Monthly Archives: July 2003

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Libertarians and dim sum  

Courtesy of Brad DeLong, I’ve come across the wonderfully named Tugboat Potemkin on the politics of eating oriental food. I’ll post only a brief snippet, but the whole meal is worth consuming.

“The usual arrangement for paying the bill is that everybody covers their own drinks but the total cost of food is split equally over the whole table, with a decent round-up for the tip. It’s this arrangement that I think would present difficulties for hard-line libertarians. It’s fraught with all kinds of problems like those which create their aversion to high taxing, high intervention government.

“Take the chicken’s feet — I think very few non-Chinese readers would, so here we have a clear example of moral hazard: if some brave soul at the table decides, what the hell, I’ll give them a go, there’s a risk that he won’t like what he gets. And the cost of that risk has to be borne by the whole table.

“On the other hand, the offcuts gourmet who orders a basket of chicken feet, two of which go uneaten, has just received a subsidy from everyone else and, to make matters worse, she’s also squandered some of the table’s financial resources on a pair of useless, and rather unsightly, bits of dead bird.”

Warning on techno optimism 

There’s been a lot of exuberance over what Howard Dean’s use of the Internet means for politics. John Robb provides a timely warning.

“While I appreciate what Dean has been able to do with the Web, my gut is telling me that in five years, Karl Rove and the Republican political machine will turn this same collection of technologies into something to be feared… Remember, all technology can be subverted, it is not an end in itself nor is it inherently good. We have yet to see the real darkside of the Internet and it is my guess that this will be one of its aspects.”

Seen in another way, there’s a danger that the left will repeat its error of assuming the right’s lack of smarts. They may be wrong (and they are), but unfortunately they are not always dumb.

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Reading the media 

The Guardian’s media section had two valuable pieces yesterday. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger interviews new New York Times editor Bill Keller. I thought the most interesting passage was his interpretation of the failures of the Howell Raines regime.

“Raines, he acknowledges, had to run the paper as a militaristic operation from the moment he took over, which coincided with the biggest story in the paper’s history — 9/11. His mistake was to carry on running the paper on military lines once that crisis was over.

“‘It’s a tendentious analogy, but it’s a little like what happened in the Soviet Union, in which they had militarised political, cultural and media systems because they had a war to win, but then they never de-militarised. The military machine kept looking for new wars to fight.’”

Keller also puts up a rather half-hearted defence of the easy ride the US media — Times included — has given president Bush. That puzzle was examined in a Guardian conference in New York.

“If the sceptical Brits expected to be greeted by an audience of lapel-pin-wearing flag-wavers standing unquestioning behind their president, they were surprised. The room was filled with anger, although whether it was defensive or self-righteous was sometimes hard to tell… Not one journalist there expressed their own regret at playing patsy, but there was plenty of despair about others’ lack of inquiry.”

Lessons from history  

I’ve only just caught up with Dan Gillmor’s column about ignoring history when it comes to market bubbles. Essential reading for anyone who persists in thinking it will be different this time.

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No one expects the Spanish Inquisition 

I have a minor sideline in collecting examples of how bad we are at forecasting even the relatively near future. Brad DeLong provides a wonderful instance. He discusses a 1928 book, Republican Germany: An Economic and Political Survey.

“Writing in 1928, five years before Hitler was to take power and destroy the German Republic, and Adolf Hitler is simply not a big deal to two people writing a political and economic survey of Germany. Were Quigley and Clark obtuse? Not at all. Hitler was an unimportant part of the political fringe in Germany in 1928.

“In May 1928 Germany held elections for its legislature, the Reichstag. The Nazis won 2.6% of the vote: they were part of a fringe of small parties with more-or-less impractical and nutty programs that together drew off some twelve percent of the vote from the established parties on the right-left spectrum.”

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More blog bashing 

Spiked Online adds to the growing literature of blog bashing, with a me-too essay on how weblogs are distorting Google results. The one surprising bit is the exoneration of Google and the condemnation of bloggers themselves.

“It remains to be seen whether the blog noise problem is going to get any worse, and how Google is going to tackle it. But one thing should be made clear… in this instance it is the bloggers who are at fault.

“PageRank is a wonderful innovation, which has been of considerable benefit to web users over the past few years, regardless of what Google’s more irrational critics say. The ideal behind PageRank, of combining a faith in the judgement of others with a desire to make high-quality content easily and publicly available, is a laudable one. But this ideal has been shot down by blogs.

“The self-obsessed nature of many blogs, the incestuous relationships between them, the frenetic rate at which they are updated, and their obsessive use of links, have distorted the snapshots of the web that Google gives us. Blog culture has made links and idle comment into ends in themselves, irrespective of the merit or relevance of the content being linked to or commented upon. It is this failing of blogs, not any failing of PageRank, that has meant that the assumptions which made PageRank work so effectively are no longer tenable.”

Gilligan’s Island 

While the newspapers I read are telling me nothing new in the dirty dossier saga (see below), David Stevens has revisited the blog correspondent Andrew Gilligan kept during the Iraq war.

Stevens derives 10 points about Gilligan, the most important of which are his sourcing is “a bit dodgy” and “Gilligan never apologises”.

That story in full 

The British Politics weblog has provided a truly valuable service by posting a pithy, comprehensible roundup of the dirty dossier saga. I agree as well with the anonymous author’s analysis, which he scrupulously posts separately.

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Another friend of democracy 

Burma may not figure in George Bush’s axis of evil, but “for most of the country’s population owning a modem without permission means 15 years in jail”. Read all about it.

for most of the country’s population owning a modem without permission means 15 years in jail

Sumer is icumen in 

My posts will be getting fairly sparse for the next month or so. My children finish school today (a schedule that always amazes Americans) so their entertainment more than my weblog and work take priority for the next six weeks.

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Science and business 

More sage observation from Richard Gayle on the inherent tensions between science and business.

“In a general sense, most business types are process-driven. Once you find a process, once you determine what the best practice is, you are set. If the process fails, it is because someone failed and they either need to be retrained or fired. Problems are bad. The business type is often backwards-looking and pessimistic. They know how easy it is for a company to fail.

“Many scientists are just the opposite. They love problems, especially since their ego-driven approaches to life suggest that they will solve them in unique ways. They have solved them in the past and will surely solve them in the future. This engenders a more forward-looking, optimistic approach to difficulties.”

Suspected terrorist 

John Gilmore tells an extraordinary tale of being thrown off a British Airways flight from San Francisco to London because he wouldn’t remove a badge he was wearing proclaiming himself to be a “suspected terrorist”.

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Standing ovations 

It would be hard to find a better example of the cultural divide between Britain and the US than the serial standing ovations Tony Blair received during his speech yesterday to the joint session of Congress.

The Guardian’s count was 19 standing ovations in a 32-minute speech. I know this is something of a congressional tradition during set piece orations (although I’d be curious whether it dates back very far). In Britain, and in pretty much the rest of Europe, you’d be hard pressed to find an occasion when a speaker received any standing ovations before the end of a speech. And that would only occur in front of the most sympathetic crowd.

What does this propensity to leap to one’s feet signal? It shows boundless enthusiasm, an American trait that is deservedly celebrated. Non-American audiences would be blasé in contrast. Allied to enthusiasm, however, there is a less attractive whiff of self-congratulation to those ovations. The slightest mention of freedom, liberty, brave servicemen and women, etc brings everyone to their feet.

And it’s also, I fear, reminiscent of other scenes of regular standing ovations. Think Soviet presidium, or party congresses in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. I’m not saying Congress is even remotely equivalent to those travesties of representation. But there is a worrying need in these places to be seen to be applauding to excess at every possible moment.

My objections to these displays are not symptoms of world-weary cynicism. I thought there were some very good moments in Blair’s speech (although there were also passages that betrayed a desire to do a global issues tour d’horizon which didn’t work for me). It wasn’t a speech for the ages, by any means, although Blair does speak very well. But I would rather have listened carefully to what he said than face nearly mindless interruptions every time the right buzz phrase was mentioned.

Watching the speech, I think Blair was a bit overwhelmed by the reception. But he was also a bit embarrassed. He will never get that kind of reception in Britain or elsewhere in Europe, but I suspect he’ll find the comparative coolness far more comfortable.

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And some potentially good news 

Africa’s bloodiest war nears end“: “The leaders of the main rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been sworn in as vice-presidents in a new power-sharing government aimed at ending nearly five years of war. The transitional administration composed of once bitterest enemies should pave the way for the country’s first democratic elections in two years’ time, if all goes according to plan.”

Estimates are that 3 million people have died in this barely reported five-year war.

15,000 dead yesterday  

As if the statistics below weren’t bad enough, Jeff Sachs adds to the misery in today’s FT.

Jeff writes about yesterday’s donor meeting of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria (which Jeff was instrumental in establishing). The fund needs $3 billion for programmes in 2004 and it isn’t going to get it.

“The US is a case in point. Here is a country with a national income of $10,000bn that has refused to commit more than $200m next year for the Global Fund. That amounts to a derisory 70 cents per American – or, to put it another way, just 2 cents per $1,000 of US income. Mr Thompson noted at the meeting that the US contribution might be nudged up to $500m or more by Congress but he did not mention that Mr Bush had so far opposed that initiative.”

Europe is almost as bad. “Earlier this year, Jacques Chirac, the French president, sought to mobilise a European contribution of $1bn for next year. This would amount to about $3 per European — roughly the cost of one beer. The donor meeting on Wednesday was initially envisaged as the occasion where that $1bn would be announced. But it was not to be. Big countries such as Germany and the UK were unwilling to increase their budgetary outlays to a level commensurate with their size and responsibility.”

Jeff’s conclusion? “But while the rich countries may continue with their excuses, they count for nothing with the dying people of impoverished countries. On Wednesday, while the rich countries gave their speeches and paraded their paltry generosity, Aids, tuberculosis and malaria claimed the lives of another 15,000 Africans.”

Frightening statistics 

Martin Wolf in yesterday’s Financial Times pulled out some frightening statistics.

The OECD countries — essentially the world’s 30 richest nations — spent $311 billion on domestic agricultural subsidies in 2001. They spent $52 billion on aid to all countries. The 2001 GDP of sub-Saharan Africa was $301 billion.

Worse, the annual dairy subsidy in the European Union in 2000 was $913 per cow. The average income in sub-Saharan Africa was $490 per capita. The EU’s annual aid to sub-Saharan Africa was $8 per person.

These are truly shaming figures.

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The contrarian view on Dean 

I’m catching up on some of my reading. I suspect the British Politics weblog may have to find a new name, because its latest offering is a convincing, contrarian view of Howard Dean.

“To say that Dean is unelectable is only meaningful if you believe that someone else is electable. Now, look at Kerrey, Edwards, Graham, Gephart and Lieberman. Do you see those guys really tanking Bush in 2004? The best this handicapper can say is that they are less likely to lose by a landslide. The polling says the same. Bush beats every Democrat by wide margins.

“Looking at the history of US elections, any candidate who beats an incumbent who hasn’t inherited from a sitting President is trying to do something special. The only one to do it in the twentieth century is Reagan beating Carter (all the other one term presidents inherited). Beating Bush is going to need some kind of earthquake.

“So here’s my take. The only way any Democrat can beat Bush in 2004 is if Iraq turns into an unwholly mess in the minds of the American public and if the economy is still a mess. If Iraq looks good and the economy booms the Democrats could run FDR and would still get hammered.

“But, hold on, I hear you cry, if the election is Bush’s to lose, why not go for the candidate with the least controversial policy positions, the safest bet? At least then, if things go wrong for Bush, the waverers will feel comfortable.

“Because if it become posible to beat Bush in ’04, Dean’s positions and positioning suddenly become huge General Election assets, not liabilities.”

Lies, damn lies and presidential statements 

Because he doesn’t have a news feed, I don’t read Joshua Marshall as much as I should. Fortunately, Brad DeLong‘s insatiable magpie tendencies keep me in touch.

Here’s one of Marshall’s latest: “With each passing day it seems [president Bush's] public statements show not so much a pattern of lies as evidence that when he’s not doing press availabilities he’s living on some other planet. Misstatements are becoming so par for the course that his public pronouncements now seem more and more like a verbal equivalent of what the immortal David St. Hubbins once called a ‘a free-form jazz exploration‘ in which the individual words aren’t supposed to distract us from the larger truth the president is trying to convey.”