31 May, 2008

Iran and the lesser of two evils

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg (who also interviewed Senator Obama a couple weeks ago), John McCain mocks the idea of presidential negotiations with Iran:

Senator Obama likes to refer to President Kennedy going to Vienna. Most historians see that as a serious mistake, which encouraged Khrushchev to build the Berlin Wall and to send missiles to Cuba. Another example is Richard Nixon going to China. I’ve forgotten how many visits Henry Kissinger made to China, and how every single word was dictated beforehand. More importantly, he went to China because China was then a counterweight to a greater threat, the Soviet Union. What is a greater threat in the Middle East than Iran today?

Um, Al Qaeda? I realize McCain was talking tough on Iran in the context of the safety of Israel. And clearly, Iran is currently, and probably will continue to be, a serious threat to various of our interests, from undermining us in Iraq to pursuing nuclear weapons. But from the view of US national security, it seems that international terrorism is the greater existential threat, and, moreover, one that could be more fruitfully addressed through some sort of detente with Iran.

In this sense, the "lesser of two evils" kind of thinking that McCain argues doesn't apply I would say actually does. Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups such as the Taleban are our mutual enemies. Their defeat and destruction would be in both of our interests. Could these shared interests not be the foundation of a regional security pact in which, say, Iran is guaranteed a supply of enriched uranium and assurances against UN sanctions or military strikes in return for, say, an agreement on the part of Iran to stop pursuing enrichment capability, to cut off funding of Iraqi shi'a militias, and support for NATO's counter-Taleban and counter-Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Will the Iranians agree to anything like this? We don't know -- but it seems pretty certain that with a McCain campaign that is trying to out-bellicose Bush, we won't get a chance to find out.

Hillary descends into alcoholic spiral of doom and wins the heart, if not the mind, of our own Elliot

Courtesy of the New York Times:

After an event Wednesday night in Rapid City, Senator Clinton added a notch to her belt on the drinking-war front when she strode to the back of her plane nursing a generous tumbler of amber-colored liquid. The substance was the subject of much debate among the press corps, but no one had the nerve to ask the candidate directly.

Bourbon, it turned out. (Makers Mark, specified Jay Carson, a campaign spokesman.)

...

Fernando Suarez, a reporter for CBS News who has been traveling with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign since October, asked her if she had ever been to Mount Rushmore before her visit there earlier in the day. Mrs. Clinton said she in fact had.

“Before you were born,” she added, looking at Mr. Suarez, who is 29, and noting that “I did a lot of things before you were born.”

She swirled the bourbon in her glass and nodded mischievously.

“And thank god you weren’t around,” Mrs. Clinton continued. “Or I wouldn’t have enjoyed any of them.”

29 May, 2008

Ignore This If It Is Wrong

I hereby predict that McCain will announce Tommy Thompson as his running mate tomorrow at 1pm.

Academic Freedom and Internet Censorship

Keep your eyes on this story out of the UK: A 22-year-old student and 30-year-old staff member at University of Nottingham have been arrested, detained for several days without charges, and then released for posession and emailing of an al-Qaeda handbook downloaded from a US government website. The staff member now faces deportation over questions about his visa status and has been re-detained, despite no terrorism-related charges ever being filed.

As you can see from the news reports at Times Higher Ed and The Guardian, the focus of protests have been on the University's participation in the calling of the police, and on whether this material was legitimately for the purpose of study. These are issues that concern me, yes, but I can't figure out why another issue hasn't come prior to these: wasn't this al-Qaeda handbook already in the public domain? If so, why is the University or the UK government concerned about who is downloading them?

I'm a tad behind on putting this one up, thanks to Leiter Reports for getting me back on the horse.

Rules and Bylaws

The Rules and Bylaws Committee will soon meet to determine the fate of the Florida and Michigan delegates. Marc Ambinder points out that if the DNC does allow the delegates they'll lose the credibility required to enforce a coherent primary calendar in 2012 and beyond. If states know that their delegates will be seated anyway, they'll move up their primaries. I had been wavering on whether or not to allow those delegates--they won't make a difference anymore--but this argument trumps any ambivalence I had before. If they are eventually allowed, they must be neutered.

Do People Want Independent Stores?

Apparently, while most stores in Harvard Square are still independent, they are undergoing various hardships due to rising rent costs and recession. Everyone I've met who lives in Harvard Square claims that they love the independent stores that give the area its unique character. Everyone I've met who used to live in Harvard Square tells me about the glory days when there were no chain stores at all and every barista in the Square knew your order by heart.

Yet everyone also assumes that chain stores, if allowed to run free, would take over almost instantaneously. But doesn't this mean that people will choose the chain store over the independent? And if this is the case, then aren't people actually better off with the chains?

Chain stores have a few advantages. First, they can provide start-up capital to franchises and spread the risk of failure across many stores. A local entrepreneur launching a sandwich shop must bear all the losses if the store fails, but Chipotle can afford for 10% of their stores to fail because 90% will succeed. Second, chains have lower costs than independents because of economies of scale. They can buy in bulk and streamline their supply chain. Finally, people like chain stores because they offer consistency across locations. You'll get the same meal in every T.G.I. Friday's, but trying the local place involves some risk.

The only "true" advantage here is the second--economies of scale allow chains to provide the same good for less money--while the other advantages arise because chains solve certain market imperfections.

The fact that independents must bear losses points to incomplete insurance markets. Ideally, the financial backers of independents would be able to buy insurance on the potential failure of the store. Likely they cannot because of moral hazard problems--if they know they'll be fine if the store fails, they won't try as hard to make it succeed.

Chain stores' advantage in consistency is due to the fact the consumers don't have full information about the stores they could potentially patronize. If this information can be provided (as it is by, say, Yelp) then this advantage of chains more or less disappears. But providing this information is costly.

Chains do have real advantages over locally-owned stores. They provide goods that people want for a lower cost. But there seems to be a Prisoner's Dilemma here. It is in everyone's best interest to choose the chain over the independent (I exaggerate), but when all of the independents have disappeared, everyone bemoans the state of the world. This is because we ultimately prefer a world filled with independents to a world filled with chains, but given the choice between any given independent and any given chain, too many people choose the chain.

What can policy do? One approach would be to work on solving the market failures above. Provide better credit for independent store owners, better information about store quality, etc. Another approach would be to ban chains. I'm not sure which approach is more desirable, but it's something to think about.

Full disclosure

Just so y'all know, in case there is anyone I haven't told, this summer I will be employed by the Obama campaign. (Well, employed is a bit strong of a word...exploited for my cheap labor may be more accurate.)

My work organizing for Obama should present, in the spirit of the campaign itself, a great opportunity to blog about the political process from the ground up. I'll definitely be putting up photos and descriptions of the whole thing, where interesting and appropriate. But while I want to use debaser to explore and explain what I think is a historic presidential campaign, I don't want to turn it (or my posts, at least) into simply an echo chamber for the campaign's talking points.

So this is just full disclosure that Senator Obama is no longer simply my preferred candidate, but also my boss. I don't think I have to worry too much about losing my "objectivity" (which is long gone) but rather about slipping into dogmatism. Thus, I suppose, the pseudonymous nature of our blog -- when I disagree with my boss, I don't have to pull any punches. But, you know, keep me honest.

Oh snap

'Bama learns a little speak of the español in a new ad:



(Hat tip, Ben Smith)

Pandering? Maybe. But its pretty damn passable Spanish for the man not speaking it otherwise.

28 May, 2008

Obody Man

Fun profile of Obama's body man, Reggie Love.

Walkabout

The Walk Score site Spence mentioned below is a real eye-opener. I recommend everyone use it to compare places they've lived. As Elliot and I have been recently realizing and discussing, it's sometimes the regional attitudes and the affordability of cars/parking/etc., not the actual nearness of destinations that gets one really out and walking. I searched the address of the home I grew up in, which earned a Walk Score of 43. Compared with my current apartment's score of 82, it would make sense that I walk much more now than I did growing up (and don't own a car here). Still, what I thought was the most interesting was skimming through the distances given to various destinations. Obviously, this site can't hold enough information to be highly accurate as to where you might actually be willing to walk - for instance, you'd never walk from my childhood home to a certain bar listed as less than half a mile away, because this 1/2 mile is straight up a bluff on a dangerous road with no sidewalk, which I heard was irreparably washed out by last year's flood. Also, gas station does not equal restaurant just cuz they sell bananas.

Nevertheless, there were distances given to some places that I wouldn't have guessed. For instance, there is a huge hardware store just 1.3 miles from that house. Of course I knew this store was there, but I would have never considered walking there, and in fact wouldn't have been able to tell you that it was any closer to my home than another hardware store I frequented. Now, living in the big city, I would certainly consider 1.3 miles to be walking distance, and am very aware of exactly how far away businesses are from my apartment.

So what's the difference? It's not just the few details that Walk Score is not able to incorporate, nor can it be completely chalked-up to the difference in "walkability" of these two neighborhoods (meaning I don't think growing up I walked even as much as a 43 would suggest). I'd say it's in large part due to what the culture thinks is too far to walk, largely dictated, as we've been over many times on this blog, how easy and affordable it is to own a car. On a happy note, my soon-to-be house near school earns a 92. My carless-self is looking forward to that!

27 May, 2008

What's your Walk Score?

Type your address in here to see how "walkable" your neighborhood is. My current apartment gets a 100 out of 100, but starting June 1st I'm moving down to a 95. I suspect I am lucky to live in such a walkable area. My parents have a 58, which isn't half bad, actually. Their area of La Crosse seems very unwalkable but actually there are many stores only 3-4 city blocks away.

Mental Health Break


MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

26 May, 2008

Macroeconomics and the Labor Market

Yglesias on the labor market:

Young people looking for summer jobs this year are set to face some of the worst labor market conditions in a while. There's a lot of stickiness in the labor market, so during a downturn firms don't necessarily cut back as much as they would if real life were a frictionless plane (instead, you just like nominal wages stay flat as real wages decline). But many slightly unorthodox corners of the labor market -- the summer jobs segment among them -- don't have these kind of features and it's easy enough to just avoid hiring as many part time temporary workers as you did the year before.
Well, this is not quite right. It's not that the quantity of labor is sticky, it's that the price of labor is sticky. It's very hard to lower nominal wages for a variety of reasons. So when a downturn happens and demand drops for every product in the economy, wages should fall as well. But wages don't fall because of stickiness and so the decreased demand causes firms to lay off many more workers than otherwise would be. This is certainly true of the primary labor market; it's why unemployment rises during a recession. In fact, if wages (and other prices) weren't sticky at all, recessions would automatically correct themselves. But this also explains why the market for summer jobs gets hit even harder.

25 May, 2008

Beer, beer, beer!


Regarding our previous discussion with Brewmaster Cassady on the merits of the pilsner, I thought I should share a fun beer-related resource: the Times Topics Beer Navigator. Now, I am not one to look to the Gray Lady for my cultural referents -- I don't care much for fashion or theatre, and I only rarely find the time to savor movie or literature reviews. That said, I am one to greedily stalk its Food and Dining section, reveling in the gorgeous, interactive culinary content from all corners of the Earth.

So I recommend some time looking around the Navigator. I'm just beginning to poke around its contents, myself, and I've already spotted what will surely amount to hours of edifying entertainment. There is a blog list that directs you to 15+ beer sites around the web and hundreds of articles on everything from the impact of different casks to an internship for aspiring brew-masters. There is video and other interactive content on such topics as German home brews, American wheat beers, touring the Czech Republic's ancient breweries, farmhouse ales from around the world, and, yes, a comparison of American and European pilsners. There is, in short, a wealth of material to inspire both awe at the creative powers of our species and Cassady's next beer column.

23 May, 2008

IS Obama a muslim?


A new website finally reveals the truth of this crucial matter.

Woah.

Check this out: currently, SurveyUSA has Obama leading McCain by 7 points in Virginia. That strikes me as incredible, and probably high, but at the least a good indicator of the formerly red states that Obama is going to put into play.

SurveyUSA also adds VP candidates. Obama VPs such as Hagel (a Republican), Rendell (Clinton supporting governor of Pennsylvania) and Sebelius (female governor of Kansas) all bring that margin down. Edwards on the ticket, however, expands the margin. Too bad they didn't poll Webb...

22 May, 2008

Batman Begins is really good...

...but why don't the elevated trains have any stops?!

Now THIS is a city!

The Kowloon Walled City of Hong Kong:Of course they had to go and tear it down fifteen years ago and replace it with...a park.

I hadn't heard this story about Jim Webb...

From a while back:

At a private reception held at the White House with newly elected lawmakers shortly after the election, Bush asked Webb how his son, a Marine lance corporal serving in Iraq, was doing.

Webb responded that he really wanted to see his son brought back home, said a person who heard about the exchange from Webb.

“I didn’t ask you that, I asked how he’s doing,” Bush retorted, according to the source.

Webb confessed that he was so angered by this that he was tempted to slug the commander-in-chief, reported the source, but of course didn’t.
Someone's gotta do it!

Random Thought About Urbanism

Where does urbanism end and aesthetic criticism begin? Urbanism can't be about judging the particular contents of any street or building. The essence of the city is change. Get the rules right and let the market do its work.

20 May, 2008

Pure speculation

Great piece by George Packer in this week's New Yorker on the modern conservative movement's epic rise and fall. He follows the politics of the movement from its origins in the writings of Buckley and Goldwater's quixotic run for the Presidency to the divisive tactics of Nixon and Buchanan who put together the coalition that guaranteed the Republicans many years of power, through the reign of Reagan, who used that coalition to enact the conservative agenda, and finally down to the depths of the unequivocally failed Bush administration.

My favorite quote from the Packer article:

As we started to leave, Frum smiled. “One of Buckley’s great gifts was the gift of timing,” he said. “To be twenty-five at the beginning and eighty-two at the end! But I’m forty-seven at the end.”
Perhaps, just perhaps, we are twenty-three at the beginning of a new political chapter in American history.

(Sorry, that was a ridiculous sentence, but I can't help but remember that Fourth Turning generational bullshit. Remember, Elliot?)

Charlotte(sville)'s Webb


I'm starting to think that Jim Webb is the perfect choice for Obama's VP. He's got the perfect VP demeanor: to hear him speak is hardly inspiring (leave that to Obama), but he's ready to fight. His ancestry is Scots-Irish, like nearly all of the Appalachian region where Obama does so poorly. He's a veteran of the Marines and was Secretary of the Navy under Reagan. He'll put Virginia solidly in Obama's column as well as lend Obama some "experience" and foreign policy credibility that's useful if the Democrats are going to win that debate. Not to be crude, but it's not irrelevant that his wife is Vietnamese (imagine African- and Asian-American children running around the White House lawn).

More substantively, I think his intellectual style would fit in well with Obama's cautious liberalism. He also appears to really want it.

The moment many have been waiting for...


Seems to be fast upon us. That is, the moment when the primary yields to the general, and Obama is able to fully engage McCain. Many of us have been hoping that Obama would be aggressive on national security especially, where Democrats have traditionally been timid -- allowing Republicans to be "strong and wrong", in the words of Bill Clinton.

This early skirmish on Iran is, in that sense, incredibly heartening. Obama is not just deflecting Republican attacks, he is going out of his way to raise the issue and stuff it down their throats. In Montana, he taunts McCain as being afraid of diplomacy:

Here's the truth: the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons and Iran doesn't have a single one. But when the world was on the brink of nuclear holocaust, Kennedy talked to Khrushchev and he got those missiles out of Cuba. Why shouldn't we have the same courage and the confidence to talk to our enemies? That's what strong countries do, that's what strong presidents do, that's what I'll do when I'm president of the United States of America.

So, you know, for all their tough talk, one of the things you have to ask yourself is what are George Bush and John McCain afraid of? Demanding that a country meets all your conditions before you meet with them, that's not a strategy; it's just naïve, wishful thinking. I'm not afraid that we'll lose some propaganda fight with a dictator. It's time for America to win those battles, because we've watched George Bush lose them year after year after year. It's time to restore our security and our standing in the world.

Awesome. He turns their accusations of wishful thinking back on them, and reveals their "appeasement" talk as the knee-jerk buffoonery that it is. He is aggressively articulating a progressive national security strategy that is both hard-nosed and hopeful. No more Obambi; he's going toe to toe with the Republicans on their sacred-cow issue, and, in my eyes, making a pretty clear and compelling case.

19 May, 2008

More on Israel

Jeffrey Goldberg interviews Obama on Israel and Hamas.

House Republican leader John Boehner grotesquely misrepresents Obama's comments, pushing Goldberg to respond.

Shmuel Rosner at Haaretz comments (comparing Obama to Theodor Hertzl!).

President Bush, speaking to the Israeli Knesset, a-historically compares diplomacy with Iran to the Munich Agreement of 1938. (See below.) For all of our sakes, lets hope that Bush keeps talking.

All this leads to a drawn out barb-trading session between McCain and Obama on the proper approach to dealing with Iran. Tomasky at The Guardian gives the round to Obama, and thinks that Obama's aggressive counterattacking on national security could be game changing for the Democrats.

Finally, check out J Street, a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobbying movement that hopes to serve as a counterweight to the dominantly hawkish Israel lobbies like AIPAC.

The American Dream

Paul Krugman's column tells us that we will have to live much, much closer together in the age of scarce oil. Compare the satellite views of Minneapolis, Minnesota and Budapest, Hungary that I have added below. It should be obvious which of these cities is built for cars and which is built for people. Minneapolis has a patch of skyscrapers that is surrounded by vast parking lots and a giant ring highway that severs the core of the city from its more suburban neighborhoods. Budapest, on the other hand, is a carpet of 6-8 story apartment buildings with a few large boulevards (but no freeways) and parks.

Both cities have areas of density, to be sure, but Budapest's density is dispersed, while Minneapolis' is concentrated. The functions of the city are, in Budapest, spread throughout the city, and, in Minneapolis, are segregated. Downtown is for working, the areas beyond the beltway are for living. And that white dome is for having fun. Of course, to travel between any of these areas, you need a car.


View Larger Map


View Larger Map

The American Dream of our grandparents' generation may be coming to an end. A house with a yard and a two-car garage quite possibly will not be the way most people live in twenty or fifty years. More likely, our cities will look like Budapest, and we'll live somewhere in the carpet apartments. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but our nation's perceptions about the good life will have to change.

Bittergate update

Listening to Ella Fitzgerald's "The Old Rugged Cross" today I noticed this line as newly relevant:

I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

Obama's just paraphrasing one of the greats.

17 May, 2008

Mark Penn Mark Penn Mark Penn

Someone from the New Republic asked Hillary staffers to list the top mistakes of the Clinton campaign. Read the interesting results here.

16 May, 2008

Food for Thought

Raj Patel, who has the most delightful British accent, and Megan McArdle, who is an annoying libertarian, discuss the global food trade in this fascinating diavlog.It's particularly poignant and informative, given the current food crisis. Patel points out that we have vast numbers of starving people coexisting on this planet with vast numbers of overweight people. Why? A small number of corporations are a bottleneck in the production of many foods. There are lots of farmers, lots of consumers, but very few middlemen. Moreover, developed world farm policies heavily subsidize certain foods (corn, sugar) and distort prices. The solution? Land reform, changes in our agricultural policies, debt relief, taxes on meat and sugar.

Anyway, I don't mean to endorse his policy prescriptions. Honestly I don't have well-formed opinions on food policy. But that's sort of the point. Like a lot of things that affect our daily live--transportation, water, housing--we don't often think about the systems that create the way we actually live. Foreign policy is fascinating and can capture the imagination like nothing else, but what we eat and drink, how we get from place to place, where and how we live, are determined by equally complex systems of incentives.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

Via Yglesias, watch this:Chris Matthews won't stop until he gets an answer from conservative talk show host Kevin James to the question "What exactly did Chamberlain do in 1938?" And it soon becomes clear that James has no idea what Chamberlain did in 1938.

15 May, 2008

It's all about taking the easy way out for you, I suppose

Ezra Klein posts on whether Barack Obama is the easy way out of our nations problems:

We have, as a nation, admitted that we have a problem, but not necessarily that we had a role in creating it. Part of Edwards’ mission was to shepherd us to that understanding. Much of Barack Obama’s appeal is in his willingness to let us skip it. Obama’s path is a quicker road to unity, and last night, Edwards recognized that. The question is what, if anything, we will lose in taking the shortcut.
I'm extremely skeptical of this kind of mass psychologizing. To anthropomorphize the American people as some kind of mental patient and the President as therapist (or the people as sinner and candidate as redeemer?) is to create a national narrative that explains far too much and suggests a way out of our problems far too promptly.

14 May, 2008

Appalachia

As I've remarked to friends on more than once occasion, Obama doesn't really have a problem with swing states, it's just that Appalachians really hate him (or love Clinton). Via Ezra Klein, Josh Marshall has an interesting analysis of this phenomenon. It seems that Obama wins just about everywhere except this band of mountains that runs from upstate New York down to Tennessee.

My initial reaction is "fuck 'em". Obama has the ability to create and win new swing states like Wisconsin, Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico. Why should we care about West Virginia and Ohio? They seem to be mostly racists anyway.

On the other hand, Appalachia is the region that is perhaps most committed to the Democrats' social programs.

13 May, 2008

Change Congress

Here's a discussion with Lessig on the Change Congress movement. His counterpart doesn't make great points, but it's still entertaining.

12 May, 2008

A Respectable Debate

Andrew Sullivan says that Noam Scheiber says that Obama shouldn't have unmoderated debates with McCain because:

I don't see the upside for Obama.
That's true, there is very little upside for Obama. McCain has very little going for him in this election, and any additional exposure he gets will (most likely) increase his support. It is very easy to suggest things like public financing of campaigns and these unmoderated debates--which would be conducted Lincoln-Douglas-style in front of audiences around the country--when you are the underdog. It is much harder when you are the frontrunner, when there is a cost to doing so.

But I would be disappointed in Obama if he did not try to set a precedent in this race, even if it comes at a cost to his campaign. I'd love to see a series of joint public appearances with McCain. Public financing is a bit dicier, because it is hard to argue that Obama is unduly influenced by money when none of his funding comes from PACs or lobbies and most of it is in small donations. It's hard to know where to draw the line, but I hope that this is an election that shifts the structure of campaigns to a new, better equilibrium.

Krugman on Transit

Ryan Avent (who is starting to annoy me) points out that Paul Krugman is starting to blog quite a bit about transit, and it sounds like a column on this topic may be in the works.

Krugman notes that the number of people who use public transit to commute to work is a shamefully low 4.7%. The implication of this is that as gas prices rise, either because oil is becoming more scarce, or because of some sort of pollution/gas/carbon tax, people will find it very expensive to drive to work and in daily life more generally. Imagine creating a society that is compatible with paying $10 for a gallon of gasoline. Now imagine getting to that point from where we are now.

If the price went up tomorrow, most people would be stuck driving to work very expensively. They could cut out some trips on the margins, but it would basically be a pay cut. What makes the transition easier is plentiful substitutes to driving gas-powered cars. Electric and hybrid cars are available, but new cars are large investments for most families. One way for the government to make this investment is improved public transit. As Krugman points out, people in Toronto and other cities with good public transit have a much easier time with high gas prices. There's this other transportation system ready and waiting when prices skyrocket.

What has gone unsaid in this debate--I hesitate to call this a debate since one "side" of the debate basically ignores all discussion of transit issues--is that there are pretty significant distributional consequences to permanently higher gas prices. In particular, people in suburbs and small towns will be hit harder than people who live in cities with dense public transit systems. Living in suburbs will be more expensive and we'll start to see suburbs decline and cities grow. A whole new set of problems that we haven't even thought about will arise. What do we do with ghost towns? Should we try to save them? What can we do for people who aren't able to leave?

UPDATE: Krugman explains what I just said:

This is really our big problem: we’ve made long-lasting investments — in infrastructure, in housing, and to some extent in our auto fleet — based on low oil prices. Those past decisions are what make today’s high prices such a big problem. In the long run we can adjust, but in the long run …

Electoral Counting

After a long debate with a mutual friend, I discovered this site, which appears (after a quick browse of the FAQ) to do a pretty solid statistical analysis of polling in an attempt to predict the November results.

Krugman to the Rescue

In my earlier post, we had an argument about whether speculation was the cause of high oil prices. Paul Krugman's column today sheds some light on this issue:

Now, speculators do sometimes push commodity prices far above the level justified by fundamentals. But when that happens, there are telltale signs that just aren’t there in today’s oil market.

Imagine what would happen if the oil market were humming along, with supply and demand balanced at a price of $25 a barrel, and a bunch of speculators came in and drove the price up to $100.

Even if this were purely a financial play on the part of the speculators, it would have major consequences in the material world. Faced with higher prices, drivers would cut back on their driving; homeowners would turn down their thermostats; owners of marginal oil wells would put them back into production.

As a result, the initial balance between supply and demand would be broken, replaced with a situation in which supply exceeded demand. This excess supply would, in turn, drive prices back down again — unless someone were willing to buy up the excess and take it off the market.
This is the shortest relevant clipping I could make, but I recommend reading the whole column as it is all pertinent.

UPDATE: Here is more from Krugman.

Israel's 60th birthday


I always feel that there is at once too much and very little left to say regarding Israel. There is no dearth of passionate opinions, but both sides (militarily as well as intellectually) seem to have reached a equilibrium point of bloody but useless stalemate. Israel as social democratic utopia of the Middle East is a tired and self-defeating dream. As is the revanchist pan-Arab dream of uniting to push the neo-colonial occupier back into the sea. All that is left, in the wake of the passage of these dreams, are half-measures and unsatisfying compromises.

A two state solution divided along 1967 lines seems eminently reasonable to the casual observer; that is, me. But seemingly intractable problems soon intervene. What of the intransigence of Hamas, and Arafat before them? And what of Israeli land grabs? Who is more to blame, and who must concede what, and who first? In political science parlance, there are too many "veto players" that can hold up the process by simply withholding their support -- a dynamic that is exacerbated by the political incoherence of Palestine. And so the starvation, the economic stagnation, the missile-launching, the rock-throwing, the helicopter strikes, the repression, disenfranchisement, they all continue as if through blind historical inertia, cultivating the potent alliance of religious exceptionalism and political ethno-nationalism united by victimhood and long-standing grievance.

A depressing profile, indeed, 60 years in. And Christopher Hitchens, in his usual understated fashion, asks if Israel can survive another 60 years. In his piece he makes a fundamental point about Israel's creation, a topic that usually lost among all the back and forth on this or that air strike, if not completely off limits for those who do not want to be tarred as anti-semitic. (One should, at this juncture, stop to note that Palestinians are also Semites.) He points out the tragic irony that the creation of the Israeli state as a fundamentally religious entity -- not a state that will protect Jews, but a Jewish state -- is the original sin that lies at the heart of the conflict:

Without God on your side, what the hell are you doing in the greater Jerusalem area in the first place?

Israeli propaganda for a long time obscured this crucial distinction. If all that was wanted was a belt of Jewish territory on the coast and plains, such as that which was occupied by the yishuv in pre-state days, the international community could easily have agreed to place it within the defense perimeter of "the West" or the United Nations or, later, NATO. Aha, say the Zionists, the bad old days are gone when we were so naive as to rely on gentiles to defend us...

But...Israel is now incredibly dependent upon non-Jews for its own defense and, moreover, rules over millions of other non-Jews who loathe and detest it from the bottom of their hearts.

Although I don't often agree with Hitchens these days, I think this is right on. The original justification for Israel elides the political and the religious in a way that is offensive to those of us that still support liberal secularism. This is because it argued that for Jews to be safe on Earth, they didn't just need political sovereignty over a plot of land called Israel, they needed a religiously defined state, ruling over Palestine based on religious justification. It is that fundamentally theocratic justification that has always bothered me, and continues to undermine Israelis' innocent protestations that they are merely acting in self-defense. Confronted with the tragedy of the continued conflict and the besieged nature of Israeli existence, it all just seems so needless, and so avoidable. Indeed, the problems of Israel demonstrate precisely why secularism is so necessary for free and peaceful societies: political orders founded on religious identity turn political disputes into competitions between two absolutist worldviews -- a dangerous proposition for all involved, including the integrity of religion itself, which becomes hostage to earthly political interests.

For more on the current state of Israeli politics and the direction things are headed, I recommend Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in the Atlantic. Goldberg (who also just started a blog on Atlantic.com) seems to represent a strain of moderate-left Zionists who, while making no apologies for Israel, are beginning to understand that the Israeli occupation is self-defeating and unsustainable. Also, check out Daniel Levy, an incredibly articulate Israeli writer and negotiator who I had the pleasure of seeing in person last summer at a debate over the deeply misguided "West Bank First" policy.

11 May, 2008

More Fun With Maps

From Ben Fry, this image consists only of the 26,000,000 streets in the United States:

09 May, 2008

Edwards Voted for Obama...Maybe

Check out this clip:



He says that the person he voted for is "highly likely" the person he will endorse. I'd say it is extremely unlikely he will endorse Hillary Clinton at this point, because he says later that there is a "great likelihood that Barack will be the nominee".

07 May, 2008

Obama: Candidate of the City

Obama cut his political teeth in Chicago. He attended Columbia University in New York City and Harvard Law School in Boston. Like many in cities, he is a second-generation immigrant. His support base consists largely of blacks and youth, who live disproportionately in cities. For the first time, we may have a president who is of the city and who has a deep connection with problems and issues of cities.

Perhaps we can then do something about this:

That explains a lot...

According to Fox News, conservatives are happier than liberals and here's why:

Individuals with conservative ideologies are happier than liberal-leaners, and new research pinpoints the reason: Conservatives rationalize social and economic inequalities.
The research looks sort of interesting.

Now Let's Go Win This Fucking Thing

Three cheers for David Plouffe:

Pretty much the only time anyone in Obamaland can recall Plouffe betraying real emotion was on a late-night conference call after the crushing loss in New Hampshire. Plouffe methodically laid out the plan for the upcoming states. Then, at a fraction of a decibel louder than his usual gravelly whisper, proclaimed, "Now let's go win this fucking thing."
And they did.

06 May, 2008

Divorced from Reality

I'm watching Hillary's "victory" speech. It's unbelievably removed from the facts of her situation. She says "full speed ahead to the White House" because she won Indiana (which hasn't been officially called by any network yet.)

And she repeated her call for a gas tax holiday this summer, which Tim Russert, among others, is blaming for her poor showing tonight.

But she'll win West Virginia and Kentucky and this will go on.

UPDATE: Equally divorced from reality is Andrew Sullivan, who writes:

As her speech staggers on, after the gas tax holiday gambit, and a plea for Burma, she eventually turns to Florida and Michigan. You almost want to look away. But it's fascinating in a way. She cannot concede; she cannot give an inch; she cannot acknowledge reality. Observing sociopaths in close detail as their world collapses around them and they cannot absorb the truth is always fascinating. And yet some sliver of humanity is discernible: her tone is altered. Even she cannot fake enthusiasm or confidence any more. And Bill seems grim. Chelsea seemed close to breaking into tears.

05 May, 2008

The New York Times and the Bitter Masses

Yglesias and Klein think that the Times was too condescending in this comprehensive review of popular chain restaurants, including Applebee's, P.F. Chang's, the Olive Garden, and others (but no Perkins...what?!).

I think there are two relevant points to be made. First, many of these restaurants are not good, especially when compared to restaurants that the New York Times usually reviews. There is not just a cultural difference here--the food at chain casual restaurants is usually a worse copy of something better. This is inevitable when the goal is to repackage foods from a variety of cuisines, make them palatable to 90% of America, and create continuity and consistency across stores. Second, this doesn't mean that chain restaurants are bad! They are cheaper than the more individuated restaurants of large cities; you know exactly what you are going to get in hundreds of locations across the country; and most suburbs or small towns can't provide enough demand to support a lot of niche restaurants.

Given these points, I think that the Times review was actually pretty fair. I agree that the tone was condescending. I don't agree that it was especially condescending--at least, it was not more condescending than it would be if the Times reviewers had visited equally bad non-chain restaurants in New York City. They criticized some food, but praised a lot as well. Keep in mind, this is the New York Times that tells you how to get red wine stains out of your marble tabletop.

So why the outrage from good liberals like Klein and Yglesias? I think they're just playing into the same attitudes that got Obama in trouble with "Bittergate", the same attitudes that Yglesias has railed against on occasion. Wouldn't it have been far more condescending if the Times had applied standards to chain restaurants that were completely different than those it would apply during the review of any other New York City restaurant?

Ah, Motherland!

Huzzah to the last libatious litany! I wish to foment a similar discussion concerning a topic close to both my heart and stomach. I haven't posted for some time, but the new laptop needs to be broken in, and I feel like writing about

BEER!

Check out the discussion sparked by agave, turned quickly to a great socio-economic expose.

Considering my thoughts of late, and the onset of a beautiful summer, I turn my thoughts to the under-appreciated forefathers of Bud and Miller: The traditional German lager.

Germany has been brewing since time immemorial. It's every bit as much a part of the culture as bratwurst, a good strong kraut, and leiderhosen. With centuries of experience to refine and cultivate unique and refreshing tastes, it's no wonder that some of the best beers in the world come out of Deutschland.

Now, I know what you're thinking (or at least what those of you I haven't taught better are thinking), "Lagers? Oh man, he's going to have us drinking piss-water now!" I am suddenly reminded of a old Monty-Python joke:

Why are American beers like making love in a canoe?
They're both fucking close to water!

Rest assured, the only beers I'll be pouring down your throats will be golden and delicious, and more like having a threesome with Aphrodite and 2008's Playmate of the year on a heart-shaped bed covered with leopard skins and rose petals. Although a canoe does present an interesting challenge...

I should specify the type of lager under examination, for lager is really another broad category for the beverage. I'm talking today about the German Pilsner, specifically Warsteiner Premium Verum, for purposes of reviewing. These old-school cousins of American macro-beer possess a potency on the palate that will satisfy every time.

"But Cassidy, aren't you a hardcore Ale-head?"

Yes, but the Bohemian missionaries of brewing have long been at their work, and I am slowly realizing all that Germany has to offer.

This particular beer pours with a completely clear, golden color. Thin streams of effervescent bubbles will continue through the whole glass. The bubbly, white head that appears will dissipate rather quickly, leaving only a slight lacing rim around the glass. On the nose, it approaches pretty herbally, almost grassy, and with just a bit of maltiness. Other reviewers have found some wheat, floral, or even citrusy notes.

The beauty of a Pilsner, in my opinion, is the mask of simplicity that covers a surprising level of depth and sophistication. The hops hit the palate with an upfront but not overpowering bitterness which mellows quickly, so anti-bitter beer drinkers may have less issue with this one. There is real flavor in this beer, so expect more than you would from Miller or Bud, the smooth maltiness is low-key, but more substantial than your average bear would expect from the appearance of the beer. There is the beautiful deception--a beer at once light and flavorful.

The mouthfeel is light and bubbly, and finishes crisp, and fairly dry. Nothing left over in the mouth to make you smack your lips and say, "what is that?" Each drink is new and fresh, it's almost hard to anticipate what will happen each time you raise the glass.

Of course, the German variety is the younger cousin of the Czech style. Plzen is an old, old city, and deserves it's just rewards for developing this entirely refreshing style. Thank you People's Republic of Czechoslovakia, thank you.

Until next time friends, prost!

04 May, 2008

LA-06 flips to Democrats in special election


In another demonstration of the GOP's weak position this year, the Republicans once again lost what was considered a safe seat to a Democratic challenger. Democrat Ron Cazayoux (which in crazy creole speak is pronounced "caz-you") won the special election over Republican Woody Jenkins after Republican incumbent Richard Baker retired early (to take a lucrative lobbying position. Natch.) Louisiana's sixth congressional district has been in the control of Republicans for a solid 33 years, and President Bush received 59% of the district's vote in 2004. Clearly the Republicans are in a tough spot.

But the bigger story here is that LA-06 was targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee to test out their nascent "anti-Obama" strategy. Given Obama's recent struggles, the national GOP saw an opening to turn Obama's once magic touch into a liability for down-ticket Democratic candidates. The campaign against Cazayoux sought to paint him as too liberal for the conservative district, largely by associating him with Obama -- with slogans like "a vote for Cazayoux is a vote for Obama". It certainly appears, however, that the strategy failed to pay dividends, as Cazayoux won by three points, 49 to 46, even after what has clearly been the roughest patch of Senator Obama's candidacy to date. Another test of the anti-Obama strategy will come on May 13, as Travis Childers (D) seeks to overthrow Republican rule of another congressional district in Mississippi, and has come under similar, if more overtly racist, attacks.

One more note: It is gratifying to see that Cazayoux's victory is likely due to an upswell in African-American support -- suggesting that Obama may be more competitive in the south than many had hoped, or feared.

02 May, 2008

The empire strikes Barack

Well, I'm going to be awol for the better part of the coming week due to finals (including my first exam in...2 hours...) but this was too good to go un-posted. For those who saw the "Baracky" clip (which has been taken off YouTube by MGM) I think this raises the bar quite a bit.

01 May, 2008

The Othering of agave-derived liquors


I've been thinking that what debaser is currently missing (what with Ezra Klein's recipes, Tyler Cowen's restaurant reviews, and bloggingchefs) is the aspect of culinary criticism and appreciation. In that vein, Eric Asimov (the Times' resident alcoholic beverage critic) has a great post on the underrappreciated-ness of tequila, and its much-maligned cousin, mezcal.

While Asimov clears up what exactly separates these two spirits (tequila is produced mainly in the state of Jalisco and with only one type of agave, the blue agave, while mezcal hails from the southern state of Oaxaca and is made from many kinds of agave) he is mainly pondering why tequila and mezcal get such a bad rap:


Most people are introduced to bad tequila and never really make the leap to 100 percent blue agave tequila, which has the sort of depth, purity and complexity that you won’t find in the less expensive mixto tequilas, the staple of frozen margaritas and the like...

There’s more to it than that, of course. We associate sophistication with European spirits – single malt, Cognac, and so on...But tequila, and to a lesser extent rum? Their association with the tropics and languid refreshment makes it difficult for many people to recognize how complex and interesting these spirits can be....

Ethnic bias, unconscious or not, plays a role, too. Just as we are conditioned to think of Chinese as an inexpensive cuisine, and hence miss out on great Chinese chefs who can make far more money in Asia or Australia than they can in the United States, so, too, do many people assume that tequila is simply a partying beverage, not capable of the heights that whiskeys reach.

From what I've observed, all of these factors come into play when hating on agave juice. Whenever I ask about the experience behind peoples' protestations that they can't abide tequila, what usually comes out is some iteration of the horror story that their first and only encounter consisted of ten shots of Durango on their 21st birthday. (Ben, my college roommate, could literally not suppress his gag reflex at even the smell of tequila. Until I trained him.)

And that's fair enough. But many people also get sick from pounding horrible whiskey on their birthdays, and yet are still able to differentiate between bad whiskey -- meant to be pounded, or mixed with coke, but either way likely to be evacuated at the end of the night -- and good whiskey, which is to be savored, slowly and straight. With tequila, it seems impossible for most people to make that distinction, impossible for them to imagine ever drinking it unless the flavor is completely overwhelmed with fruit and sugar.

That failure of imagination is, I think, largely based on the way we see spirits within divergent cultural contexts. We conceive of whiskey, as handed down by our European tradition, as essentially "high" art. Thus, when we drink shitty whiskey, we see ourselves as drinking a degraded form of "real" whiskey, and so the negative aspects are not as attributable to whiskey as a whole -- the "form" of whiskey, one might say. On the other hand, we conceive of tequila as essentially "low" -- cheap, harsh, from the third world -- and so bad tequila isn't departing from the ideal, it is embodying what we expect to be its basic attributes. That helps explain why most people only encounter pure tequila (margaritas being different) on ill-fated nights of binge drinking in the first place.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not knocking binge drinking or cheap liquor. Nor do I think that everyone would like tequila if they just tried enough of it. But it does seem that a good many people are needlessly missing out on the fact that a glass of decent, 100% agave tequila is delicious and rewarding in its own right and on its own terms, largely because of the negative associations that have been built up around it.