31 December, 2008

The Role of Intellectuals

An interesting diavlog between Steve Teles and Glenn Loury can be had here:One might call Loury's conception of the role of the intellectual negative intellectualism, while Teles' is more of a positive intellectualism.

In Loury's conception, the intellectual's primary role is to critique the ideas advanced by others. In doing so, the intellectual should argue for caution regarding claims that others accept as certainties. The essence of an intellectual is his contrarian nature. He should not have a project of his own, nor should he be inescapably entwined in the projects of others. To be unwaveringly committed to any proposition is to abdicate the duties of a genuine intellectual. He should constantly question that which appears to be settled theory or fact.

Teles, on the other hand, argues that the intellectual's role is to promote the ideas that she believes are true. She must organize both intellectuals and non-intellectuals behind her cause and take care to present their arguments in the most persuasive fashion possible. Public infighting that may lead to fewer followers cannot be tolerated. Intellectuals have identities--a black intellectual is inextricably bound up in her blackness. There is no objective perspective, and so we should not pretend that there is.

Why we can't have both kinds of intellectuals escapes me, but it is worth considering what kind of intellectual you want to be. For my part, I'm deeply attracted to the idea of the negative intellectual, but I more often find myself playing the opposite role. I don't think I've yet figured out how to integrate what I'm learning (economics, which is largely positive in its methods) with my desire to be a negative intellectual.

30 December, 2008


If anyone has not yet heard of or listened to Foy Vance yet, check out this guy. An Irishman who sings the blues. It's perfect.

He's got a new album - Hope - which I plan to pick up soon.

Also, he loves hats.

A Disingenuation...

By way of a continuation?

The debate surges on, and I couldn't help but comment. The question was posed--perhaps awkwardly--if there could be any positive outcomes in the immediate future from this whole "recession" thing.

One theory (and one restricted to a particular sphere of benefit) says yes! As businesses are finding ways to cut back on overhead, many are floating around the idea of cutting back the workweek, rather than the workforce. The immediate result would be less work for employees, and as Elliot has noted, only slightly less money in their pockets.

And so the question: as people are tightening their belts, might they find it easier because they are now leading healthier, more active lifestyles. With more time at home, people may be more inclined to cook for themselves--a practice which many in this high-powered world have abandoned. Cooking is a labor of love that almost automatically puts people into a closer relationship with the foods they eat. Evidence points out that people are more aware of what goes into their food when they prepare it themselves, and generally prefer less heavily processed material. There is a health benefit right up front that may have quite significant results in reducing medical problems caused by poor diet.

In addition, for many, eating locally and in-season will become an easier, less expensive choice than it was before. Supporting local agriculture is good. Really good in a time of recession! So we could have an equation describing this situation:

We may define "recession" as:
-Money(More Time/Shopping Local+Cooking) = Less Obesity+Active Lifestyle

Of course, the logical consequence of Less Obesity + Active Lifestyle is Lowered Healthcare costs, which in turn means NO RECESSION!!

It's brilliant and untenable, but who knows? Maybe there's still hope.

27 December, 2008

I love me some Lessig

Larry Lessig is always entertaining and enlightening with his elegant power points on the intricacies of the law. If you're not familiar with him, he's a Stanford law professor who has traditionally focused on copyright and the legal structure governing the internet, but his most recent line of inquiry has been into government corruption, mapping what he calls the "economy of influence" that leads to policy outcomes being skewed away from the public good.

In this one, he restates some of his earlier arguments on how government (especially Congress) gets public policy wrong, using the "easy" cases as starting points - that is, why the law gets questions in which there is broad and nearly unassailable consensus so pathetically wrong. (The FDA sugar standards are a personal favorite). He also tries to move the ball forward towards a more specific solution than he has articulated before.

I like how he grounds his argument about dependence and independence in American history. Creating institutions that break the corrupt "economy of influence" has been a struggle since the earliest days of our republic.

22 December, 2008

The post that shall not be named

So, re: my previous post, a couple days ago, Matt Yglesias put up a post entitled "The New Moderate" about how tons of centrist organizations love Obama and claim him as their own even though he is putting forward what is by and large the most boldly progressive platform in recent memory. His example was The Third Way, a apparent weak-sauce monger of "hyper-timid incrementalist bullshit", or HTIB, whose "policy ideas...are laughable in comparison to the scale of the problems they allegedly address." I didn't really have an opinion on the Third Way, but apparently they have a close working relationship with the Very Important People at the Center for American Progress, and so the offending post was removed from Yglesias' blog. Further, the CEO wrote a newspeaky post on Yglesias' blog assuring his Third Way overlords that such insolence will not be tolerated. This is his offending post in full:

I'm getting sort of tired of the endless discussion of whether Barack Obama is a wholesome liberal or an evil centrist, but I have to say something about one aspect of this story:

"Barack Obama has never made any bones about it: He is a moderate," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a moderate public policy think tank. "People who ignored that did so at their peril."

Third Way is a neat organization — I used to work across the hall from them. And they do a lot of clever messaging stuff that a lot of candidates find very useful. But their domestic policy agenda is hyper-timid incrementalist bullshit. There are a variety of issues that they have nothing whatsoever to say on, and what policy ideas they do have are laughable in comparison to the scale of the problems they allegedly address. Which is fine, because Third Way isn't really a "public policy think tank" at all, it's a messaging and political tactics outfit. But Barack Obama's policy proposals aren't like that. At all. Nor do personnel on his policy teams — including the more ideologically moderate members — stand for anything that's remotely as weak a brew as the stuff Third Way puts out. And yet, Third Way loves Barack Obama and says he's a moderate just like them. Which is great. But everyone needs to see that these things are moving in two directions simultaneously. At the very same time Obama is disappointing progressive supporters on a number of fronts, he's also bringing moderates on board for things that are way more ambitious than anything they were endorsing two or three years ago.

Now, although the CAP leadership seems to have handled this particular conflict of interest very poorly, as an advocacy organzation they have every right to uphold an editorial position among their writers. If Yglesias is not comfortable with an editor holding veto power over his political opinions, then mayhaps CAP is not the place for him. But progressives interested in both intellecutal rigor and political power should start thinking now about how the institutions we set up will either support or stifle the free debate that is so critical for the development of good policy. For me, this goes too far in the direction of protecting short-term political alliances at the expense of being able to criticize an ally when they have bad ideas - which, in the medium and long runs, is bad for both policy and politics.

Matthew Yglesias

Has officially had his bloggular testicles removed.

21 December, 2008

I don't care if you drink soda...?

Matt Yglesias tries to make the case for a soda tax:

Taxing the work people do can have a net beneficial impact on the economy if the tax revenue is spent on something adequately useful. But all else being equal, it does create a drag on the economy. Taxing cigarettes and soda and so forth, by contrast, mostly pushes people toward better healthy outcomes and therefore does something to boost quality of life and economic growth.
There's a difference between cigarettes and soda. If you smoke cigarettes, I have to breath in your second-hand smoke. So taxing cigarettes makes sense. Your action makes me less healthy, so you should be taxed for doing it. On the other hand, you drinking soda doesn't affect me in the least. It does make you less healthy, but maybe you'd rather drink soda than be healthy. Why should the government decide that?

(Okay, you could argue that since I pay for Medicare/Medicaid/etc. and soda makes you less healthy, eventually I'll have to pay for your bad decisions, so it does affect me. But this justifies taxing all kinds of things, like skydiving and not taking a higher-paying job.)

19 December, 2008

The Whistleblower

I highly recommend the long but fascinating, and heartbreaking, Newsweek feature on Thomas Tamm, the Justice Department official who leaked the administration's illegal NSA wiretapping program to the NYT. A Republican from a long line of high level FBI officials, he was working in the top secret unit that approved wiretaps for suspected terrorists when he began to realize that his office was being asked to post facto approve intelligence that was being collected illegally, without the legally mandated authorization of the FISA court. After months of soul-searching and consulting with his closest legal colleagues, he decided that he had to reveal the existence of a secret program to the press, which he did from a DC metro pay phone:

His new offices were just above Washington's Judiciary Square Metro stop. When he went to make the call to the Times, Tamm said, "My whole body was shaking." Tamm described himself to Lichtblau as a "former" Justice employee and called himself "Mark," his middle name. He said he had some information that was best discussed in person. He and Lichtblau arranged to meet for coffee at Olsson's, a now shuttered bookstore near the Justice Department. After Tamm hung up the phone, he was struck by the consequences of what he had just done. "Oh, my God," he thought. "I can't talk to anybody about this." An even more terrifying question ran through his mind. He thought back to his days at the capital-case squad and wondered if disclosing information about a classified program could earn him the death penalty.

Despite a personal appeal from President Bush, the NYT editor ran the story in 2005, and the world learned about the administration's criminal wiretapping program. Tamm's life since then has been a living hell, as he has lost his job and he and his family have been continuously hounded by the FBI. Unless Obama's Justice Department decides to grant him leniency in light of the Bush administration's wrongdoing, he will likely be convicted and spend much of the rest of his life in prison - or possibly, the death penalty for treason.

Its a tragic story, and its made me think about the odd role whistleblowers play in providing accountability in our society. You are considered in some abstract sense a hero, and you are admired from afar for your courage, but in a concrete sense you are ostracized - even if not convicted, Tamm will probably never be able to work in government or law again, his colleagues want nothing to do with him, he's deep in debt from legal fees, etc. Yet there is really no other way to learn about high-level abuses. Any secret government program worth its salt will be able to get around any sort of formal complaint process.

Its odd that the Newsweek article mistates the quandary of whistleblowing: the tagline asks "Is he a hero or a criminal?" and the final line reads "Sometimes the thinnest of lines separates the criminal from the hero." But the trouble with whistleblowing is clearly not deciding whether the perpetrator is a criminal or not. Tamm indisputably broke the law. The curse of the whistleblower is that he must become a criminal in order to be the hero - that in the higher service of the law, the hero must himself break the law, and face the consequences thereof. His willingness to face those consequences as a sacrifice to his loyalty to the law constitutes his heroism. The two are inextricably intertwined. The Dark Knight taught us that much. But then - isn't that the justification for the illegal wiretapping program itself?


16 December, 2008

Stupid Questions for Smart People

Here's Paul Krugman:

Q. Whose talent would you like to have?
A. What I wish I could do is compose music. I have lots of verbal ideas and some mathematical ones but never a musical idea. That strikes me as inconceivable. I don’t know how that’s done.
Reihan Salam:
Q. What’s your favorite word?
A. I like the way euphonia sounds, I don’t know what it means though. So, maybe rhombus.
Lots of other people too, most I haven't heard of.

15 December, 2008

Am I the only blogger who doesn't have a problem with this company?

See here:

I was fascinated to discover the auction hybrid site swoopo.com (previously known as telebid.com). It's a strange combination of eBay, woot, and slot machine. Here's how it works:

* You purchase bids in pre-packaged blocks of at least 30. Each bid costs you 75 cents, with no volume discount.
* Each bid raises the purchase price by 15 cents and increases the auction time by 15 seconds.
* Once the auction ends, you pay the final price.

I just watched an 8GB Apple iPod Touch sell on swoopo for $187.65. The final price means a total of 1,251 bids were placed for this item, costing bidders a grand total of $938.25.

So that $229 item ultimately sold for $1,125.90.
Yes, it's ridiculously stupid to play their game, but people also lose tons of money in Vegas and in state-run lotteries and no one is outraged.

Ezra Klein Watch: Income and Substitution Effects


Luckily, the CBO examined exactly this and found that “if the government chose to sell the allowances and used the revenues to pay an equal lump-sum rebate to each household in the United States…the size of the rebate would be larger than the average increase in low-income households’ spending on energy-intensive goods.” That said, I imagine it will still be a bit hard to explain that the government is going to make the price of energy much higher, but will give people checks for yet more money than that, in the hopes that the high price tag triggers an irrational response to use less energy even though the lump sum check could actually cover the average family’s fossil fuel habit.
Let's say you buy 10 gallons of gas per week at $2 per gallon ($20 total). Then the price of gas goes up $4 per gallon, but you get a check in the mail for $20 every week (unrelated to the amount of gas you actually purchase.) Would you
(a) Keep buying 10 gallons a week for $40.
(b) Buy 5 gallons a week for $20 and pocket the additional $20.
(c) Something in between.
I'm guessing that no one, except for people who absolutely need to drive a fixed amount every week, would choose (a).

It's a strange world

When this:

Last week, Senate Republicans picked a fight with the U.A.W. on union pay scales — despite the fact that it’s the legacy benefits for retirees, not pay for current workers, that’s really hurting Detroit, and despite the additional fact that, in any case, labor amounts to only about 10 percent of the cost of a car. But the Republicans were fighting Big Labor! They were standing firm against bailouts!

is a punchline of a William Kristol column. Although it is only part of a larger ploy to get Obama blamed for fucking over the working class instead of Republicans, you have to admire the man's ability to depart from talking points in the service of a larger opportunism.

12 December, 2008

Things to warm my heart: finals edition

Well, the Packers may be struggling, but its fun to watch the Cowboys fall apart, anyway.

And here's some good reading on why all the pretty roses Wade Phillips touches turn to shriveled dust: the Curse of Doug Flutie. Long live procrastination!

Update: Also, this.

Simple idea, BIG implications

Just watch the video from http://www.carrotmob.org/

Carrotmob Makes It Rain from carrotmob on Vimeo.

11 December, 2008

Stupidity and arrogance

So my public transportation reading (PTR?) recently has been diplomat Peter W. Galbraith's (son of John Kenneth) outraged little book, Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies, about the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq War. The book tracks the basic realist/Obama argument that the war was a strategic gift to Iran and al-Qaeda while damaging our important relationships in the region, especially with Turkey. The value-added is the level of detail which which he describes the venality, arrogance and stupidity of the Administration's decision-making and decision-implementing processeses. There's also a lot basic substance as to who the various political parties, militias, and governments are, where they came from, what their positions are, etc. Basically: if you're really interested in how diplomacy happens at a more granular level, read it. This is the book you want to have read if you are going to be arguing about which Shiite political party we should be supporting, or which iteration of the revenue-sharing law is more conducive to political reconciliation. Otherwise, if you've been paying attention you probably already know many of the broader points, or could get them out of an essay rather than a book.

But as the question of negotiations with Iran take center stage, I do want to highlight one tragic episode that really sums up the whole of the Bush Administration:

In 2003 there was enough common ground for a deal [with Iran]. In May 2003, the Iranian authorities sent a proposal through the Swiss embassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, for negotiations on a package deal in which Iran would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for an end to U.S. hostility. The Iranian paper offered "full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD [and] full cooperation with the IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments." The Iranians also offered support for the "establishment of democratic institutions and a non-religious government" in Iraq; full cooperation against terrorists (including "above all, al-Qaeda"); and an end to material support to Palestinian groups such as Hamas. In return, the Iranians asked that their country not be on the terrorism list or designated part of the "Axis of Evil"; that all sanctions end; that the United States support Iran's claims for reparations for the Iran-Iraq War as part of the overall settlement of the Iraqi debt; that they have access to peaceful nuclear technology; and that the United States pursue anti-Iranian terrorists, including "above all" the MEK [an Iranian opposition terrorist group based in Iraq and tacitly supported by the US]...

Basking in the glory of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, the Bush Administration dismissed the Iranian offer and criticized Guldimann for even presenting it. Several years later, the Bush Administration's abrupt rejection of the Iranian offer began to look blatantly foolish and the administration moved to suppress the story. (77-78)

This a the fundamental difference: neoconservatives and their liberal hawk fellow travellers (who have donned the mantle of idealism in foreign policy) believe that Iran is evil and irrational. Realists, on the other hand, hold that while states may be bad they are rational and seek what is in their self-interest. It follows that even two "enemy" states may have common interests that can be agreed upon to the benefit of both. Iranian leadership may believe that America is the great Shaitan or they may not, but they don't like sanctions, and they don't like the idea of being bombed or invaded by the United States. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are two of Iran's worst enemies. Just like us! There is common ground here, but Bush decided it would be a better idea to piss it away while Tehran gets closer and closer to actually developing a nuclear weapon. And, of course, for good measure, moving "to suppress the story." Someday we'll look back on all this and laugh...

06 December, 2008

Announcing the discovery of a new element...

It's surprising that Governmentium wasn't discovered earlier:

The new element, Governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons.z

Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from 4 days to 4 years to complete.

Epidemic watch

The news regarding one of modern times' most dastardly diseases gets worse. I suggest we all start taking the appropriate precautions, especially during the particularly lethal holiday season.

05 December, 2008

Negotiating the end of atrocity

Just to add to Guadalupe's post on the theocratic psycho Joseph Kony. He is indeed, along with his fellow mass murderer Bashir in Sudan, a bad bad man. To go a bit further, what do we do about it? NGOs, humanitarian groups, and the Catholic hierarchy all seem to place their eggs in the peace process basket. And with some reason; Uganda is already a ravaged country and the Ugandan government has not been able to put Kony down for good in twenty years of fighting (although my understanding is that a coordinated, sustained offensive did emaciate his militia in the 1990s).

On the other hand, as Guadalupe notes, the most recent peace initiative ended as have all the others - with Kony backing out at the last moment, pretty much confirming that he never intended to sign and was stringing everybody out for time. He says its because he doesn't want to suffer Charles Taylor's fate - the Liberian warlord who turned himself in only to find himself sitting in a cell of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. And for this reason the question of punishment for despots is much debated in international diplomacy. On the one hand, the Ugandan people deserve justice for the multitudes that Kony slaughtered, and, say, bribing him with a nice maximum security villa on the French Riviera constitutes a bit of a perverse incentive. On the other hand, a robust system of international law that makes it very likely that Kony will be indicted and tried for his crimes no matter where he goes provides him with the opposite incentive - to reject treaties and fight to the bitter end, which is bad for everyone. You don't have to be an irrational millenarian to prefer your jungle compound with your adoring followers and your 50 wives to a cold, dark cell.

So the peace process as I understand it is currently set up is flawed, and will continue to produce a lack of resolution. Without the threat of a resumed, robust military offensive against him (backed perhaps by the US/NATO but help from African Union forces would be much preferable for obvious reasons) Kony is facing no "stick". And without real assurances that he can be made exempt from future prosecutions or at the least given a plush house arrest, there is no "carrot". There is just this vague, well meaning hope that he will change his ways, dashed once again.

Update: Skimming through ResolveUganda.org's policy memo "Giving Peace a Real Chance", I come across this: "The Ugandan government has said it will appeal to the ICC for withdrawal of indictments, but only after a comprehensive peace agreement has been signed and an alternative national justice framework more firmly established." This seems backwards to me, like the demand that Iran stops its nuclear program before negotiations can begin. The object of negotiations would be along the lines of a withdrawal of indictment in exchange for disarmament.

02 December, 2008

Dep't of morbidity

Eremita, I recall, found it very weird that I would spend a not insignificant amount of my time contemplating my reaction to various unlikely disaster scenarios. For instance, as we were crossing the bridge one day, she asked me what I was thinking about. My response was to enumerate the four or five courses of action I had been developing if the bridge was either bombed or succumbed to structural deficiencies. This seems like a perfectly natural, as well as entertaining, exercise, but she found something at once silly and macabre about it.

Anyway, I see Jeffrey Golberg has done me better in this department, with six tips on "How to Stay Alive in a Terrorized Hotel":

3) Ask for a room on the 4th, 5th or 6th floors, unless you're reasonably sure the fire department in the city you're visiting doesn't have ladders that reach up to six. I try to be high enough to escape whatever chaos might occur on the ground floor, but not so high that I can't be reached. I'm always of two or three minds on this question; it's also not a bad idea to stay on a floor close enough to the ground that a jump will leave you with broken legs and nothing more.

Sounds like good advice. Someone must have been a Boy Scout!

Ezra Klein Watch: Keynesianism

Ezra kind of butchers the difference between Keynesian macroeconomics and Milton Friedman's monetarism:

The implications of this are that monetarists, the most prominent of which was Milton Friedman, reject the idea that the government should directly intervene in the economy. Rather, it should stand back and either expand or contract the money supply. It should restrict itself to monetary policy. Keynesians argue that monetary policy isn't enough because people can develop a liquidity preference, in which they prefer to hoard money and thus there is insufficient spending and thus insufficient demand. That's why the government needs to spend directly in order to induce demand.
Monetary policy and fiscal policy need to be separated here. What Friedman really cared about was that the government ensure a stable money supply. In particular, he wanted the Fed to institute a monetary rule by which the money supply (think the amount of currency plus overnight reserves held by banks at the Fed) would increase by a fixed percentage each year. Friedman was famous for saying that "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon", the implication of which was that setting the rate of growth of the money supply also set the inflation rate. So he did want government intervention, in some sense, he was just against discretionary monetary policy: the government should intervene as long as it followed a transparent rule in doing so. (Nowadays money demand varies so much from day to day that fixing money supply would be disastrous, so instead we fix interest rates.) On the other hand, most Keynesians think that discretionary monetary policy has a large role to play in macroeconomic management.

Friedman was against fiscal policy mostly on libertarian grounds. But he also wrote a whole book attempting to show that the Great Depression was caused by the Fed's monetary blunders. If this was the case, fiscal policy was never necessary. Keynesians, on the other hand, see fiscal policy as an important (if blunt and only to be used as a backup) instrument for rescuing a receding economy.

Here's Greg Mankiw (one of the founders of New Keynesianism) expressing some healthy skepticism about the current state of macroeconomic knowledge and here's a great piece on Friedman's economics by none other that uber-Keynesian Paul Krugman.

Moms for Hire

I didn't realize that surrogate mothers were so controversial. Apparently conservatives think it's somehow unnatural to have another woman bear your child. And liberals think that it's coercive to pay or get paid for it:

Lawyers and surrogacy advocates will tell you that they don’t accept poor women as surrogates for a number of reasons. Shirley Zager told me that the arrangement might feel coercive for someone living in real poverty.
So it's perfectly fine for an upper- or middle-class woman to accept money for the use of her womb, but if the woman is below the poverty line it's coercive? You know how it can be hard for an impoverished person to pass up an opportunity to make money! Gosh, what would we do if there was a relatively easy way for poor women to make $25,000 a pop? Now that I think about it, we should probably ban the poor from working too. After all, they don't really have any other options: if they don't get a job they'll starve. People just shouldn't be allowed to freely exchange their labor for money unless it's something they really care about!

01 December, 2008

Distributive Impacts of Climate Change

Matt Yglesias seems unhappy that ships can now carry cargo across the Arctic Ocean. But climate change is not unambiguously bad and this is one of its many benefits--a new waterway through which to transport goods.

On a related note, he wonders just why the "business community" wants to stall climate change legislation:

Firms whose operations are more carbon intensive than the average firm would be put at a competitive disadvantage, but by the same token firms whose operations are less carbon intensive than the average firm would be given a leg up. And there should be half of each.
But business isn't zero-sum like this. It's possible for something to be bad for all businesses. And charging for pollution would be. In fact, it's bad for pretty much everyone alive in the U.S. right now. The prime beneficiaries of reduced carbon emissions are people who live in developing countries and the people who will inhabit the Earth fifty or 100 years from now.

Despite this, I still think a carbon tax or cap-n-trade is the way to go (not a strategy focused on energy subsidies, like that advocated for in this Prospect piece.)