latin America. In it, Gill applies a rational choice perspective to the actions of the Church in Latin America, especially vis-a-vis Church support for right-wing military dictatorship rather than for Liberation Theology. Spencer will certainly appreciate the irony of an "otherworldy" organization clearly revealed to have developed its political and theological strategy based upon very worldly economic considerations.

But that is exactly what Gill does. The Church has long been ambiguous for the Latin Americanist. On the one hand, you have Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who gave his up his career (and life) for his country's poor, along with many lesser priests of that era. On the other, the Church was buddy-buddy with some of the worst regimes in modern history - Nazism and Spanish Fascism in Europe, Gospel-inspired genocide in the colonial period (but also the resistance to such) and the modern day tyrannies of Videla in Argentina, among many others. Gill starts with the question: why does the Church choose very different positions (pro- vs. anti-dictatorship) in various historical situations?

His answer is at once simple and startling: competition is the key. In countries where there is an elevated presence of either Protestant sects, atheist Marxist movements, or a combination of both - that is, forces that constitute "substitutable goods" in direct competition with Catholic doctrine - the Church is forced to adopt a lower-class-friendly policy in order to maintain itself as an institution. So, in Chile, where Protestants had long made inroads and Marxism was so popular as to out-and-out elect a president, the Catholic Church was forced, by the incentive structure of competing ideologies, to move closer to working-class interests in order to remain relevant. Thus, during the Pinochet dictatorship, the Church was a vociferous proponent of democratization. His second case study is Argentina, where the Church, unthreatened by competing religious sects, allied with the military regime in order to repress Marxist/lower-class forces.

In each case, the hierarchy of the Church surveys the situation, calculates what action will best perpetuate its dominance in society, and acts accordingly. For me, it says something about the nature of the Church that it found it in its natural interests more often than not to support monarchical or dictatorial regimes. Even though I am not usually a proponent of rational choice (though after this, I may be more so) I think Gill has succeeded in capturing the Church rendering a bit more unto Caesar than they would like to admit to.

13 November, 2007

Absolutely incredible

This part of the Republican agenda scares me more than any other part:

What to do when the rain won't come? If you're Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, you pray.

The governor will host a prayer service next week to ask for relief from the drought gripping the Southeast.

"The only solution is rain, and the only place we get that is from a higher power," Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said on Wednesday.

Perdue's office has sent out invitations to leaders from several faiths for the service, set for Tuesday.

Perdue has several times mentioned the need for prayer -- along with water conservation -- as the state's drought crisis has worsened. Over the summer, he participated in day of prayer for agriculture at a gathering of the Georgia Farm Bureau in Macon, Ga.

Jesus H. Christ! More dangerous than bad solutions to problems is pretending that problems and solutions do not exist

Sometimes free is better.

There is a nice survey of recent work in "social marketing". Let's say we want to distribute, say, mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa because we think they are a good idea (massive health benefits at low cost) and we are paternalistic white-man's-burden types. We can either set up the distribution network ourselves and hand them out for free or we can attempt to create a market for the mosquito nets so that they are bought and sold voluntarily by those we want to assist. The virtue of the latter is that these structures will persist beyond our intervention. The virtue of the former is that it turns out empirically that making people pay for these sorts of aids decreases their use significantly.

There is a good theoretical argument for giving drugs away based on externalities. If you take a drug for, say, worms, that decreases your chance of getting worms, but also decreases *my* chance of getting worms. I can free ride to some extent by not taking the drug and letting everyone else pay the costs. Thus, too few people take it and it should be subsidized.

On the other hand, if people are not buying drugs or nets even when they are available, perhaps they do understand the benefits and simply think that something else is more worthwhile. In that case, we might be wrong about our paternalistic urges.

09 November, 2007

Methinks we doth protest too much

A topic that has been much discussed of late, pitched to our friend Paul Krugman. Will he take a swing?

Our big break

From Bruce Reed, over at Slate:

While we all hope Hollywood writers will be pencils up again soon, this could be the big break bloggers have been waiting for. Thanks to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, millions of members of "Stewart Colbert Nation" have become political junkies—and rather than settle for reruns, they are bound to scour the Web looking for material good enough to satisfy their fix.

Score one for the strike breakers. But it gets better: according to Reed, debaser in all likelihood already has more traffic than Rudy Guliani's campaign blog.

08 November, 2007

Do we have an individual, moral obligation to reduce carbon emissions?

CheatNeutral.com makes the point through satire that Cassady might make. They offer to offset your cheating on a loved one by paying another person to be faithful. Just like the carbon offsets that are so popular among the yippie class that wants to drive their SUV and feel okay about the environment too. Someone that Elliott once knew called them "modern-day indulgences".

CheatNeutral suggests that carbon offsets are simply an excuse for not controlling your own carbon emissions. To take it one step further, imagine a service that would prevent a murder for a cost. If you murder someone and pay for the service, the total number of murders does not change, yet you have still murdered someone. But is there the same kind of personal obligation to control one's carbon emissions?

A pithy retreat from substance

Just a short break here from the ongoing spencer/Cassady tax policy debate, to turn to another topic close to all of our hearts here at debaser: the inanity of the American press.

The news coverage of Venezuela has long been ridiculous (and correspondingly ridiculed: from the left, from the right, and, of course, the sublime.) Critics have noted the sensationalistic headlines, the selective use of economic statistics, the reliance on cookie-cutter story lines, and the not-so-subtle insinuations about the state of Hugo Chavez's mental health.

Of course, spencer may point out that this sort of criticism is just too easy. With that charge I wouldn't disagree. Indeed, it justifies my dismay: it is so easy because it is so widespread. There literally
isn't a multiplicity of viewpoints (outside of the blogosphere, that is, which is an increasingly important caveat) besides that one lukewarm apologetic pseudo-Democrat straw man that Fox gleefully beats up on night after night. The jingoistic line becomes the conventional wisdom, common sense, hegemonic. But at least such vene-laziness hasn't infected intelligent and substantive publications like Slate, right?

Wrong. Slate's Anne Applebaum has decided that the best way to repackage the old anti-Chavez cliches for re-publication is through the lens of celebrity. In her latest piece, timed for the 90th anniversary of the October Rebellion, she compares the US celebrities that have recently visited Venezuela with the intellectuals and journalists that once flocked to revolutionary Russia:

Fast forward 90 years, and surprisingly little has changed. True, the Russian revolution itself is no longer much admired, not even by Reed's heirs on the far left. But the impulse that drew Reed to St. Petersburg remains. The Western weakness for other people's revolutionary violence, the belief in the glamour and benevolence of foreign dictators, and the insistence on seeing both through the prism of Western political debates are still very much with us.

This is a point well taken. From American college students drunkenly singing IRA fighting songs to the glorification of El Che, we consistently romanticize "third world" or underdog struggles - in part a comment, I think, on how safe, boring and unsatisfying our own politics have become. But next, almost in a parody of her own statement, she uses her (highly questionable) interpretation of events in Venezuela as a weapon against her own domestic political adversaries. Hilariously, she writes

In fact, for the malcontents of Hollywood, academia, and the catwalks, Chávez is an ideal ally.

There you have it: I am officially in league with "the catwalks". We have strategy meetings every Tuesday to decide which "dictator" we want to flatter us next. And you're not invited. Seriously, though, Chavez is not loved nor defended by many in American Academe. Both economists and political scientists are very pessimistic about the intersection of oil and constitutional reform in Venezuela - but many are also concerned about an American foreign policy off of which it is easy to score political points.

So sure, it is valid to deride the self-absorbed celebrities duped or flattered into buying the Utopian rhetoric as if it hadn't been perfected by Peron more than half a century ago. But even as she decries that these celebrities have no grasp of the very deep, complex, historical context (an assertion as speculative as it is probably correct) Applebaum goes on to merely wave at those very issues on her way to indulging in juicy gossip disguised as informed indignation. Even while cautioning that the complexity of foreign affairs can easily become hostage to the "prism of Western political debates" she manipulates Venezuela in an attempt to demonstrate the ego-centric and shallow nature of the American Left. As if Hollywood and "the catwalk" represent the Left in any sense except in the minds and pens of the pundits. As if Sean Penn is in any way comparable to John Reed, or, for that matter, George Orwell or Herbert Matthews. As if anyone cares what Naomi Campbell thinks about Venezuela.

But thats the point: in making the debate about the Penns and the Campbells, it is less and less about Chavez or about US policy, or the underlying problem of how Latin America is to go about dealing with massive poverty, inequality, and political marginalization. Speaking of Penn, Applebaum says: "As for Venezuelan politics, or the Venezuelan people, they don't matter at all." She could be describing her own article, and most of the American press. In the words of Jon Stewart: Stop. Please. You're hurting us.

Update: BoRev got there first, as usual more eloquent than I.

No more Office!!!

But it sounds like they have some reasonable (and hilarious!) demands.

A resolution?

cassady: I think you may have misunderstood me, as I misunderstood your initial sarcasm

spencer: oh
were you being sarcastic?

cassady: not at all

spencer: ok

cassady: but maybe I didn't explain myself correctly
but then, hence blogging

spencer: yeah...i thought i understood what you were saying

cassady: And again, I don't think I know as much about the whole deal as you, but I read a little about the Lieberman-Warner thing, and I just feel like it's yet another half-assed attempt to make themselves feel good about being pro-environmental reform

spencer: that's entirely possible

cassady: I just think America-at-large needs to adopt a little bit more strict (dare I say radical?) sense of responsibility
and hold people accountable
INCLUDING themselves

spencer: i agree...but ultimately my support for these kinds of things comes from supporting the general welfare
so it's not so much about responsibility as getting the best result

cassady: But I feel like the best result you are arguing for has way too much to do with corporations making money and not people overall benefiting

spencer: I'm not sure I follow that because both schemes limit the amount of carbon equally.
Ultimately, I want the government to be able to tax the revenue away from corporations

cassady: I don't think so. I really am talking about a hard line. I want everyone to reduce emissions, based on the amount they create now (those general categories I talked about).
I think the cap situation (which you described VERY well in your last post) allows some people to get out from under it, and not really have to make any positive changes

spencer: no, that's totally right, some people do get out from under it and some people have to reduce more than the average, but the cap is the ultimate limit...from the perspective of the general public, why should i care what company is creating the emissions?

cassady: I'm just thinking to myself, "look, there was a carbuerator design in the 50's that would have given us 40 mpg AT LEAST on every vehicle, but it was bought up by an oil company and snuffed. People, in general, look for an easy way out, and if that's the case, then we're not really advancing in my mind, we're just shifting around a little bit
Well, I understand your concern for the utilitarian goal, and honestly, it's WAY better than nothing. I just think that there shouldn't be an option not to reduce emissions
And I know that people will say that's not feasible because of the strain on businesses, but you know what? I'm ok with companies, and consumers, taking a bit of hit if we accomplish a major goal as a people. I think in the end, my vision comes out with the truly greatest good, because not only do we get greater emissions reduction, but people learn a little about sacrifice and responsibility
I'm something of an idealist, if you couldn't tell

spencer: I must respectfully disagree...I don't care if any particular company does not reduce emissions if the total amount of emissions has been reduced to a tolerable level. And I don't think that it's about enriching corporations...under a carbon tax or auctioned permits the government would gain a lot of revenue which could be used for reducing other taxes, green technology, give it to the poor, whatever.
Basically, companies that do decide to keep polluting will be paying a high price because they'll have to purchase permits.
I guess I don't really buy the responsibility rhetoric...at least I don't prioritize it above getting the best utilitarian result.
Maybe a carbon tax would play better to the sense that everyone is doing their part?

cassady: Also under my system. And I don't think now that there's any reason why my system couldn't be a cap-and-trade system, so long as the cap were sufficiently strong, and the penalties matching
well, I don't know about that
I'm not trying to present a playground version of an everyone-get-along-nicely world where people are perfect, even though I know that's what it sounds like

spencer: Oh, I think that sounds like the opposite of what you are sayinmg.

cassady: I need what I'm saying to be more than just rhetoric for this to work, and I understand that perfectly
I'm too much of an idealist to exist in this world
ritual suicide is my only option
the values that I hold are shared by none. I have no place here.

spencer: Oh come on...I'm clearly the marginalized one here.

cassady: the utilitarian? get the fuck out

spencer: I wouldn't say I am utilitarian.

cassady: really?

spencer: I like to think of myself as a Rawlsian liberal, even though that's not entirely accurate.

cassady: not even as accurate as utilitarian, methinks

spencer: Well I don't know if utilitarians are for massive redistribution of income...

cassady: in the end, I just think that it is possible in modern America to devise a system that creates such powerful incentives that corporations are basically forced by common sense to comply
considering poverty, they might be
many people wouldn't be worse off by losing enough to support a homeless family

spencer: Yeah, I guess there is an argument to be made on the basis of the marginal value of a dollar.

cassady: don't get all economical on me here, just think about how many billions of dollars of pure profit are floating around that aren't even being used to fulfill someone's life everyday, and tell me that there isn't enough wealth to redistribute radically
honestly, guys like us probably wouldn't lose a dime

spencer: I agree that there's plenty of wealth out there, I just don't think that there are necessarily good ways to get at it.

cassady: That is true, at least
prying the rich away from their wealth takes more than a noble idea
but think, one multi-billionaire could provide for well over 30,000 people, making what I make now

spencer: i don't think it translates that easily...
because there is no mechanism to take those billions away without doing other things that are bad

cassady: only directly, I'm saying if they gave up everything but what they absolutely needed
well, sure

spencer: yeah

cassady: unless people all of a sudden just turn super-philanthropic

spencer: i mean, bill gates and warren buffet?

cassady: yeah, I know

spencer: anyway i got to go to bed
its late here

cassady: yeah, I'll blog at you more tomorrow

spencer: okay

cassady: To be continued, bitch

07 November, 2007

Beer and regalia!


Regrettably, I may not be able to have a new batch of beer done in time for the holiday festivities. Life, as we all learned from Tom Cochrane, is a highway, oft fraught with potholes and construction slow-downs. I don't know that my highway will be clear enough in December to devote the necessary attention to aging and bottling so as to deliver optimal flavor and balance.

However, undaunted by the realities of life, I will press on and brew my heart out, whatever the cost. I ask only understanding, and seek only to inform and raise no false hopes.

That said, that beer of choice for the month has been decided. I will try for a English-style brown ale, of the type enjoyed (copiously) at pubs throughout burroughs and hamlets in the vicinity of Hadrian's Wall. By tradition, and English brown ale is a bigger (more alcoholic), sweeter (more malt body) version of the standard English mild--the standard pub ale.

I opt for this over a stout or porter for the sake of palatability. This beer should be enjoyed by a larger cross-section of our general friend-demographic.


Carbon Tax vs. Cap-'n-Trade

There are pretty much two schools of thought on reducing carbon emissions (a third school of thought--quotas or standards--I will summarily dismiss because a cap-and-trade system would simply be better in every way). Joe Lieberman and John Warner have a cap-and-trade proposal in the Senate now, while others stubbornly cling to carbon taxes. Both of these are good solutions, but differ on a variety of criteria.

Efficiency: Assume for the moment that we know the efficient quantity of carbon emissions, where the marginal social cost of another ton of carbon emissions equals the marginal social benefit. It turns out that setting a carbon tax equal to the difference between the marginal social cost and the marginal private cost of carbon emissions achieves exactly the same result as setting a cap at the efficient level of carbon emissions and letting companies trade their permits. In the cap-and-trade scheme the price of a carbon permit will be exactly the amount of the optimal tax.

Distribution: The government collects the revenue from a carbon tax. Under cap-and-trade, however, this same revenue is collected by the corporations to whom carbon permits are initially given. Is it better to have these rents in the hands of the government or shareholders? You can make this call for yourself, but I'll give this round to the carbon tax. (Yes, you can design an auction for the permits that captures some of this revenue, but not all of it.)

Information: What is easier to determine: the efficient level of carbon emissions or the difference between the marginal social cost and the marginal private cost? I'm going to give this one to the carbon tax because the optimal tax probably changes a lot less frequently than the efficient quantity. Moreover, it is probably easier to overshoot with a cap than a tax because of different psychological baseline. However, this is entirely speculation.

Politics: Cap-and-trade seems to be more palatable to the public because people hate taxes. As usual, this seems to be the factor that drives public policy proposals.


Falafel eaters beware! You could be eating your next falafel in double-Guantanamo:

Like Hansel and Gretel hoping to follow their bread crumbs out of the forest, the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists.

The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.

By this measure, my apartment is a hotbed of terrorist activity. (Hat tip to Krugman.)

Waiters talk funny:

For instance, at lunch just the other day, a server asked me not if I would “enjoy another iced tea” (and I thank him for avoiding the dread and presumptuous “enjoy”). He asked me: “Did you care for another iced tea?”

And I wanted to say: “Yes. After a first iced tea broke my heart, I learned to trust and love again, and I bought a bottle of Snapple, peach-flavored. I cared for it deeply.”

And finally, George Bush's "strong disapproval" rating has risen two points above Richard Nixon's record 48%.

Two of my favorite things...

Bourbon and bluegrass. Anyone up for this roadtrip?

06 November, 2007

A new development strategy.

In The Know: Is Our Wealth Hurting Africa�s Feelings?

"Thats not left wing; thats stupid"

Here is an entertaining video of Grover Norquist (cool name; utter ungulate) decrying the (possibly?) imminent reform of the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) in Congress. Or decrying something about taxes, anyway.

The AMT is a tax that was levied in 1969 to close the loopholes on high-incomes that were getting away with not paying taxes. However, as it is not indexed to inflation, it has increasingly migrated to people of middle-class incomes. Charlie Rangel, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has proposed a "pass" for those under a certain income ceiling.


Our long national nightmare is over.

Brad Delong declares that the long-anticipated landing of the dollar has come and that it is soft.

Defunct, but utterly brilliant


05 November, 2007

A tribute to Mr. Poehling

This is hilarious. My favorite, of course, is the Chinese-Engrish translation mix-up.


Good Memories

Just trying to see if I can in fact place a video in the midst of my post:

Sorry if anyone is scarred for life.

Matthew Yglesias praises John Edwards:

Good for Edwards. I've found it infuriating how little the leading Democrats seem inclined to engage with the key strategic elements of Bush's response to 9/11 and this is the biggest nail that needs hammering down. Bush replaced decades of non-proliferation policy, to say nothing of centuries of good sense and basic morality, to decide that unilateral preventive military action should be at the center of our approach to dealing with the world. This is nonsense. The United States has long got along fine without waging such wars, and our effort to wage one has been a disaster.

But hasn't the U.S. been waging unilateral wars since time immemorial? Vietnam? Intervention in Lebanon (1958), the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Haiti (1994)? And feel free to add the wars nominally run by multilateral organizations that Elliot would surely say are simply arms of U.S. foreign policy. However, I think this just strengthens Edwards' argument; after all, these wars have typically not turned out so well.

Hmm...my first blog. I hardly even know what to say.

Bababooie bababooie Howard Stern's penis bababooie bababooie!

04 November, 2007

this is a test

this is only a test