Monthly Archives: March 2008

Listen now

The most affecting thing I heard this week was Veterans Affairs chaplain Thomas Phillips talking about the emails he gets every day notifying him of Americans killed in Iraq.

I kept trying to save the names in a file, but I kept getting “over the limit” messages.

Listen now.


Lots of bloggers have pointed out that those who opposed the Iraq war from the start still have a hard time getting a hearing in much of the media, while those who were wrong are constantly sought out for their views. Jim Henley expressed it best.

I liked Paul Krugman’s description of the phenomenon as the age of the anti-Cassandra. He was provoked by the continued reverence for people like Alan Greenspan, but he must have had the Iraq example in mind as well:

Today, our public discourse is dominated by people who have been wrong about everything — but are still, mysteriously, treated as men of wisdom, whose judgments should be believed. Those who were actually right about the major issues of the day can’t get a word in edgewise.

Update: Alex Tabarrok explains:

The answer is media incentives. It wasn’t just the experts who were wrong, the majority of the American people got Iraq and housing wrong. The war was popular in the beginning and people continued to buy houses even as prices rose ever higher. So what does the American public want to hear now?

The public wants to hear why they weren’t idiots. And who better to explain to the public why they weren’t idiots than experts who also got it wrong?

Update to the update: Henry Farrell doesn’t buy Tabarrok’s explanation:

It’s an interesting argument, but one that I’m highly skeptical about. One of the golden rules of survey research is that questions that ask about the political views that respondents held in the past are likely to get highly inaccurate replies. The reason is that people’s memories are quite malleable, so that they often reshape their recollections of what views they held in the past so that they accord better with the views that they hold today. I’d be prepared to bet a significant amount of money that the number of people who believe that they supported the war back in 2003 is far lower than the number of people who actually did support the war back in 2003. Indeed, I suspect that the number of people who believe that they supported the war back in 2003 is a minority of the US public. Since the Cassandra-backlash effect that Tabarrok is talking about is contemporaneous, and presumably depends on people’s current beliefs about what they thought in the past, this makes me think that something else is going here (and that this something else has to do with the desire of elite actors in the commentariat to hold onto their privileged position in the public discourse).

Running to mom

Willem Buiter, who writes lengthy, dense blog posts on finance, has the more entertaining Uwe Reinhardt guest blogging on the similarities between moms and government regulation. The pay-off:

Eventually news penetrated even Wall Street that millions of the dodgy mom-and-pop mortgages would be likely to default unless government came to the rescue. Once that became obvious, the CDOs directly or indirectly based on these mortgages plummeted in value, driving many heavily indebted investors in them to the brink of bankruptcy, among them some of the big banks. And thus we now hear from Wall Street the primeval scream “Mom! Mom!” – with ”Mom” being dutifully played by former Princeton colleague Ben Bernanke of the Fed and, ultimately, the U.S. taxpayer.

Alas, it is a safe bet that a year or so after the federal “Mom” will have brought succor to these swash-buckling free-enterprisers, they once again will sit in their offices, clubs and golf carts, cursing the government and its “mindless regulation.” And therein lies the essential difference between teenagers and the adults on Wall Street. Eventually teenagers learn to appreciate their Moms.

Martin Wolf provides his explanation for the difference in the comments:

The reason teenagers learn to appreciate their Moms is that, in the end, they grow up and become Moms (or at least Dads). But the swash-buckling free-enterprisers one meets in financial markets never grow up. If they did, they would have to do more than just take a 95 per cent pay cut. They would have to admit that much of what they used to do was not just useless, but dangerous. That is asking too much. So what do they do, instead? They insist that the disaster they caused was an unforeseeable accident, as in “Mom, mom, where did that fishtank come from? It got in the way of my bar bells.”

Digital votes?

At first I thought Grant McCracken was crackers with his suggestion for solving the Florida/Michigan revote problem, but on second thought, there might be something here:

The Democratic party is acting like its 1999.  Mail-in?  Are you kidding me? American Idol manages to canvass 10s of millions of people in a two hour period with results tabulated within less than 24 hours.  You might not like the music that Idol insists on, but the show has done us all a massive favor by demonstrating how quickly and elegantly the wishes of the public can now be canvassed.

Yes, of course, there are differences.  On Idol, people can vote more than once and in the world of public representation this is, um, a wee problem.   But I cannot believe that there is not some work-around available.  With a unique identifier, it should be possible to prevent the Chicago problem of people who vote early, often, and indefinitely.

Here’s what’s strange.  In all of the thousands of words inked on this issue, I can’t find anyone talking about the digital option.  It’s as if politics is the captive of a time lock.  And 1999 is optimistic by about 50 years.  The nice thing about this opportunity is that it’s going to have to be irregular and unorthodox and a little unsatisfactory in any case.  Which is to say we have a license to try something new.

I know many of the problems, as a reader for years of Ed Felten’s Freedom to Tinker. But I’m all in favor of novel approaches. After all, if Estonia can do it, why not us?

The speech

I’ve been soaking up the commentary on Obama’s great speech yesterday. The one I found most resonant was a brief comment from Henry Farrell on Crooked Timber. I captures Obama’s ability to appeal to the better angels of our nature:

I’ve lived in the US for the last four years as a permanent resident, and been quite happy here. Hearing Obama speak made me feel for the first time that I genuinely want to become a citizen of this country and a part of the larger project that he talked about, regardless of specific disagreements I might have. You hear a lot of guff in politicians’ speeches about how great America is; Obama seemed to me to be challenging America to be great, which is a very different and much riskier thing, as well as something I find much more compelling and attractive.

Before the speech, I found historian Ralph Luker’s attempt to put Jeremiah Wright’s sermons in historical and rhetorical context more relevant and valuable than any of the thousands of words in other places. It reads even better after Obama’s speech:

The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, “I love you, Israel.” He’s also the God that stands up before the nations and said: “Be still and know that I’m God, (Yeah) that if you don’t obey me I will break the backbone of your power, (Yeah) and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.” (That’s right)

Those words from a jeremiad sound like something by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. He’s much quoted this weekend as having said: “God damn America.” But the first quotation comes – not from Wright, but from Martin Luther King’s first address to the Montgomery Improvement Association on 5 December 1955. Both African American preachers understand prophetic biblical preaching far better than those who feign shock at and condemn Jeremiah Wright’s words.

Critics of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright never cared that for 36 years he labored to build a community of redemption on Chicago’s Southside. They didn’t notice that his congregation had become the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ, a denomination rooted in the traditions of Puritan New England. They wouldn’t care that it claimed to be “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” Wright’s words become significant for them only as a means of damaging Wright’s most prominent parishioner, Barack Obama.

But Wright’s and Obama’s critics are too far removed from biblical study to recognize that Jeremiah Wright is following in the footpath of the biblical prophet, Jeremiah, whose oracles read the sufferings of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as punishment for their failure to live up to their covenant with God. To be in covenant with God, to be “under God,” is to be blessed by the divine when we are faithful. But woe betide us when we have failed “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”

Jeremiah Wright would take his first name very seriously. After all, he’s the son of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Sr., who was for 62 years the pastor of Philadelphia’s Grace Baptist Church. From 1959 to 1961, young Wright attended the Afro-Baptists’ Virginia Union University in Richmond. There, he would have known Vernon Johns, who had recently left the pulpit of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and had been appearing to preach regularly at Virginia Union for thirty years. An anonymous source claims that

The first time I heard of a sermon preached about “G-d Damn America” it was given by Vernon Johns, the preacher at Ebineezer Baptist church just before MLK was hired as their preacher, this was back in the ’60s. I suppose old Vernon had every right to preach that sermon back then.

I wish I had a copy of Vernon Johns’s “G-d Damn America” sermon. It sounds like him and it would help to flesh out what we know about Vernon Johns.

The prophet, Jeremiah, Vernon Johns, and Jeremiah Wright often spoke truth to power in ways that would be awkward for public relations specialists. Wright’s 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ has been a far more stable career than Vernon Johns ever had. Johns was driven out of every pulpit he ever held and, twice, subsequently rehired into them. But Jeremiah had to resign from the Spiritual Advisory committee of King Josiah. A prophet never sits at ease in Zion.

Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer

Well, that headline may be slightly misleading. But there are two scrumdidiliumptious helpings of Simpsons references in my blog reading today.

First, Michael Cohen sensibly asks: “If America had elected Homer Simpson eight years ago – would we be any worse off than we are today?”

And on a non-political note,  HeiDeas has its annual compilation of linguistics jokes from The Simpsons.

"They don't care"

Brilliant analysis of the Clinton campaign and its supporters by RJ Eskow on Huffington Post:

And regardless of which candidate you support, something beautiful was happening in American politics for the first time: An African American was running for President and his race was not an issue. It was a truly postracial campaign. The Clintons killed that – methodically and deliberately – to further their increasingly long-shot ambitions.

Bar the shouting

Several weeks ago I told a friend who is a committed Clinton supporter that the race for the nomination was “all over bar the shouting”. I still believe that, but I had never anticipated just how much shouting there would be. Matt Yglesias, as so often, gets it exactly right:

Because of the fact that Bill and Hillary Clinton and their close associates have been the leaders of the Democratic Party for so long at this point, they’ve been able to take a remarkably slender thread of hope and spin it into a full-fledged horse race. At this point, though, they’re perpetrating something of a fraud on their many grassroots supporters who continue to invest money, time, and energy in an already-failed enterprise.

The bottom line, however, is that before the March primaries, Clinton looked doomed unless she could make up major ground in March. With all the March results in, Clinton hasn’t made up any ground at all. That means she’s doomed. The popular vote victory in the Texas primary is a nice moral victory for Clinton to console herself with, but the overall results just didn’t create the kind of delegate count she needed to be viable.

Flat Earth News

John Lanchester reviews Flat Earth News:

So this is Davies’s ultra-bleak portrait. The British news media are crushed by commercial pressure, squeezed by the need for speed, corrupted by PR, indifferent to their own best traditions of independence, recklessly indifferent to the central functions of reporting and checking facts, systematically lied to by commercial interests and governments, and in far too many respects, simply indifferent to the truth. There is a growing, industry-wide failure to be sufficiently interested in reality.

Nick Davies’s book is about the British media. But I increasingly wonder whether you could substitute US for British in that second sentence.