31 January, 2008

Liveblogging the Debate

9:54 - And it's over. Barack performed well, but I fear that he was too nice to Hillary, too cordial, too friendly. I fear that people would prefer a Clinton-Obama ticket to Obama-Someone Else. We shall see.

9:32 - Oops! Eating.

9:05 - Liveblogging is tough. Hillary: "Being the first woman president would be a huge CHANGE for America."

9:03 - Hillary: "REAL change in PEOPLE's lives that I am PROUD of."

8:55 - Oh no, the next two issues are going to be character and experience. This is going to go downhill quickly.

8:53 - As Andrew Sullivan said, this is a pretty even debate, which he thinks will be good for the Clintons.

8:51 - Chinese food ordered. It's going to be a long night.

8:49 - This is a surprisingly serious debate.

8:44 - Hillary: "It's not practical to round up immigrants and deport them." Wow, she's really going for the Hispanic vote.

8:42 - Barack: "We should not use immigration as a scapegoat for the economy." Awesome.

8:39 - YEESH! A nasty question: how do you address the fact that immigrant labor negatively affects African-Americans? Barack: "I believe that we can be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants!" Hear ye!

8:37 - Why do they let Wolf Blitzer host like 20 debates?

8:32 - Finally, a debate that is actually about things that Democrats might care about! And not even a shade of Russertism.

8:29 - You can just tell that Hillary is secretly a huge wonk...which I sort of like. But excessive wonkiness leads to excessive bureaucracy.

8:27 - Obama wants to broadcast the health care negotiations on C-SPAN! That would be cool.

8:25 - Why is Obama making such a stand on no mandates for health care? Is this Austan Goolsbee's fault? He may be right, but why even start a debate on such a relatively minor point?

8:24 - Hillary: "If you don't try to get universal health care, you will be NIBBLED TO DEATH!"

8:20 - Hmm...Obama is making good points about health care. The people who won't be covered under his plan are people who don't want health care. That just makes mandated health care a transfer from healthy people to unhealthy people. But does that really make sense?

8:18 - Hillary has larger-than-expected eyebrows. So these are the substantive differences: health care, Iraq, mortgage crisis?

8:15 - Now Obama is talking about health care...its interesting that they both highlight the differences that have NOT worked in their favor.

8:14 - Clearly the tickets to this debate were not democratically distributed. So far I have seen Rob Reiner and Chelsea Clinton, but very little of the so-called Latino vote.

8:13 - They ask what their policy differences are and Hillary starts talking about foreign policy. Is that smart? After all she is a warmonger.

8:09 - Obama makes a nice opening statement, using part of his stump speech which is very recognizable to those of us who have followed him.

8:00 - Obama has HUGE hands! Why are there all of these photographers?

7:50 - Some CNN talking head just compared Hillary to the New England Patriots...get her a latte!

Obama and Clinton

  • Obama's rich gay money men.
  • How former Daschle and Kerry staffers are flocking to the Obama campaign.
  • Obama vs. Clinton as a contest between realism and romanticism:
    If you find yourself drawn to the Clinton candidacy, you likely believe that politics is politics, that partisanship isn’t transmutable, that Republicans are for the most part irredeemable. You suspect that talk of transcendence amounts to humming “Kumbaya” past the graveyard. You believe that progress comes only with a fight, and that Clinton is better equipped than Obama (or maybe anyone) to succeed in the poisonous, fractious environment that Washington is now and ever shall be. You ponder the image of Bill as First Laddie and find yourself smiling, not sighing or shrieking.

    If you find yourself swept up in Obamamania, on the other hand, you regard this assessment as sad, defeatist, as a kind of capitulation. You’re perfectly aware that politics is often a dirty business. But you believe it could be a bit cleaner, a bit nobler, a bit more sustaining. You think that paradigm shifts can happen, that the system can be rebooted. Most of all, an attraction to Obama indicates you are, on some level, a romantic. You never had your JFK, your MLK, and you desperately crave one: What you want is to fall in love.

    A vote for Clinton, in other words, is a wager rooted in hard-eyed realism. Her upside may be limited, but so is her downside, because although the ceiling on her putative presidency might be low, the floor beneath it is fairly high. A vote for Obama, as the Big Dog said, is indeed a role of the dice. The risks of his hypothetical presidency are higher, but the potential payoff is greater: He could be the next Jack Kennedy—or the next Jimmy Carter. The gamble here entails both the thrill and the terror of letting yourself dream again.

    Hillary is the candidate of decreasing returns. The more work you do, the less it helps. Obama is the candidate of increasing returns. One push and you've opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

Tubes and the Internets

In light of a recent widespread internet outage hitting Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa today, I thought I'd post a little educational info on the Tubes.

The outage was caused by a break in a cable running under the Meditteranean near Alexandria, Egypt. Apparently these cables can be cut by boat anchors or even shark bites (really?). A look at current cables carrying internet and telephone traffic between continents:


As you can note in this picture, another area that seems to have a lack of backup or direct routes is between the Americas to Asia. Rumor on the Internets has it that Google is considering building their own trans-Pacific cable, possibly under the name "Project Unity." Then they won't be having to share their Tubes with (or rent them from) anyone else. Oh Google, you make even a verticle monopoly look good.

A new morality

Steven Pinker outlines a new approach to morality in the New York Times Magazine (I think this is a few weeks old.)

30 January, 2008

Debaser in-house campaign art critique

Shepard Fairey, a New York based graphic artist (some of you East Coasters may have seen the Obey Giant public art/graffiti in your cities; thats him) has come out with a Obama campaign poster that I find particularly effective:



Its both boldly fresh and old-school, and I find I like the slogan "progress" much more than "change" -- change is sort of vague, and can go in either direction, while progress, especially in that big font, conveys dynamism and forward momentum. It also implicitly positions Obama as the progressive candidate, after Clinton has tried to paint him as to the right of her. The design is pleasingly simple, and the whole effect just seems very Democrat -- by that, I mean it evokes the self-image of the Democratic party as down-to-earth, wholesome, and forward-looking. Fairey is selling large prints of the poster on his website, and the proceeds are going towards plastering all of New York state with the image.

Also, looking at it some more, I also really like the ambiguity of the word "progress": is it being used as a verb or a noun? If you read it as a noun, then the poster is simply equating Obama with progress. If you read it as a verb, then it is Obama telling you, the reader of the poster, to progress! Read that way, it is a much more personal and active message.

Not to be outdone, our friends over at Gawker (via Wonkette) have engineered a corresponding poster for the Clinton campaign:



Also quite effective in its own way, no?

29 January, 2008

Will Wilkinson on culture, freedom

Some version of me believes wholeheartedly in all of these sentiments. Cultural freedom versus political freedom:

There is also a cultural notion of freedom that is not identical with political freedom and is deeply important to people. If we lived in a libertarian wonderland of minimal government, yet where social norms were so stringent that any woman who dared aspire to a career, or any man who dared love another man, or anyone who dared to deny God, would be faced with ferocious social ostracism, isolation, and exclusion, then we would have to say that all people in our society are not free in a very morally deep sense.

Immigration and cosmopolitanism:
Reason: It seems strange to worry more about inequality within the arbitrary boundaries of a nation-state than about much larger global inequalities.

Pritchett: Exactly. I’ve never understood a view of the world in which the place in which a person was born becomes the key factor in whether you care about them.


Pritchett is nice; he says he doesn’t understand this view of the world. What I’d like to think he means is that it is obviously a sign of a shamefully stunted moral sense to see shared national membership as the key condition for giving a damn.

On virtue:
I am more and more coming to the conclusion that National Greatness Conservatism, like all quasi-fascist movements, is based on a weird romantic teenager’s fantasies about what it means to be a grown up. The fundamental moral decency of liberal individualism seems, to the unserious mind that thinks itself serious, completely insipid next to very exciting big boy ideas about shared struggle, sacrifice, duty, glory, virtue, and (most of all) power. And reading Aristotle in Greek.

I sometimes think that liberal individualism is something like the intellectual and moral equivalent of the best modernist design — spare, elegant, functional — but hard to grasp or truly appreciate without a cultivated sense of style, without a little discerning maturity. National Greatness Conservatism is like a grotesque wood-paneled den stuffed with animal heads, mounted swords, garish carpets, and a giant roaring fire. Only the most vulgar tuck in next to that fire, light a fat cigar, and think they’ve really got it all figured out. But I’m afraid that’s pretty much the kind of thing you get at the Committee on Social Thought. If you declaim the importance of virtue loudly enough, you don’t have to actually think.

Goodbye, Rudy

Like Yglesias, I'm enjoying a more than ample serving of Schadenfreude knowing that Rudy Giuliani will not be president. Despite the fact that he lead national polls for nearly the entire campaign, he finished a pathetic sixth, fourth, sixth in the first three states and after living in Florida for two months has come up with an equally pathetic third place finish there. America has rejected a corrupt, immoral, war-mongering, power-hungry bully.

Consumption

I was going to post this as a comment on Elliott's post below, but it was long so I made it a real post.

Let's deconstruct Cassady's comment:

Isn't that one of the main economic conundrums? I seem to recall that basically no matter what we do, the marginal propensity to spend goes down even if that lowest quintile (you and me, friends)gets the highest proportion of rebates. I could be wrong about this, but I also think that marginal propensity to spend is one of those quirky statistics that is very difficult to accurately predict. I mean, economists rarely take into account such fantastic products as "Jump to Conclusion" mats and Tickle-me Elmo's. Sign me up for two!


(As an aside, Cassady's conception of the income distribution of the United States is woefully inadequate. Those of us who aren't students are certainly not in the lowest quintile, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of us fall into the middle 20%. Yes Virginia, 40% of households (not even individuals) in the United States make less than $34,738 per year.)

There are a number of competing theories about the marginal propensity to spend (or consume, as it is usually put). One is known as Ricardian equivalence. Basically, the government has a budget constraint, at least in the long run. They can't spend more than they tax. So, if the deficit increases (via, say, a stimulus package) and everyone gets more money, they realize that the government will have to raise taxes by exactly the same amount in the future and so they save the money. Under this theory, stimulus has no effect.

The rest of the theory is basically a melange of tweaks that are made to this basic model to eke out a positive effect on consumption from government spending or tax cuts. If you include a constraint on saving for example. Then there are behavioral models, which don't even try to rationalize behavior, but try to use insights from psychology to create a model that is better at predicting behavior. Predictions from these models are mixed.

So basically, we know nothing.

Davos: Where money meets power and they have breakfast together

From this account of Davos:

Yesterday morning I woke up early. Was sitting in the hotel lobby at 7 a.m. trying to check email when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Mark Zuckerberg, founder/CEO of Facebook, which now has 68 million active users (people who’ve signed on in the past 30 days).

He invited me to a breakfast with Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf.

Obama: A good guy

Check out this story recounted by Bill Richardson:

"I had just been asked a question -- I don't remember which one -- and Obama was sitting right next to me. Then the moderator went across the room, I think to Chris Dodd, so I thought I was home free for a while. I wasn't going to listen to the next question. I was about to say something to Obama when the moderator turned to me and said, 'So, Gov. Richardson, what do you think of that?' But I wasn't paying any attention! I was about to say, 'Could you repeat the question? I wasn't listening.' But I wasn't about to say I wasn't listening. I looked at Obama. I was just horrified. And Obama whispered, 'Katrina. Katrina.' The question was on Katrina! So I said, 'On Katrina, my policy . . .' Obama could have just thrown me under the bus. So I said, 'Obama, that was good of you to do that.'"
Is there any doubt in your mind that Hillary Clinton would have shot back a cold, stony stare?

UPDATE: I think that this is the incident described above. Richardson recovers well:

28 January, 2008

The Root

Slate today is advertising The Root, a new online magazine featuring "black perspectives on politics, culture, and history." I'm not sure how related it is to Slate.com (and thus the Washington Post), or who its contributers are. But it already looks to be a rich new resource.

26 January, 2008

Self-Stimulation

From the Tax Policy Center, via Paul Krugman, the breakdown of where the Amazing Bipartisan Stimulus (lets call it ABS) rebates are going, by income quintile. As Krugman points out, the rebates going to the top two quintiles are basically useless, because, as I understand it, marginal propensity to spend decreases as income increases. Thus, the higher quintiles will spend less if any of the rebate, and add less boost to the economy. For maximum impact, the rebates should be loaded exactly the opposite way -- towards the lowest two quintiles. But even if that had been the case, there is question as to whether lower income households will spend their rebate at all when faced with looming recession and possible stagflation.

Why such an irrational policy outcome? Why, democracy, of course. Apparently irrational outcomes become perfectly rational once you reject the misconception of government as a unified actor. Republicans want to provide a stimulus that will look like some sort of positive action while actually serving their underlying ideological motivations: fewer taxes for the rich, or, at least, less income redistribution. The Democrats, now in the majority, also want to look like they are doing something. They succeeded in making the stimulus more effective to a certain extent -- Krugman notes, "it’s only thanks to the Democrats that people likely to spend their rebate are getting anything at all" -- but they are severely constrained by their weak majority and internal party divisions. Centrist Democrats get as much flak from liberal Democrats as they do from Republicans, and without party unity the Democrats are unable to effectively wield their paper-thin majority.

Much like with Iraq, it seems the outcome of this drama will look something like this: Republicans manage to block effective action on the part of the divided Democrats. But the Democrats, who are "in control" of the Legislature, will take much of the brunt of the blame. Meanwhile, policy outcomes will be largely incoherent -- which might be better than coherent and Republican -- but still, nothing good is getting done. This will always be the problem of strong oppositions in presidential systems. In a parliamentary system, an opposition party majority in the legislature would have produced a new Prime Minister, while in the US we just get two years of incoherence.

I'm not sayin'...

I'm just sayin'. This is the blog that bears our rightful address? Its not even active, for Allah's sake. Debaser deserves better.

25 January, 2008

The Rather Predictable Update

After two days of essentially uncontrolled movement between Gaza and Rafah, the Egyptian government initiated attempts to close the Gaza border but fails to do so today, as more portions of the wall are destroyed. The results are mixed reactions from both Hamas and the Gazan people, but the feeling remains that the border will be closed again soon, and seizing the moment means bringing consumables back into Gaza while the wall breaches still exist.

Israel still appears to hold out hopes that Egypt will take Gaza, or at least the humanitarian crisis there, off their hands. At the same time, as reported by The New York Times,

Early on Friday, Israel killed the Hamas military commander of Rafah, Muhammad Harb, and a deputy when planes fired on his car near the border. He was said to have commanded the men who blew down the border wall and, Israel said, was involved in a raid into Israel in 2006.

In truth, it does not seem like Israel's actions or attitude will have much effect on whether Egypt will be willing to take responsibility for Gaza. Egyptian officials have repeatedly indicated that the government refuses to entertain the option.

Brady

This is pretty good...

24 January, 2008

Mr. Mubarak tears...well, lets Hamas tear down that wall

The seige of Gaza is broken, at least for a moment and at least for Rafah, by Hamas. Yesterday the group destroyed a half-mile section of the wall along the Gaza-Egypt border, allowing those trapped in Gaza to walk across to buy food, medicines, and other supplies whose prices have skyrocketed since Israel stopped admitting supplies into the area. Rafah, a Berlin-esque city since Egypt sealed the Gaza border, became the unexpected host of reunions on both sides of the broken wall.

The general opinion of those crossing the border, says the New York Times report, has shifted away from blaming Hamas for the recent hardship brought on by the Israeli seige, to a hesitant approval over opening the border.

Though this article seems overly optimistic in its predicitons of drastic changes in the Egypt-Gaza relationship:

“This may be a blessing in disguise,” [a senior Israeli official] said. “On the level of smuggling, weapons and so on, it makes no difference. But if it continues like this, it will ease tremendously the pressure on Israel on the humanitarian level. The humanitarian organizations will get off our backs. There won’t be any shortages. So that is a good thing. We don’t care if people buy food in Egypt. And terrorists come in anyway.
...
Another Israeli official said of the border: “Instead of being unofficially open, it will now be officially open. We are starting to talk about it. Some people in the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry and prime minister’s office are very happy with this. They are saying, ‘At last, the disengagement is beginning to work.’ ”


It seems despite the momentary enthusiasm that it is unlikely anything involving inter-state or border policies will change. Still, Egypt comes out of this one (so far) looking all the more humane for the ordeal.

22 January, 2008

A little off topic, but...

Usually the smart Venezuelan opposition blog Caracas Chronicles is busy slamming Chavismo and waxing eloquent on the disappearance of the Habermasian public sphere. Recently, however, I came across a wonderful little post on the author's attempt to teach himself Japanese. He begins by describing the difference between alphabetic and ideographic (Chinese and Japanese) languages:

So the relationship between image, sound and meaning is just sliced up in a fundamentally different way. Alphabetic writing links the image of the word on the page with a sound and leaves it up to us to memorize its (arbitrary) meaning. Ideographic writing links the image of the word on the page with a meaning and forces us to memorize an (arbitrary) sound.

If you want a pretty cool visual demonstration of just what that means, check out the whole post -- I'm not sure the characters will come through on debaser. As a former, and hopefully future, student of Chinese, this is one of the best (short) descriptions I have found for how the vastly different structure of Far Eastern languages shapes the manner in which the mind approaches and communicates the reality that confronts it. Good stuff.

21 January, 2008

Surging towards what?

Living in Washington, one hears lots of gloating these days from those who feel vindicated by The Surge and its supposed success. Yglesias decodes the bullshit rather satisfyingly:

The case for the surge, and the war more generally, has long been bound up in a failure to think coherently about purposes and objectives. If, instead, you throw a bunch of troops into the mix, have them do a bunch of stuff, see what happens, and then define in retrospect whatever it is they're accomplishing as the purpose of the mission, then, sure, new tactics are working. When our old tactics were aimed at having our troops wander around the desert and kill armed Sunni Arabs, we succeeded in doing that. Switch tactics to helping to train and equip these very same people, and now we're succeeding at doing that. But what are we trying to accomplish?

The Surge has decreased violence in Baghdad, but a decrease in violence was only a means to the end that political reconciliation take place. Said reconciliation has not taken place, and the troop increases that made the decrease in violence possible are not sustainable. Wherein, then, the success?

Reverberating words from another war

Martin Luther King Jr.:

"Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism...

It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home, America...I call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, "You're too arrogant! And if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I'll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name."

Thanks to the Berkeley library.

Favre Falls

...will Obama be next? The trio of world-History is in danger. Al Gore where are you?

20 January, 2008

Where you stand in respect to these words is everything that is important about you

Suffering the gloom, inevitable as breath, we must further accept this fact that the world hates: We are forever incomplete, fragments of some ungraspable whole. Our unfinished natures — we are never pure actualities but always vague potentials — make life a constant struggle, a bout with the persistent unknown. But this extension into the abyss is also our salvation. To be only a fragment is always to strive for something beyond ourselves, something transcendent. That striving is always an act of freedom, of choosing one road instead of another. Though this labor is arduous — it requires constant attention to our mysterious and shifting interiors — it is also ecstatic, an almost infinite sounding of the exquisite riddles of Being.

To be against happiness is to embrace ecstasy. Incompleteness is a call to life. Fragmentation is freedom. The exhilaration of never knowing anything fully is that you can perpetually imagine sublimities beyond reason. On the margins of the known is the agile edge of existence. This is the rapture, burning slow, of finishing a book that can never be completed, a flawed and conflicted text, vexed as twilight.


I recommend the full essay, "In Praise of Melancholy".

18 January, 2008

Al Franken

...is running for Senate in Minnesota! Here's one of his TV ads:
Apparently he's even in the polls with Norm Coleman. The question is: what kind of Senator would Franken be? In these ads he's clearly trying to make the point that he's "serious" about politics. So, would he end up being boring and stodgy? Would his floor speeches be hilarious? Would he snark his way through committee meetings?

17 January, 2008

Blast from the Past

Rumsfeld poetry:

A Confession
Once in a while,
I'm standing here, doing something.
And I think,
"What in the world am I doing here?"
It's a big surprise.

—May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times

16 January, 2008

Russertism

Matt Yglesias analyzes the scourge of contemporary political coverage: Tim Russert. Enjoyable, if depressing, reading on the workings of our pundit class.

11 January, 2008

Napolitano endorses Obama

This week Janet Napolitano made public her endorsement for presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, providing him with a potentially powerful ally. Aside from her political sway, there has been talk of her being a potential running mate for Obama, should he win the party nomination. Of course, this could be setting us up for a bit of 2004 deja vu - as Napolitano was rumored to be a possible pick for Kerry's first mate, while Edwards ended up with the job.

Would Napolitano make a good VP candidate?

She can certainly handle a state's finances, turning Arizona's billion dollar deficit into a billion dollar surplus after taking office in 2002. Experience is on her side for handling a Republican legislature. Here's a link with her take on border security and illegal immigration, and another highlighting her environmental concerns.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/01/opinion/01napolitano.html

http://www.governor.state.az.us/dms/upload/NR_090806_CCAG.pdf

09 January, 2008

Will the New Mexican be old news?

NYtimes sent the email update that tomorrow Bill Richardson will announce whether or not he is dropping out of the primaries since

In New Hampshire on Tuesday, Mr. Richardson won less than 5 percent of the vote.
In Iowa last Thursday, he finished with 2 percent of the caucus vote

Reportedly this could last until February 5th according to the website: http://www.santafenewmexican.com/

But to whom will his followers turn?

Mr. Richardson was the only Democrat to rise to Mrs. Clinton’s defense as she was seen to be criticized by other candidates in an early Democratic debate.

At the same time, reports had been circulating that the Richardson campaign had told supporters to make Mr. Obama their second-place choice in Iowa — reports that both campaigns denied, but were said to have driven a wedge between his campaign and the Clinton campaign.


Although Elliot holds memories of Bill (who will leave office as governor in 2010), we shall build new ones with hope that his followers add to the Obama-nation.

07 January, 2008

Competence

A very interesting essay from Tim Burke:

I would like to find a way to circulate an emotionally resonant, intangibly powerful, deeply felt national narrative about why it matters to govern well, why training and knowledge and skill are not just good things in and of themselves, but produce tangibly good outcomes in the lives of all Americans. I think it can be done, but it needs to work upwards from everyday life rather than downwards from the inside-the-Beltway world. Whether you work as a waitress in a greasy spoon, a middle-manager in a large firm, or as a high-powered professional, you’ve seen what happens to systems which otherwise were working just fine when someone who is both incompetent and intensely unprincipled gets access to power. (Unless you’re one of those people who is both incompetent and intensely unprincipled, in which case, read no further: this is not for you.) We all know how horrible and final the consequences of unnecessary failure can be.

Bjorn Lomborg

Elliot and I had discussed him...sort of a goofball hack, apparently.

Resource Constraints

I wanted to write a post about this Jared Diamond op-ed in the Times a few days ago, but I waited too long and my will petered out. These were the points I would have made:


  • The worst opening sentence I have ever ever read: "To mathematicians, 32 is an interesting number: it’s 2 raised to the fifth power, 2 times 2 times 2 times 2 times 2."

  • We don't need political will to deal with limited resources, we need well-defined property rights and a market. This is exactly what a price-driven allocation system is designed to deal with.

  • A wild prediction: we will never run out of any resource! As we use up current sources of a particular resources, new sources are discovered. Except it costs more to get oil from those sources, so the price rises. As the price rises, people use less. When oil is $1000/barrel, someone will still want it for some purpose and people will still be willing to drill very very deep for it. This is not to say that the transition away from oil won't be painful, but it is to say that it will happen without government intervention.

  • The whole piece purports to be about running up against resource constraints and how we unsustainably use forests and fisheries and oil and the like, but his policy prescriptions are about climate change. These are very distinct issues and have very different implications. If the only problem with using oil was that we might run out of it some day I would absolutely not be in favor of a gasoline tax. But since using oil also contributes to climate change, I am.

  • Diamond says "Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because ... [m]uch American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life." That's just silly, of course real sacrifice is required. Any time the price of something rises, people's real incomes fall.

  • This op-ed just fuels the conservative canard that those crazy environmental activists want us to return to primitive standards of living.

  • Matt Yglesias points out that it is not so much inequality in resource consumption as U.S. government actions that are the root cause of terrorism.

TV

Watching political TV all day makes you go crazy.

Being in Massachusetts I see all of the New Hampshire ads. They are mostly for Edwards, though, surprisingly, I saw on Kucinich ad.

Tom Brokaw on the Republican race: "It's a jumpball out there, it's a real scrum and you can handicap it nine ways from Sunday." Three sports metaphors in one sentence!

Apparently the media has decided that the Obama win in Iowa and lead in NH polls is a "phenomenon" and that Hillary is done for. Every ten minutes they play this clip of Hillary getting choked up at a campaign event. Instead of spinning it as "Hillary is human, this gets her votes" they are spinning it as "Hillary is done for and is really really sad".

Agents of Change

It's pretty interesting to note the difference between the rhetoric on the Democratic and Republican sides of this primary contest. On the Democratic side, it is all about who is an "agent of change". On the Republican side, it used to be about who is the "true conservative". Now, they are debating who is the "agent of change". The fact that liberal rhetoric is leading conservative rhetoric, as opposed to Kerry's ridiculous Vietnam-veteran-flogging in 2004, seems to be a good thing for Democrats.

Correlation IS NOT Causation

A classic example of mixing up correlation and causation. PolySigh regresses Huckabee's vote percentages on the percentage of Catholics by county and finds that Catholic counties tended to go for Romney. PolySigh concludes: "Huckabee did best among evangelicals in rural areas with lots of religious adherents. On the other hand, he did poorly among Catholics."

Unfortunately, there is a confounding variable. Catholic populations are higher in urban areas than in rural areas. People in urban areas tend to support Romney, people in rural areas tend to support Huckabee. So we have a negative correlation between Catholicism and votes for Huckabee that can be explained by looking at a third factor. Another reason to find this alternative explanation more convincing is because Catholics mostly vote Democratic anyway, so only a few would be voting in the Republican primary.

This also illustrates the difference between types of data. If PolySigh had access to vote-level data instead of just county-level data, he could run the same regression and get a better estimate because you could see exactly how many Catholics are voting for Huckabee and how many are voting for Romney. The data aggregated to county-level loses several dimensions of information.

I'm not sure why Henry Farrell picked this up since it seems rather obvious.

Vacuous Political Speculation

Matt Yglesias makes a very important point about political science/journalism/speculation, though he may not know it:

I think it bears mentioning that it's always worth trying to not overread the trends. A month ago, it looked like Hillary Clinton would probably win the nomination. At the same time, it was clear back then that Obama wasn't prohibitively far behind in Iowa or anything. And it was clear that winning Iowa would give him a big edge in winning in New Hampshire. And it was also clear that if Obama swept Iowa and New Hampshire, the powerful culinary workers union was unlikely to back Clinton. And it was also clear that if Obama won in two lily-white states, that the odds favored African-Americans flocking to his banner in South Carolina. And it was clear that all that would create a lot of momentum working against Clinton moving into the big states.

We knew all that, but because it looked like Obama probably wouldn't win Iowa, that pro-Obama cascade looked unlikely. Then Obama did win Iowa, making the cascade look likely. And I think it is the most probable outcome. But just as Obama once looked like he would lose in Iowa and then won, just because Clinton looks down now hardly makes it impossible for her to recover.
The point is that while Clinton looked inevitable, she clearly was not. And everyone overestimated her chances of winning. Now, everyone is, I'll bet, overestimating Obama's chances of winning. I think that there are two problems.

The first problem is that political bloviating of the kind that we and Yglesias and others do is based on extremely unscientific methods. A popular tactic is to sketch a plausible "path to victory" for a candidate. This is all well and good and it's fun to imagine what it would be like if that happened, but what does it actually tell us? Narratives are useful for organizing history, but very very bad at predicting the future.

This is because you can come up with a narrative for every set of occurences and there is no standard by which you can choose one that is the most accurate. I could flip a coin five times, come up with a story about why I got Heads, Tails, Heads, Heads, Tails, and use that story to predict the next flip. But it is still going to be decided by randomness. We may have a bit more information about elections, but not much. The narratives that are bandied about distract us from that fact.

The second problem is that political pundits underestimate the amount of randomness that affects the election process and politics in general. Another way of saying this is that they overestimate the amount of information they have about the end result. This is partially because narratives play such a large role in our political thinking. It's very easy to be convinced by a story.

It's also important to keep in mind, that, looking back, the story that got everything right will appear to be prescient--but it is not. With a narrative for each set of outcomes, at least one of them will look good in hindsight even if the outcomes are totally random.

Political Prediction Markets

The reaction of the political prediction markets to events in Iowa has been fascinating. (A recap of how these markets work: you can buy a contract that pays you $100 if event X happens and $0 if it does not happen. Then the price of the contract is the market's "estimate" of the percentage probability of the event.) On the Republican side it is clear that Romney's loss was much more important than Huckabee's win. After winning in Iowa, Huckabee is only up 3 points. On the other hand, McCain's chances of winning the nomination are 10 points higher and even Rudy is up 4 points. Romney has sunk from a 25% chance of winning to a new low of 13%.

On the Democratic side, Obama has gone from 20% to 63% in the last four days, and Hillary Clinton has gone from 70% to 35%. Edwards dropped from 8% to 2%. Poor Hillary, it looks like the Obama landslide is in full force.

06 January, 2008

Obamanomics

Obama knows his economics:

SEN. OBAMA: I do disagree with one thing, though, that Bill said, and that is that on a carbon tax the cost will be passed onto consumers and that won't happen with a cap-and-trade. Under a cap-and-trade there will be a cost. Plants are going to have to retrofit their equipment, and that's going to cost money, and they will pass it onto consumers. We have an obligation to use some of the money that we generate to shield low-income and fixed-income individuals from high electricity prices, but we're also going to have to ask the American people to change how they use energy. Everybody's going to have to change their light bulbs. Everybody's going to have to insulate their homes. And that will be a sacrifice, but it's a sacrifice that we can meet. Over the long term it will generate jobs and businesses and can drive our economy for many decades.
This in rebuttal to Bill Richardson, whose stature just sinks lower and lower. Mankiw reports :
In case you are curious, Hillary Clinton is the next speaker on this question, but she does not weigh in on the particular issue of carbon taxes vs cap-and-trade. Instead, she offers some typical vacuous blather about requiring utility companies to help us all become more energy efficient. I think of this as "magic-wand economics." Like your fairy godmother, the President can wave a magic wand and make your problems disappear.
He's right. Presidential candidates rarely speak in terms of trade-offs. We should become more energy efficient--but what about the costs to economic activity? We should work harder to broker a peace deal in such and such a region--but from what other region will we have to redirect resources? We should provide universal health care for all--but what about the costs to those who are healthy? Yet all decisions involve trade-offs. Notice that Obama seems to recognize this. Ultimately, choosing who to vote for should involve choosing which trade-offs you want to see a President make.

Change

In the debate last night, much was made of the word "change". The pivot for this debate is that Obama captured 51% of voters in Iowa who said they were for "change". As Matt Yglesias points out, those voters may have said they were for "change" because they like Obama and that is Obama's main talking point. I'd bet that if Obama were in the race, many of those voters would not say they were for "change".

But there is a deeper point, which is that Hillary cannot be for the same kind of change that Obama is talking about. When Hillary talks about "change", she means changing the policies of the Bush administration. When Obama talks about change, he means changing the tone of debate, the manner in which politics is conducted, and, to a large extent, this means changing who conducts those politics. This doesn't mean everyone must be thrown out; only a few key players need to go. But there's no way that Hillary Clinton can be in favor of that kind of change because it ultimately means that she cannot be a prominent politician. As Bryan Caplan says, people want a change in "faces, not policies".

I think there is a bit more substance to this, but not much. When I think about my support for Obama, I realize how much of it is grounded in a weariness in the old debates. I want new debates. I have been sick of Bush-bashing and Clinton-bashing for years (and I am not even that old). And I think that electing Obama would provide a relief from that. There are lots of other reasons, obviously, but I'm not sure if those reasons put him above Clinton or Edwards.

I am also not convinced that a different political atmosphere would actually lead to better or more liberal policies. It's easy to say that it would, but, really, would it? Unifying the country means wielding a majority coalition that can pass legislation, but it also means making a lot of compromises and trades. So I am not sure.

03 January, 2008

Obama, Huckabee on top; Hillary third


From debaser's very own Political Correspondents, Elliot and Spencer -- at least one of whom is currently pouring himself a tall glass of Bowmore single malt scotch:

The results are in: Obama has won the Iowa Caucki! And oh yeah, so did Huckabee. Some reactions from around the Intertubes:

Lawrence Lessig: Lessig, who sees Washington corruption as "the single most important problem facing government today" is ecstatic about an Obama presidency. He compares Clinton, the "establishment" candidate, to someone from within a corrupt police department trying to enact a sudden reform -- its unlikely to work. Obama's "inexperience", in contrast, is actually an asset, and the American electorate is seeing it as such: "Both [Obama and Edwards] are single term Senators -- in it enough to be revolted by the system, both aching to force change upon it."

Paul Krugman: Krugman, who has heavily criticized Obama, exudes passive-agressiveness: "I’ve made my doubts clear; but for tonight, I simply offer best wishes and hopes for a brighter future."

Matt Yglesias: A normally cautious Obama supporter, Yglesias gushes over Obama's victory speech: "Before today, I think relatively few people thought he would be able to pull off this unprecedented surge of young people and first-time caucus-goers -- but he did." He also slams Clinton's speech: "Hillary Clinton, sapped of her aura of inevitability, doesn't seem to have very much to say."

Andrew Sullivan is coming all over Obama:


The contrast between the two speeches - Clinton's and Obama's - was instructive. She was fine - but seemed to purloin the entire Obama message. The idea of the Clintons as a unifying force for change is not exactly persuasive. "Ready For Change"? A desperate new mishmash.

As for Obama? Maybe you saw it. Simply put: he sounded like a president. The theme was not just change; it was a new unity. And as a black man, he helps heal the past as well as forge the future. This really was history tonight. To win so many white voices, and bring together so many minorities, and use the unifying language that leaves the toxins of race and partisanship behind: This was the moment America stopped being afraid.

This was the America we have missed and have found again.

Know hope.

and this...

Look at their names: Huckabee and Obama. Both came from nowhere - from Arkansas and Hawaii. Both campaigned as human beings, not programmed campaign robots with messages honed in focus groups. Both faced powerful and monied establishments in both parties. And both are running two variants on the same message: change, uniting America again, saying goodbye to the bitterness of the polarized past, representing ordinary voters against the professionals. Neither has been ground down by long experience, but neither is a neophyte.

You have a Republican educated in a Bible college; and a Democrat who is the most credible African-American candidate for the presidency in history. Their respective margins were far larger than most expected. And the hope they have unleashed is palpable.

That hope is not just about their parties. It is about America. America's ability to move forward, to unite, to get past the bitter red-and-blue past. That's what the next generation wants. And they now seem motivated enough to get it.


Daily Kos: On the other side, we have perpetually pessimistic Kos who is just struggling to say something nice about anyone:

I have to admit a bit of sentimentality. I loved all the speeches tonight -- from Edwards', to Clintons', to Obama's. I'm proud of my party. I'm hopeful for the future.

In a week, I may get cynical again as a few lonesome Democrats, led by Chris Dodd, fight another impossible battle against a terrible FISA bill. We'll see Harry Reid, the rest of our party's leadership, and many Democrats with them sell out key progressive principles out of terror that Mr. 24% will say "boo!" They'll sell out our troops in Iraq, lard up on pork, and forget the promises that gave them their Congressional majorities in the first place. What do they care? Republicans are so pathetic, that even an ineffective Democratic Party will run roughshod over them.

Sigh. The cynicism will return.

Slate: John Dickerson thinks that Obama's win has transformed him from "the girl you date" into "the girl you marry". As for Huckabee and the Republican party, he opines that "[w]hen the GOP's two top candidates are targets for Rush Limbaugh, the party is not in a happy place."

Pat Buchanan makes a good point in a swipe at Obama's feel-good politics: "It was bipartisanship that got us into the war in Iraq." Chris Matthews follows up: "Its this myth of American politics that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sometimes it lies outside the box." It seems an Obama victory is already knocking some sense into these normally vacuous commentators.

Keep on the lookout for more, as it comes in.

Our fair city


This map from the DC Department of Employment Services dramatizes Washington's spatial inequalities. Any guesses which wards lack safe drinking water, government offices, and white people?

02 January, 2008

An intellectual homeland

Reading Octavio Paz's 1993 Itinerario (Itinerary), a memoir of sorts in which the aged poet, essayist and diplomat, who died in 1998, reflects upon his intellectual and artistic journey. One the most striking passages so far was his description of his arrival in Paris in 1945 as a young writer:


It was a very rich period, not only in terms of literature as such – poetry and novels – but also with regard to ideas and the art of the essay. I followed the political and philosophical debates with ardor. An intense atmosphere: passion for ideas, intellectual rigor, and at the same time, a marvelous accessibility. In short order I found kindred spirits who shared my intellectual and aesthetic concerns. In that cosmopolitan atmosphere – French, Greeks, Spaniards, Romanians, Argentineans, North Americans – I breathed freely. I was not from there, but nonetheless I felt that there I had an intellectual homeland. A homeland that did not ask me for my identification papers.

Ours is an age, as indeed it was in 1945, marked by the twin and reinforcing cruelties of dislocation and xenophobia, and Paz's description of a borderless intellectual brotherhood resonates with me still. The phrase "intellectual homeland" at once encapsulates the insufficiencies and the suffocations of the nation-state while depicting the precarious nature of the individual as situated between the poles of solitude and communion -- poetry and society -- that Paz saw as defining the movements of human existence. That creative conflict between separation -- as Paz was separated from his Mexico -- and belonging -- as he came to belong to an ill-defined and transitory circle of like-minded debasers -- also describe my periods of life abroad.

My Valparaiso was little like Paz's Paris. And even if it had been, part of Paz's point is that one's intellectual homeland may not last, as his did not. Still, I think his is the best description that I have found of what I am looking for.

Endemic surveillance society


According to a new report released by Privacy International, the United States is among the lowest performing nations in matters of privacy protection. On a scale of one to five, the US scored a 1.5, putting it in the lowest echelon, marked in black on the map above, indicating a society marked by "extensive surveillance/leading in bad practice." The report, put out yearly, considers such categories as constitutional protection, identity cards, visual surveillance, communications data retention, and government access to data.

The US has recently deteriorated, for various reasons detailed here. We now have the fortune of enjoying individual privacy protections roughly equal to those of Russia, China, Singapore, and Malaysia -- along with the UK and France. Given that most of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East are not covered by the survey, the US is probably better off than last place suggests. Still, it is sad company for us to keep. A good start in reversing the trend would be blocking Bush's attempt to get retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that participated in warrantless wiretapping. A letter drive, anyone? Or, better yet, some phone calls.

What's wrong with journalism

Why is quality journalism so lacking these days? Jack Schafer over at Slate thinks it can all be traced back to the lack of alcohol on the job.

He argues that heavy drinking, drug use, sexual escapades and general fast living are essential attributes of the good journalist's psyche -- or "occupational mythology" as the sociologists have it.

The journalist likes to think of himself as living close to the edge, whether he's covering real estate or Iraq. He (and she) shouts and curses and cracks wise at most every opportunity, considers divorce an occupational hazard, and loves telling ripping yarns about his greatest stories. If he likes sex, he has too much of it. Ditto for food. If he drinks, he considers booze his muse...Deny the journalist his self-image as a rule-bending individualist and you might as well replace him with a typist.


Schafer's target is the PC-era ban on in-office alcohol consumption, smoking, and general racuous behaviour. To him, this ban represents the journalist's ultimate emasculation, to use the gendered turn of phrase. Journalists specialize -- or should -- in questioning the status quo and challenging those in power, not toeing the line like all you little people. And so Schafer rebels against his tee-totaling supervisors:

I keep a bottle at my office for the same reason—not to drink but to symbolically cast off the petty rules and restrictions that I imagine thwart me from doing my job. If my job is to kick authority in the shins, how can I resist doing the same to the powers that cut me a paycheck twice a month?...Wise editors know when and how to encourage newsroom insubordination, as opposed to squelching it, because they appreciate Bob Woodward's aphorism "All good work is done in defiance of management."


I sympathise. It is hard to imagine my journalistic role models -- Orwell, Hunter Thompson, David Halberstam, Christopher Hitchens -- bowing to such petty tyranny. On the other hand, Schafer is a libertarian, so in that light its up to you to decide how annoying his self-righteousness is. He finishes:

The wise editor understands that quality journalism requires a bad attitude, foul words, a brawl, and sometimes a drink afterward.


I think I may have found my calling.

Finally

Paul Krugman lets up on Obama, after weeks of using his mandate-less health care reform proposal to question his progressive credentials. It seems that Obama has finally decided to incorporate some sort of penalty for those who fail to sign up for health insurance.

I have been somewhat mystified by Krugman's rancor towards Obama and his support for Clinton's plan, since it seems clear to me that Clinton, taken as a whole, is the least progressive candidate in the Democratic race. But perhaps this is what Krugman wanted all along - to force Obama to the left on health care?