29 April, 2008

No Gas Tax Holiday

Instead, let's kick off summer with a gas tax hike! About an extra dollar per gallon should do the trick. Then let's use the revenues to send every person in the United States a check for 1/300,000,000 of the amount collected.

Apparently, Bush is now totally down with the proposed McCain/Clinton gas tax holiday. This is a perfect example of Obama's approach to politics. Matt writes:

In other words, Clinton doesn't agree with McCain's idea. She'll do it only "if we could make up the lost revenues from the Highway Trust Fund." But we can't make up the lost revenues from the Highway Trust Fund, so she won't do it. And that's the right answer, but she's successfully confused most of the audience into thinking she does favor the holiday. Anyone who pays enough attention to realize she doesn't favor the holiday is probably high-information enough to realize that the holiday is a bad idea.
Obama, on the other hand, says it's a bad idea, because it is. Instead of treating people like children, he's telling them the truth about what he believes and what he wants to do. Of course, if people act like children in response...

This is basically the environment/energy/transportation equivalent equivalent of Obama's anti-mandate fliers and it makes it very hard to imagine that [Clinton]'s prepared to try to do anything about climate change.

Zoning, São Paulo, and Density

Tyler Cowen recently sparked a minor discussion in the urban blogosphere about zoning. What would happen if zoning were less strict?

More specifically, Manhattan would look more like Sao Paulo, with a true forest of skyscrapers instead of the current puny and indeed embarrassing line-up. Many of these towers would be residential, as they are in Sao Paulo. Many problems of cities, including congestion, would of course become worse. Overall I see the gain as real but a small one, at least relative to gdp.
Reading this passage gives you the impression that São Paulo is denser than New York, however, Cowen is uncharacteristically wrong about this fact. According to Wikipedia, New York City has a density of 10,533/km² (including boroughs, so Manhattan is even denser), while São Paulo has a density of 7,233/km².

The deeper point here is that tall buildings do not imply density and so it is easy to be misled by pictures such as the one Cowen cites of São Paulo. This is not a picture of unplanned density; it is a picture of planned sparseness. True unplanned density means that there are tall buildings of varying sizes and many smaller buildings squeezed up against one another, not uniform buildings separated with ample space to breathe as in São Paulo. This picture indicates, rather, that great masses of people want to live incredibly densely, but that zoning laws have in fact forced these masses down and apart. Someone points out in comments on MR that São Paulo actually has fairly stringent height restrictions, which leads to the glut of 20-story apartment buildings. I imagine there are also rules about how close together these buildings can be. Thus, São Paulo looks more like a collection of housing projects than a real city.

Yglesias falls into this fallacy as well, though he makes the equally important point that lack of zoning does not imply density. Houston is an important example; there, lack of zoning has lead to more spawl.

28 April, 2008

Beer is the new wine

Yglesias points out that the comparison between "beer-track" and "wine-track" voters is seriously outdated. The unending variety of high-priced micro-brews means that beer is the new wine and, as this picture clearly demonstrates, wine has become the drink of choice for hyper-religious working-class salt-of-the-earth voters:

Prince > Radiohead

27 April, 2008

The pugilist

Alexander Linklater in the Prospect has a fascinating, long piece on our favorite professional contrarian, Christopher Hitchens. I suggest it. Its a bit of a window into a man whose ideas I have found both invigorating and repugnant, by turns. Some excerpts:

His starting point is always confrontation, his procedure to wrestle out contradiction, his endpoint a position of certainty. It's that preternatural capacity for certainty, carried through the velocity and elegance of his writing, which has made him the most scintillating and disturbing British journalist of the '68 generation. He is not exaggerating much when he says: "The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can't get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them."


Hitchens came of age at a moment when politics would consume all other interests. To say that he was a child of 1968 is perhaps something more than a cliché, in the sense that the twin spirits of that year—destruction and emancipation—provided him with a sphere to operate in that was a complete alternative to family. "I don't know how to describe it," he says. "As 1967 ended, Guevara's body had just been exposed to the cameras by the CIA, Isaac Deutscher had died, the Vietnamese revolution was getting into swing, you felt the world was undergoing a convulsion. All through '68 you woke up every morning to something new. The Tet offensive. Martin Luther King is shot. Then de Gaulle is nearly overthrown, then Robert Kennedy is shot, the tanks roll into Prague. Then there's the Mexico Olympics—students shot down in the streets, Black Panthers on the podium—and Northern Ireland blows up. And through the political contacts I had been making I'm in touch somewhat with all these events… You felt, if you were a member of a rather eccentric Trotskyist-Luxemburgist organisation, that you not only had a hand in diagnosing it, but that you were somehow shaping it, that you were part of something."


Hitchens does not pretend that things have gone to plan. But he asks what a post-Saddam Iraq would have looked like without the occupation. “Iraq was the property of a fascist and sadist who was butchering his people, squandering the resources of the country, preparing to hand over to his unbelievably nasty sons, who would probably have had an inter-dauphin fratricide of their own. And instead we have a humorous Kurdish socialist as the president of Iraq, and I’m supposed to apologise. Well, fuck that.” Hitchens alludes to the assessment of the enemy by the reporter Bartle Bull published in Prospect last year: “The other side in this war are among the worst people in global politics: Baathists, the Nazis of the middle east; Sunni fundamentalists, the chief opponents of progress in Islam’s struggle with modernity; and the government of Iran.”


Many of Hitchens's critics conclude that this is his way of saying he's a neoconservative. His reply is that he doesn't consider himself to be "any kind of conservative." He would rather just be called a human rights hawk. "There should be a word for people who believe US power can and should be used to oppose totalitarianism," he says. With no faith left in the French and Russian revolutions, or the proletariat, all that now remains is his idea of America as "the last revolution in town"—its spirit of liberty revived by the struggle to transform the middle east.

Particularly moving and disturbing is the description of the death of Hitchens' mother, and the way in which the horror and emotion of that moment intertwined with his historical and political sense of identity:

It was in 1973, aged 24 and now working for the Statesman, that Hitchens got a call from his father asking him if he knew where his mother was. She had disappeared and her passport was gone. Hitchens was fully aware that she had been having an affair. His mother had introduced him to the man, a defrocked former vicar, who was a "bit of a charmer," though also clearly a "flake and a third-rater." But she was keeping up appearances, fulfilling her social role as his father's wife, so her disappearance was a mystery. Then, a couple of days later, the Times and the BBC reported that she had been found dead in an Athens hotel room along with her lover.

His father couldn't find it in himself to go to Athens, so Hitchens went alone to bury his mother. A note that she had left revealed that it had been a suicide pact. He also discovered that she had been trying to contact him in the days before her death.

In May 1973, Georgios Papadopoulos's military junta, which had seized power six years earlier, was busy suppressing an attempted counter-coup. "One thing that defined the late 1960s for a lot of us, and that is forgotten now, was the unbelievable fact that in 1967 the army had taken over Greece in a fascist coup." What had been, for the teenage Hitchens, a politically catalysing event—evidence of US complicity in the overthrow of a Nato member state which also happened to be the birthplace of democracy—was now the backdrop to a personal catastrophe.

The bodies hadn't been discovered for two days, and even with the room cleaned, the stench was appalling—she had taken pills; he, shockingly, had gutted himself with a knife. "So I go to the window because I think I'm going to be sick… and suddenly I get my first view of the Parthenon, across from the hotel, in brilliant sunlight. And down below there are tanks, and armed men, and bloodstains in the streets." When Hitchens talks about this moment, he associates it with his first memory of sailing into Valletta harbour with his mother. "I've had that feeling several times," he says. "I've felt it in Cyprus and Lebanon, in Crete, and recently in Tunis. It's how I felt about the Mediterranean. The flash of light, the coincidence of the white, the green and the double blue. It makes me feel that I'm still at home."

In the end, Linklater seems to conclude, rather poetically, that Hitchens' current absolutism regarding the moral rightness of our invasion of Iraq is an ironic reflection of his deep obsession with opposing absolutism in all forms. Though that may be true, its a bit too psychoanalytic for me. I see Hitchens' case primarily as a warning against a particular type of arrogant intelligence that fails to comprehend -- or doesn't want to comprehend -- the murky limits of its own certainty. What other explanation is there for someone who still argues that Iraq has been a success on the grounds of human rights? Or for someone who comes away from Iraq more confident in the ability of unilateral, aggressive US military power to shape the world in predictable and desirable ways?

26 April, 2008

Some things are just so cheap and good that you have to blog about them.

For those of us in Bos-Wash, I present BoltBus. Free wi-fi and A/C outlets for every seat. The fares appear to all be between $5 and $15, I have found N.Y.C.-Philadelphia fares for $1.



25 April, 2008

Matthew Yglesias and the progressive national security vision

I went to an event today featuring Matt Yglesias at the Center for American Progress, a pretty new liberal think tank here in DC, which turned out to be really interesting. Yglesias just came out with a new book on foreign policy, Heads in the Sand: How Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats, which explains and explores the "security gap" that exists between Democrats and Republicans -- simply put, how a Republican majority can recklessly engage in ill-advised and woefully mismanaged military adventures that hurt our basic interests and weaken our military capacity and still receive the confidence of most Americans when it comes to national security issues. He argues that in the face of aggressive Republican militarism, the Democrats have opted for a defensive strategy of trying to "defuse" the issue by moving to the right on national security, and then hoping to win elections on the basis of domestic policy. This leads to an atmosphere in which the American people see the Democrats basically deferring to the Republicans on foreign policy, and it becomes ingrained that Republicans are the natural authorities on the subject.

This strategy, which worked pretty well for Clinton, basically implodes during times of war, when national security becomes transcendent. And once things go to shit, as they are wont to do, it becomes nearly impossible for Democrats to effectively critique the foreign policy that they have been playing along with. They are easy to paint as weak, indecisive, opportunistic, and untrustworthy -- can anyone say Kerry (who supported the war before he opposed it...) in 2004? The solution, of course, is for Democrats to regain the offensive by attacking Republicans where they are "strongest" and by presenting a positive alternative vision for US foreign policy. The vision that Yglesias suggests is a revamped liberal internationalism combined with the aggressive, targeted destruction of Al Qaeda. Which is, interestingly enough, very similar to what has been called the Obama Doctrine. Certainly a good portion of my enthusiasm for Obama stems from his ability to attack, to mock even, the failed Republican security paradigm with a self-confidence that most Democrats lack.

Yglesias was amicably critiqued by foreign policy experts Rand Beers and Kurt Campbell, and the discussion ranged over all sorts of interesting topics, from the primary campaign to the options for withdrawal from Iraq. For a complete rundown of the discussion, see Spencer Ackerman (who was sitting in front of me, furiously live-blogging the debate) here and here.

24 April, 2008

23 April, 2008

The Nuclear Option

Tyler Cowen reports that Europe is building more coal power:

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.
So given that oil prices are not likely to come down until demand for oil recedes, coal becomes the cheaper option. Absent a system in which energy producers have to pay for their effect on the global environment, is this an argument for taking a second look at nuclear power? And is Elliot still the anti-nuclear firebrand he once was?

22 April, 2008

Privatize Amtrak

In my last post, I argued that it makes sense for the government to own and maintain infrastructure. However, this does not imply that services using that infrastructure should be publicly owned and run. In general, these services will be better off in the private sector.

Take Amtrak, for example. The argument for the continuation of its public subsidies is that we heavily subsidize other forms of transportation--highways--so let's subsidize train travel...Amtrak. But this is really an argument for subsidies for rail itself, not a service that uses rail. Amtrak is not a public good in the strict sense. It is rival--each seat that I take is one more seat that can't be taken by anyone else--and excludable--it is easy to keep people off the train. And are there positive externalities? None that I can think of.

It also turns out that Amtrak loses money on every single route (at least as of 2004) and does a pretty crappy job of being on-time. But what are Amtrak's incentives? If they do poorly and lose millions of dollars, they are slapped on the wrist by Congress, which grudgingly picks up the tab. Private companies usually can't go over budget year-after-year without some repercussions.

Now, it may be the case that many of these routes will never be profitable no matter who is running Amtrak and what incentives they have. In that case, I see no reason not to eliminate them. Do we really need a passenger train with a cute name that goes from Boston to Chicago? These areas are well-served by airlines. Incidentally, it costs $82 to go from Boston to DC on Amtrak and $101 to go from Boston to Chicago, even though this latter route goes through DC. So the DC-Chicago leg is worth $19 to Boston passengers? Wow. No wonder the Cardinal (DC-Chicago service) loses $209 per passenger per year.

If there is a market for ridiculously cheap and time-consuming cross-country travel, maybe freight lines will start attaching passenger cars to their trainsets. I suspect that Northeast Corridor service, Acela, Caltrain, and other high-traffic lines would survive.

21 April, 2008

Sexy Train Blogging

Ryan Avent points us to a Washington Post story on the booming freight train industry. Despite the fact that other forms of shipping (i.e. trucks) are subsidized in all kinds of ways (underpriced gas, mostly free roads) freight trains are doing quite well. It sounds like they're also earning monopoly profits on many routes because one company owns all of the track.

Rail is economically very similar to roads. The first important characteristic of each is that they are natural monopolies. Roads in cities simply can't be duplicated. There can only be one road that goes to each house or building. Highways between cities can be duplicated, but would it really be profitable for a company to build a highway right next to one built by another company? No, the start-up costs are too high compared to the price that could be charged in a competitive market. The resulting lack of competition is a justification for government provision of both roads and rail.

The second salient aspect is that there are congestion problems. Neither is a perfectly rival good. An orange is rival: if I eat it, you can't. But you can still use the road even if I do as well. However, each additional person makes the road slightly less useful because traffic slows down by a tiny bit (that adds up to traffic jams and 20mph rush hours). Users of this service should be charged for the inconvenience they cause everyone else.

So, for both roads and rail, I think public ownership of the infrastructure itself makes a lot of sense if it is accompanied by congestion and maintenance charges. For roads, we have public infrastructure, but use charges are not very widespread (outside of tollways and turnpikes). Unfortunately, New York's plan to charge people for driving in Manhattan was defeated. In rail, on the other hand, there is private ownership of infrastructure that leads to monopolization of routes. Maybe some sort of public buyout of railways is in order. (Does this analysis also apply to communications infrastructure?)

20 April, 2008

The Pennsylvania debate and the media

I was going to restrain myself from the controversy over the latest crapshow debate, because, well, they're all crapshow debates. But listening to some in the media trying to defend Gibson and Stephanopolous' performance I have come across this particular straw man so often that I can't help but comment on it:

My, oh my, but weren’t those fellows from ABC News rude to Barack Obama at this week’s presidential debate.

Nothing but petty, process-oriented questions, asked in a prosecutorial tone, about the Democratic front-runner’s personal associations and his electability. Where was the substance? Where was the balance?

Where indeed. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her aides have been complaining for months about imbalance in news coverage. For the most part, the reaction to her from the political-media commentariat has been: Stop whining.

That’s still a good response now that it is Obama partisans — some of whom are showing up in distressingly inappropriate places — who are doing the whining.

It is surely convenient for pundits to attribute the criticism their profession has received to sour-grapes Obama supporters trying to rationalize his poor debate performance. While that may be the case in some instances, most of the critiques I have read, and the revulsion I myself feel before questions like "do you think that Rev. Wright loves this country as much as you do" have had little to do with which candidate has borne the brunt of the bullshit. The point is that the questions are utter bullshit whether or not Clinton or Obama, or McCain for that matter, are on the receiving end. We have a right to be angry about this bullshit not because it hurts one candidate over another, but because it hurts us by obscuring the issues of real importance that confront us in this election.

Now, I do think there may be some correlation between people likely to support Obama and people likely to oppose the bullshitification of our political discourse, precisely because Obama is the candidate that has most forcefully taken up the cause of making our political argumentation more sober and more serious. That overlap doesn't, however, mean that our protestations are aimed at defending Sen. Obama, who indeed had a sloppy night. We are told that since Clinton has already endured more bullshit than Obama (a debatable but fundamentally fair point), this debate was a much-needed equalizing force. But our critique is much broader than that: rather than equalize the bullshit, we need to abolish it!

Unfortunately, for traditional pundits to process and engage with that argument, they would have to comprehend the incomprehensible; that is, that pressing a candidate on their lack of lapel pin is neither hard-hitting, nor helpful, nor journalism. When someone like David Brooks says "we may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall", we have truly entered the rabbit hole. Who, exactly, is it that thinks those issues are anything other than marginally important? According to the polls, it seems, not the voters. And so, in fact, I've come to agree with Brooks' arrogant demand that there be "no whining about the media." It clearly does no good; we'll be better off to simply ignore it instead.

Beck, Hip-Hop, and the Suburban Identity Crisis

As the days grow longer and the weather gets nicer, my music tastes have swung back to beat-heavy tunes well-suited for summer driving (Beck, G Love, RJD2, etc). But living on the Main Line and commuting to West Philadelphia has made me question the role of (pseudo-) hip-hop in urban and suburban culture. All too often I see small groups of white, middle-class teens clothed in ultra-baggy jeans, FUBU shirts, and oversized jewelry with 50 Cent blasting from their car stereos. Minutes later I’ll be cruising down the West Chester Pike seeing the “real” thing in West Philly.

There’s no question that well-to-do suburban youngsters have been transfixed (even obsessed) with hip-hop culture ever since The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” made its way onto the airwaves – but why has it been so difficult for them to break from the role of passive listeners to that of music makers and chart-topping rappers? Hip-hop’s use of spoken word and rhyming evolved from dub and dancehall’s practice of toasting, and was carried to New York from Jamaica by the likes of DJ Kool Herc and others. Over the years the lyrical themes have changed, but they never stray far from the problems, desperations, wants, needs, and desires of struggling low-income urban dwellers.

Middle and upper class suburbanites can appreciate the themes and origins of hip-hop in its current form, but they cannot fully identify with it. (For example, consider this.) When it comes to being regarded as a serious rapper many have tried, and many have failed. It’s no wonder why – when all you’re doing is mimicking another culture’s actions and words, you can’t help but come off as unauthentic and kitschy. The solution? Stop denying your own identity and surroundings, and start writing about it.

Beck is a perfect example. His lyrics contain imagery reflective of white working-class America. At times, his seemingly nonsensical rhymes mock the bogus rift between ghetto superstars and business-clad suburbanites with no rhythm. His tunes rely heavily on hip-hop staples: heavy backbeats, simple bass lines, and sampled voices and tracks. But he’s made the music his own, and he’s made it something he can relate to.

From "Elevator Music", The Information (2006):

Everybody workin' hard
'Til the yard is all clean
The dishes wash good
In the washin' machine
Now you brush your teeth
And you comb back your hair
You drive your vehicle
Like you just didn't care
And you walk into work
With the boys and the girls
And you're doin' it to death
It's the end of the world
Now there's everybody's sweatin'
Forgettin' what's on their mind
With your hand like a mirror
You can see what's inside

And I can't possibly pass up this post without mentioning this:

18 April, 2008

Glenn Loury

Here is an excellent profile of the Brown economist. Here is his latest diavlog with John McWhorter. Loury has been a public intellectual of sorts over the years, as the article describes, going from very conservative to very liberal positions. One of the things that impresses me most about Loury is that, to hear him speak, you would never guess he was an economist. But scanning his CV indicates that he clearly has a great deal of mathematical and technical acumen. He's not a John Kenneth Galbraith--but he does take conclusions from economics and present them in entirely different ways in a very effective manner.

16 April, 2008

Where Your Money Goes

This is important. Make sure you take the time to check out this breakdown of how the government spends your taxes, by Third Way. Download the pdf for a dollars-and-cents analysis of what the government spends where and how much of your taxes go to which programs. Ought to shake up the order of our "important election issues," huh?

San Francisco: leading the way in parking policy

Via Greg Mankiw, this report:

As SFpark is envisioned, parking rates would be adjusted based on time of day, day of week and duration of stay. People would be able to pay not just with coins, but with credit cards, prepaid debit cards and even by cell phone. If a meter is set to expire, a text message could be sent to the driver. More time could be purchased remotely.

People also would be able to check parking availability before arriving at their destination via the Internet, handheld devices such as BlackBerrys, or cell phone. Sensors would be embedded in the asphalt to keep track of when a parking spot is empty....

Unexpected findings...

It turns out that people in richer countries are happier. Check out this graph, which shows it very starkly. Note that this does not show that higher incomes cause people to be happier. There could be a third factor that is correlated with both happiness and income, like, say, liberal views about culture. Or it could be the case that people in happier countries work harder and are more productive, thus earning more.

15 April, 2008

Krugman v. Florida

Before his current career as an economic commentator and thorn in the side of the Bush administration (but after his first career as one of the founders of the new international economics), Paul Krugman single-handedly revitalized the field of economic geography. Thus, I'm happy to hear him expressing the same skepticism that I've felt toward Richard Florida's concept of "mega-regions". Mega-regions are basically groups of cities that are somewhat close to each other. The best example is the densely-populated Boston-Washington corridor. But other mega-regions stretch credulity: Chi-Pitts for example, runs from Chicago to Pittsburgh. But is there really more cohesiveness between Chicago and Pittsburgh than there is between Chicago and the Twin Cities? Or St. Louis? It strikes me as categorization for the sake of categorization. Krugman:

It’s not at all clear to me that world competition is between mega-regions.

I’d say that there are two things that arguably define an economic unit for the purposes of economic geography. One is labor mobility: a region over which there’s high mobility of labor will be a region in which everyone with the same set of skills is paid more or less the same real wage (which may differ in money terms because of differences in the cost of living etc.). By that definition, the United States as a whole is the relevant unit: workers are as mobile between Chicago and Boston as they are between Baltimore and Boston.

The other definition is the reach of spillovers — positive externalities, for the econowonks. That’s probably much more localized: there’s a reason investment bankers cluster in expensive Wall Street or City of London locations. But again, it’s hard to see that this makes the Northeast Corridor, as opposed to individual metro areas within the corridor, a relevant unit.
This seems basically right to me. Florida's response:
But let me just say that when 40 of these megas which account for less than a fifth of world population account for roughly two-thirds of economic activity and 85 percent of global innovation, something is going on.
Of course you can say the exact same thing about the 200 or so cities that these "megas" comprise. I don't see any reason why one of these statements is more compelling than the other.

Krugman makes a more subtle point here. Basically, even if the mega-region has spillovers between cities, this doesn't mean we should encourage people to move to mega-regions. There are negative externalities as well as positive from living in mega-regions and shifting people from, say, Madison, WI to New York may cause Madison to collapse while not having much of an appreciable effect on New York. We just don't know what the consequences will be. Here is Florida's response.

Ryan Avent, however, comes to Florida's rescue (somewhat), with this:
Why, for instance, have places like Baltimore and Philadelphia performed much better in recent years than similar cities in America's distressed Rust Belt? Obviously, many factors are at work, but it seems odd to suggest that the nearness of those places to the dynamic economies of New York and Washington are unimportant. Distance still matters for the movement of both goods and people. Being in Philadelphia confers an advantage on firms, who then have fairly good access to nearby economic centres, and also to the tens of millions of people surrounding them.
Fair enough--but does this really save the concept of mega-regions as outlined by Florida? I'm willing to concede this point for the Northeast Corridor. One reason so many people choose to live between Boston and DC is that there are so many places to go within a small area. For example, I'd rather live somewhere in BosWash because I know that I can maintain any friendships or connections I make much more easily than if I lived in St. Louis. There is a sort of option value--in the future I don't have to move across the country to do something new.

But can this possibly explain anything about why people live in Pittsburgh as opposed to Minneapolis? They're both the same distance from Chicago. The intervening space is mostly open or rural, NOT densely populated like the Northeast. There are some large intervening cities that can vaguely be placed between Pittsburgh and Chicago, but that's more or less true of Chicago and Minneapolis, too (Milwaukee, Madison, Appleton, La Crosse, Rochester, St. Paul). So why Chi-Pitts and not Chi-Twin? As I said before, this seems to come out of the desire to split the world into manageable chunks. Just because you can do this does not mean that the chunks are useful tools of analysis! In this case, the most you can say seems to be that cities that are close to a lot of other cities benefit from that. But dividing the world into mega-regions doesn't help much with that. Moreover, a policy based on this framework would have us discard vital, growing Minneapolis (which doesn't fit into ANY of the prescribed mega-regions) in favor of stagnating Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit.

As I have implied, I'm willing to call certain areas "mega-regions", like the Northeast Corridor, and probably the Los Angeles-San Diego stretch as well. And perhaps a mega-region may form between Chicago and Pittsburgh but wishing (or drawing lines) doesn't make it so.

Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?

This piece in Sunday's Times Magazine follows Nokia's "user anthropologist" through a variety of developing countries and explores the ways in which people in those countries are using cell phones.

My favorite example: the "phone ladies" of Bangladesh are a oft-cited example of microfinance's (and cell phone's) success. Microlending institutions give women money to purchase cell phones and sell phone time to people living in their village. Apparently in Uganda (at least) the phone ladies also act as a kind of Western-Union-like money-transfer service. A son, for example, who has taken a job in the city can send money home by purchasing prepaid calling cards. He can call his village's phone lady and give her the number on the prepaid card. She then gives the amount of the card to the worker's family and uses the prepaid number to make calls.

City Blogging

  • Why it's okay to let your 9-year-old ride the subway alone in New York. She doesn't mention it, but it's worth noting that it is a lot easier to kidnap a kid walking down some empty-sidewalked suburban boulevard than riding a subway with hundreds of other people.

  • The average volume of street noise in Cairo is 85 decibels between 7am and 10am.
  • Krugman is absolutely right here:
    I understand why it’s political poison to show disrespect for small-town values — dignity is precious to all of us, and often trumps material interest. But why is it OK to disrespect big city values, even to suggest — as Bush has — that big-city dwellers aren’t part of the “real America”?

    I mean, I get a lump in my throat when visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The big-city immigrant experience is as much a part of what made America as the rural, small-town experience. It deserves the same degree of respect.

11 April, 2008

World's Worst

This list of the "world's worst" religious leaders is worth looking at. A variety of religions represented--including Buddhism.

10 April, 2008

Obama on the Olympics

Sort of -- at least, on US policy with China:

And in our policy towards China, we have not been consistent enough and tough enough and pushing them to deal with Tibet properly, but also their continued support of Sudan, a country that has been engaging in genocide against the peoples of Darfur.

We have to take a stronger stance. We have to take a stronger stance and it's got to be more consistent over time. Let me make one last point about China: It's very hard to tell your banker that he's wrong, all right? And if we are running huge deficits and big national debts and we're borrowing money constantly from China, that gives us less leverage. It give us less leverage to talk about human rights, it also is giving us less leverage to talk about the uneven trading relationship that we have with China.

Now, for some reason the MSNBC article finds this evasive. But I think he's just making the point that we have to ask ourselves what effect a boycott of the Olympics is going to have. Is it going to shame them into leaving Tibet? Probably not. Is it going to complicate our relationship with the world's rising power -- a power that we are very closely tied to at the moment? That seems certain. In that context, I don't see what good a boycott will do except assuage our guilty conscience. And I think its quite likely that pissing off the Chinese over the Olympics will actually reduce our ability to nudge them (since I think that's all we'll be able to do at this point anyway) towards better policies after the Olympics, when we have a president who will actually be able to mobilize our allies to nudge them. Or am I underestimating the pressure that the specter of a ruined Olympics will put on the bigwigs in Beijing?

08 April, 2008

Should we boycott the Olympics?

Hillary Clinton says that Bush should boycott the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. That seems like relatively small beer, but there is definitely an argument to be made for much broader action. A group of Western countries could pull their athletes until the situation in Tibet is resolved for example. The athletes themselves could stage some sort of protest. I think this is a truly ambiguous situation--there are good arguments on both sides.

The argument in favor of a protest or boycott is fairly simple. China has committed countless human rights abuses over the years. Their occupation of Tibet and claim on Taiwan are completely unacceptable and unbecoming of a country that wants to be taken seriously in the modern world. Their propaganda is laughable. Raining on their parade would send a message to the People's Republic that these acts are not to be tolerated.

On the other hand, we risk a lot by pulling such a stunt. China has been slowly integrating with the world over the last 40 years. As it has integrated, restrictions on economic and personal freedoms have slowly been lifted. Do we want to trigger a retreat from the world? We don't want the largest (and soon to be richest) country on our bad side. The argument that Brad Delong might make is that we do not want Chinese children growing up in a world in which, instead of welcoming them into the world community, we have shunned them. In so far as having a successful Olympics is a symbol of national pride, the average Chinese peasant might end up less amicable to America and Americans.

Do we punish China and risk forfeiting cooperation in the future? Or do we grin and bear it now so that cooperation can be sustained?

Professor Obama takes Condi to school

For those who still believe Obama lacks either a factual or intuitive grasp of U.S. foreign policy, check out this video. From Condoleezza Rice's 2005 confirmation hearing, Obama comes out looking like the more qualified candidate for Secretary of State:

As the Jed Report (who dug up the video) says, "This is the Barack Obama we love -- intellectual and sincere, respectful but uncompromising." (hat tip to Sullivan)

07 April, 2008

Like wine and cheese...

The two soft-spoken moderate ex-Brits go at it:
A more civil discussion of this matter has never been had.

05 April, 2008

Rethinking the Globalization Debate

Minnesota Public Radio's "Midday" with Gary Eichten had an interesting clip of Vivek Wadhwa speaking about globalization and it's impact on the production of scientists/technologists in India, China, and the U.S. He addresses the question of whether there is a shortage of engineers and scientists entering the field in the U.S., and why our current political big-wigs are not supporting the right strategies to compete in the global market of science education. Wadhwa argues that educating and hiring foreign nationals is necessary to compete, and that part of the problem (from the U.S.'s perspective) should be how to keep foreign nationals who study in the U.S. from leaving and going back to their home nations to work. Apparently, 60% of engineering Ph.D.'s and 42% of engineering Masters degrees in the U.S. are currently being awarded to foreign nationals annually, most of which return to their native countries (India, China, etc) to do research and development.

While it's clear to me that educating foreign nationals and then pushing them out (by making visas nearly impossible to get) gives foreign industrial powers an edge in R&D, I can't help but wonder if there are benefits to such a system. By allowing foreign students to apply to our universities, we raise the selectivity of our institutions and require American students to study harder to get accepted. Further, these foreign students often pay big money to study here which the universities often get in full - money which pads uni's budgets and allows them to offer tuition breaks to needy U.S. students.

Perhaps most importantly, by keeping a system where students from all over the globe turn to the U.S. for their post-secondary or graduate education, we strengthen our soft power and our influence on how R&D should be conducted globally. It's arguable whether America's global influence on culture is a good thing - but I think most would agree that our standards for academic research are admirable (at least compared with China's), and teaching new generations to follow our lead seems to me like a plus.

Here's the link:
"Rethinking the Globalization Debate", Minnesota Public Radio

Also, Wadhwa cites Richard Freeman in his talk. There's a list of interesting publications here.

Do it yourself microlending

Several Christmases ago, my brother gave me a very interesting gift: an account on Kiva, a microfinance website. Kiva is "the world's first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world." So I have $25 of credit on the site, which I choose to lend to Manuel Roman Arevalo Lopez, a small business owner in Mexico, and which he agrees to pay back over 6 months or less. At which point, I can re-lend to whomever strikes my fancy.

Personally, I think this is a pretty cool service, and exactly the type of thing that the internet can excel at: pairing lenders and clients too small to be participants in the normal banking system. I have lent a couple times, and have always been repaid. I recommend the site, whether you invest $25 (like me) or $200 -- it is an excellent way to both promote international wealth distribution with market-friendly, pro-growth mechanisms.

04 April, 2008

A moment to remember

And a call to move forward:

I am reminded of the bumper stickers that were distributed after Wellstone's tragic death: "Don't mourn -- organize!"

03 April, 2008

The partisan political economy

Provocative stuff, from Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels:

Check out Rodrik for more. I found this graph a bit hard to read, but what it is pointing out is the average annual income growth, historically, in years when a Democrat is president versus years in which a Republican is president. That growth is also broken down by income percentile. What we see is not only that Democratic presidencies favor those in lower income percentiles (the Democratic line slopes downward) but that everybody's income growth is higher under Democrats, regardless of total income (the lowest point on the Democratic line is still higher than the highest point on the Republican line).

This is all from Bartels' new book, which is not out yet, but is already creating a stir with new research like that above showing very forcefully that income inequality is a political, rather than solely economic, phenomenon. There will surely be questions as to methodology, etc, but Rodrik takes apart some of the most obvious refutations (Republicans are just cleaning up after Democratic excesses, etc) and comes away pretty convinced. And as Spencer would say, Rodrik is always right.

Update: Krugman comments on the same graph, comparing Bartels to Alfred Wegener. Who was Alfred Wegener? You'll just have to click the link.

Update II: Kevin Drum joins the discussion...3 years ago (h/t DeLong)

Resolved I shall be!

Turning to a little more local news that my expatriot comrades may not be aware of:

April 1st was voting day in La Crosse. With Supreme Court seats and School Board referendums dominating what little publicity there was, another referendum slipped its way in there, leaving young and old alike squinting to properly read the tiny words on the ballot.

The problem with this situation, is that this one referendum was intended to single-handedly clean up Wisconsin politics, and I don't think anyone knew about it.

Oh, the gubernatorial partial veto. What a power! Imagine, with the stroke of a pen, "the State of Wisconsin shall not allocate funds to..." changes ever-so-subtlely to "the State of Wisconsin shall allocate funds to..."

Or how quickly $1,500,000 can become $500,000.

I'm refering, obviously, to the governor's ability to form entirely new clauses and sentences by the veto of a single word or digit.

The specific wording of the referendum escapes me, but it was the standard "be it resolved that..." jargon. What the State of Wisconsin has (thankfully) decided, is that the Governor is no longer allowed to be a sneaky SOB. Tommy Thompson was the master of this technique, Jim Doyle also exercising the power, but perhaps with less gusto. Of course, this issue arises in the State legislature now that the executive power has switched partisans...


01 April, 2008

Why we should not read Andrew Sullivan

He's on hiatus:

So I'm taking my own mental health break for a week or so to get some perspective on the whole thing, and remember what it's like not to have an opinion every 23 minutes. Patrick Appel, my invaluable assistant, and master web-researcher/reader/reporter will be blogging in my stead (he also co-guest-blogged on my last break).
Too bad that Andrew is expending so much energy expressing the same opinion every 23 minutes. (Almost every post is somehow tied in to the vileness of the Clintons.) The blog in his absence is...almost unchanged. Just with less ranting. I suspect that this "assistant" writes most of the blog anyway.

Disappointing Kagan

I tried to go see arch neoconservative Robert Kagan speak today about his book, Dangerous Nation: America's Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, which has been awarded some prize by Georgetown University. Given that Kagan's thinking has basically suffered no changes, or even reformulations, since the heady days of 2003, I was skeptical as to the value-added of going to see the tired imperial aphorisms of the Bush years straight from the source, in all their intellectual glory. But I went, and then he didn't even show -- he got the date wrong, leaving us and Georgetown's foreign policy bigwigs (I was sitting next to Doug Feith...fun) in the lurch.

But anyway, the book seemed pretty interesting for all that, and I was looking forward to hearing him present it. Its sort of a revisionist account of American diplomatic history, and its central thesis seems to be that America's aggressive imperialist stance on the world stage has always been inextricable from our foundational political ideology of liberal democracy. A sort of historical apologia for American interventionism and "ideological conquest" -- which is interesting, since I think most conventional narratives place our imperialist-conquest tendency and our liberal-democratic tendency in tension with one another, rather than in a feedback loop with one another. For instance, he points out that American expansionism and democratic politics fused early on in the demands of constituents -- largely farmers -- for more access to western land.

Well, ok, sure, but beyond the well-accepted notion that foreign policy is often dominated by powerful domestic constituencies, I don't really see how Kagan's attempt to weave our political philosophy, our economic motivations, and our security concerns into a seamless tapestry of benevolent foreign domination holds much water -- because, after all, those domestic constituencies are often diametrically opposed. I think it makes much more sense to see the course of our foreign policy as (roughly) following the outcome of the ideological and political struggles between domestic actors that are at the heart of democracy, rather than an expression of the abstract idea of democracy itself. Looking at the broad strokes of Kaganism (and Kristolism and Fukuyamaism) what continues to strike me is the simplistic and even moralistic roots of the neoconservative line of thought.