Monthly Archives: June 2006

Right-wing think tanks can't even get their Roman history straight

Adrian Murdoch on The Cato Journal’s attempt to blame excessive government for Rome’s decline:

The corn crisis which hit Antioch in 362 had been two and a half years in the making and had nothing to do with a debased currency. The local economy had been under strain as emperors kept using the city as headquarters for campaigning in the east. The stress that army occupation placed on the city, was not eased by a series of bad harvests. It was scarcity and demand that caused prices to double that summer; the free market at work.

Innovative Wimbledon

Wimbledon gets constant criticism, some of it amply merited, for its crusty conservatism. The insult of awarding the women’s champion ever so slightly less than the men’s, the blazered officials (now outfitted by Ralph Lauren), the royal box. Some of the critics, like Peter Bodo, go a bit over the top:

Let’s face it, Wimbledon is simultaneously crucially important and strikingly irrelevant, which is deeply bizarre. Wimbledon is the most prestigious and closely watched of tournaments, yet it is an anachronism on the same order as the typewriter, the propeller driven airplane, or the sock hop.

Consider the basic, towering fact that the way the game is played at Wimbledon – ranging from the dress of the players to the strategic choices they pursue on the grass courts – has almost nothing to do with the way the game is played for the other 50 weeks in the year. Imagine that the British Open, in golf, would be played on a glacial moraine, or in an inch of snow. That’s Wimbledon.

If our other sports were as obligated to, and driven by, tradition as is Wimbledon, the NBA finals would be played on a dirt lot somewhere near Springfield, Mass., with goals made from peach baskets nailed to the sides of two opposing barns. The Super Bowl would be contested on some hard and stony patch of frozen turf, by guys wearing leather helmets without face guards,while baseball players would still be wearing woolen uniforms and sporting mitts that look like big leather sofa pillows.

But there is also truth in Bodo’s hyperbole. As he recognizes, the anachronisms are a major reason why tennis lovers love Wimbledon above all.

There’s another side to the blazered buffoons in SW19, however. They are also among the most innovative of sporting officials. Wimbledon has always had the most useful website of all the tennis grand slams, and this year it offers streaming video from nine courts for $19.95 for the length of the Championships. It’s clearly doing well: when I tried to log on today, I was placed in the “virtual waiting room” because of demand on the server. But it’s a superb service, one that I’m sure other world-class events will soon emulate.

Update There are inestimable bonuses with the streaming video: you can choose your match (so the five-set Safin-Gonzalez that US television will devote 15 seconds to can be yours) and you get the wonderful BBC commentators. Oh, how I wish I could watch the World Cup this way. And more. No ads.

Computer woes

My computer hard disk died last month and I had it replaced. Now it looks as though something has gone wrong with my video hardware: I get a fractured, distorted mirror-like image no matter what monitor I display through. So it’s back to repair. I suspect I’m witnessing the steady death of my computer.

Brown, Balls and the rest

I’ve finished the excellent Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations by David Warsh and have a small anecdote to add to his full, highly readable intellectual history of modern growth theory.

Warsh’s book centers around an influential paper by economist Paul Romer, Endogenous Technological Change. British readers will probably recall the 1995 incident when Labour’s Gordon Brown, then shadow chancellor, gave a speech which stated his adherence to “post neo-classical endogenous growth theory”. His then-aide, Ed Balls, had probably written the speech. I suspect the cerebral Brown knew what it meant, but it certainly baffled many of his listeners. Tory grandee Michael Heseltine had a clever riposte: “That’s not Brown’s. That’s Balls’.” (As Warsh makes clear, Brown’s commitment to endogenous growth theory was wise and well ahead of the curve of most policymakers.)

Incidentally, I kvetched the other day about the lack of full footnotes and bibliography in the book. Warsh explains why and provides a brief, helpful list of further reading.

Gauging the Buffett contribution to the Gates Foundation

James Moore: “But to put these amounts in perspective, the US taxpayers have spent–not invested, but spent–like drawing money from your ATM–about $320B on the Iraq war This is ten times the total amount that the Gates Foundation has in TOTAL ASSETS, and thus vastly more per year than the foundation spends in its work on behalf of the poor. The amount spent–spent–on the Iraq war could have ENDOWED ten Gates Foundations.”

Greg Mankiw: “In other words, success in the Doha round of international trade talks would give the world more every year than what Buffett can give once after a lifetime of being the world’s most successful investor.”

That said, Buffett’s great philanthropic act will be of enormous global benefit. Since its start, the Gates Foundation has proved a particularly wise and innovative organization, addressing some of the world’s most intractable issues.

Neologism of the day

Voltron. In a discussion on vlogging (video weblogging), one participant said small video hosts need to “voltron up” to challenge big beasts like Google. What he meant is that small, disconnected start-ups like Dabble and Blip (all this is new to me, too) need to get together so users can access videos.

Wholesale to retail politics

My session on Election ’08 at BloggerCon had the challenge of running immediately after lunch. After a slowish start, the discussion picked up and was quite interesting.

In my introduction, I made the distinction between retail and wholesale politics. Electoral politics in its origins was retail: the stump speech, the politician going door to door or standing on the back platform of the train as it stopped in every town. But at some point retail politics became wholesale politics. Politicians applied the techniques of mass consumer marketing to politics: television advertising, data mining, direct mail and telemarketing. The Republican party’s mastery of the latter three techniques in particular explains a lot of their dominance over the last several decades.

My hope, perhaps naive, for blogging and other new media, is that it can help create a new retail age of politics. It can allow direct engagement between politicians and their constituents, and crucially allow two-way communication between them. In his session on citizen journalism yesterday, Jay Rosen quoted Dan Gillmor‘s well-known line: “My readers know more than I do.” Why isn’t it conceivable that we’ll find politicians who can say, “My constituents know more than I do.”

Update The mp3 of my session is available here.