Tuesday, February 28, 2006

In honor of Baseball Musings

My favorite baseball blogger, David Pinto of Baseball Musings, is celebrating his one year anniversary of being a professional blogger. Click over to make a donation and keep him at Baseball Musings on a full-time basis.

In honor of Pinto's anniversary, I'll raise a contrarian point about the utility of sabermetrics as a management tool that will warm the cockles of Steven Leavitt's heart. In a Baseball America chat about the top 100 prospects, Jim Callis responded to a very interesting question:

Q: Dave from Third Avenue, Manhattan asks: Jim, what is your take on the Moneyball draft, four years out. Swisher and Blanton seem to be doing just fine. Who else bears watching? Jeremy Brown?

A: Jim Callis: ...Given the number of picks the Athletics had in 2002, their Moneyball draft looks pretty average to me. They had seven first-round picks, and they got two solid big leaguers (Swisher, Blanton--both of whom were consensus first-round picks and not Moneyball choices out of the blue, by the way), a fringe regular (Teahen) and four guys who won't do much (McCurdy, Fritz, Brown, Obenchain). After that, there's not much beyond Shane Komine in the ninth round. Don't tell Michael Lewis, but it doesn't look like anyone revolutionized the draft in 2002.
If you re-read Lewis' chapter on the 2002 draft, you could go even further than Callis' assessment. In his chapter on the draft, Lewis recounts how Athletics GM Billy Beane went ballistic because in the previous year, the A's first-round draft pick was.... Jeremy Bonderman. Bonderman was the player to be named later in a deal that sent Ted Lilly from the Yankees to the Athletics. My guess is that Beane would be happy to have the current incarnation of that pitcher given his current price tag.

The 2002 Athletics draft should have been an "easy test" of the Moneyball revolution. The Athletics had a large number of draft picks, and no other team had really embraced the sabermetric philosophy to the extent that the A's had. If that draft failed to yield an above-average number of quality MLB players, what does it say about the utility of sabermetrics as a scouting tool?

The one out I can think of for Lewis is that Beane was able to sign those draft picks for way less than normal market value given when they were picked. There's definitely cost-effectiveness, which is really at the heart of the Moneyball argument. Still, that's pretty weak beer given the way Lewis wrote about the potential of that draft.

I'm certainly not suggesting sabermetrics is useless... but might this approach be overrated as a scouting tool?

posted by Dan at 11:45 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

So, You Want To Buy a Strategic American Company …

That's the title of my latest essay for Slate:

Political resistance to foreign takeovers is not all that shocking, even in the supposedly laissez-faire United States. Foreign corporations are the perfect political bogeyman. By definition, they are un-American. Critics are usually correct when they claim that these firms are only concerned with making money (our multinationals would never act like that!!), and if they are state-owned, well, then their purposes must be even more nefarious. The targets of many of these takeovers—infrastructure, utilities, steel—are perceived to have some strategic value, which makes ordinary citizens even more sensitive....

So, what's a foreign CEO to do? How do you take over a national treasure in such a hostile political environment? Here are a few lessons that can be learned from recent experience.

You'll have to read the essay to see my meager bits of advice.

For readers clicking over from Slate, click here to see a list of blog posts on the Dubai ports deal. Then click here for my post about Euro-hysteria on hostile corporate takeovers. And, finally, click here to see my musings on CNOOC's proposed takeover of Unocal back in the summer of 2005.

posted by Dan at 11:18 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

A subversive thought about the ports deal

The more information that comes out about the proposed port deal, the more I realize why the politics of this case seems so confusing. If you read this Washington Post story by Jim VandeHei and Paul Blustein, this Jim Geraghty post at NRO, this Washington Post story by Walter Pincus, this New York Times story by Carl Hulse and David Sanger, and this Coast Guard release from Monday, you recognize the following facts:

1) This decision was not made by policy principals, but rather assistant secretarie or deputy assistant secretaries;

2) The CFIUS process worked. Some homeland security agencies, like the Coast Guard, raised concerns -- and those concerns were addressed in negotiations with DPW;

3) Neither Bush nor his cabinet played any role in the decision until the very end of the process.

Now, this leads into an interesting conundrum -- depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, the decision-making process affects your take on the deal in odd ways.

If you're a true-blue liberal, you should be perfectly delighted with this outcome. The Bushies did not have a high profile, there was no stovepiping from neoconservatives, and the interagency process seemed to work pretty well. This is, in other words, an exemple of how good government is supposed to operate.

Of course, if you're a red-meat conservative, this is just awful. Unelected bureaucrats and low-level flunkies ran the show. The Commander-in-Chief was out of the loop. Bureaucrats were telling politics what to do, rather than vice versa. This is exactly the kind of thing the Bush administration was not supposed to let happen.

I'm not sure it explains anything, but I thought it was interesting enough to point out.

posted by Dan at 10:23 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

Where's the income beef?

Brad DeLong has a post up about the dizzyingly unequal distribution of income in the United States. He quotes Paul Krugman:

So who are the winners from rising inequality? It's not the top 20 percent, or even the top 10 percent. The big gains have gone to a much smaller, much richer group than that. A new research paper by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, "Where Did the Productivity Growth Go?," gives the details. Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn't a ticket to big income gains. But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that's not a misprint.

Just to give you a sense of who we're talking about: the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that this year the 99th percentile will correspond to an income of $402,306, and the 99.9th percentile to an income of $1,672,726. The center doesn't give a number for the 99.99th percentile, but it's probably well over $6 million a year.... The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that's the real story. Should we be worried about the increasingly oligarchic nature of American society?

I'll confess those numbers even give me some pause -- and I've historically been unfazed by income inequality. And yet, there is surprisingly little grumbling about this within the mainstream political discourse about this, with the partial exception of rising protectionist sentiment. Why?

I'd offer three possible reasons -- all of which could be at work:

1) Those on the bottom of the income spectrum are increasingly tuning out politics -- call this the Hacker-Pierson thesis;

2) Those at the bottom of the income spectrum believe that they will eventually rise to the top of the income spectrum, and therefore see no reason to complain -- call this the David Brooks thesis;

3) Income is not the only measure that counts in evaluating Americans' well-being, and on other factors, the distribution of gains is far more even. I can think of two economic benefits in particular:

a) Asset prices. Americans have done well the past decade not through income gains but capital gains, in the form of their stock and housing portfolios (not to mention intergenerational wealth transfers). These gains have been impressive even given the bubble-like quality of some of the rise. While I have no hard data on this, and will gladly welcome empirical falsification, my hunch is that these gains might be more evenly distributed than rises in income;

b) Leisure. I've blogged about this before, but Virginia Postrel has an excellent New York Times summary from last week. The key point -- the gains in leisure are particularly strong at the bottom of the income spectrum.

c) Consumption. Inequality in consumption is not as stark as inequality in income. Furthermore, in many areas productivity gains have drastically lowered prices. Daniel Gross touches on this point in his Slate column on Chipotle and other restaurant IPOs:

[T]he restaurant industry has done a Wal-Mart. Through tight control of sourcing, a focus on logistics, and a firm rein on labor costs, it has managed to keep a lid on inflation. Yes, a Big Mac costs more than it used to. But virtually every fast-food joint still has a 99-cent menu. And it's not just fast food that's cheap. As noted in this space in 2004, between 1982 and 2004, according to figures provided by the ever-expanding Zagat survey, the average cost at the same restaurant rose from $29.23 to $50.32, a 2.62 percent annual rate—substantially below the rate of inflation in that period.
Even if incomes are stagnant, there is a large category of goods for which more can be purchased for less.
Call this the Drezner thesis -- unless I'm wrong, in which case call it typical half-assed blog analysis.
I'll be happy to entertain other hypotheses.

UPDATE: One additional hypothesis that is clearly emerging from the comments is that the growth in income inequality does not generate resentment because of the changing sources of that income. The rich are no longer rich because of inheritances, but because of their own effort. To explain, let me quote from Rajan and Zingales, Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists, page 92 yet again:

One statistic best sums up the changes that have taken place: in 1929, 70 percent of the income of the top .01 percent of income earners in the United States came from holding of capital -- income such as dividends, interest, and rents. The rich were truly the idle rich. In 1998, wages and entrepreneurial income made up 80 percent of the income of the top .01 percent of income earners in the United States, and only 20 percent came from capital. Seen another way, in the 1890s the richest 10 percent of the population worked fewer hours than the poorest 10 percent. Today, the reverse is true. The idle rich have become the working rich!

Instead of an aristocracy of the merely rich, we are moving to an aristocracy of the capable and the rich.

ANOTHER UPDATE: James Joyner still wants someone to show him the money.

posted by Dan at 10:12 AM | Comments (67) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, February 27, 2006

For once, I was ahead of the curve

As part of its cover package on India, Newsweek's Keith Naughton writes about the interesting fact that offshore outsourcing to India is not the political hot potato it used to be:

Not long ago, what seemed most possible was that India would steal the jobs of American workers. But as George W. Bush visits there this week, he'll find a maturing economy that is no longer all about call centers and basic tech support. Now big American investment banks and drugmakers are joining tech firms on the passage to India. R&D centers are springing up so fast that there's now a shortage of Indian engineers. And the stigma of outsourcing jobs to India is disappearing. American companies once afraid to put their names on the doors of their Indian offices now issue press releases touting their latest investments there. "American firms have gotten over their anxiety about India," says financial-services consultant Harrell Smith of Celent Communications. "Now the new anxiety is if you're not in India."

What happened to the outsourcing backlash? It has been muted by the fact that India didn't suck Silicon Valley dry after all. Actually, U.S. tech employment is growing. There are 17 percent more tech workers in the United States today than back in the bubble days of 1999, says a new study by the Association for Computing Machinery. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the U.S. economy will add 1 million tech jobs over the next decade, a 30 percent increase. "Everyone was worried about the offshoring bogeyman," says Moshe Vardi, an author of the ACM study. "But the big whoosh of jobs to India never happened.'' Indeed, that gush slowed to a steady stream once American companies realized it's tough to set up shop in a country with bad roads and a patchy power grid. Lately, American consulting firms that once predicted runaway growth in outsourcing to India have been slashing their estimates by half or more. Now American companies are hanging on to the high-skilled work that requires face-to-face interaction, while everything that can be done "over the wire" gets shipped offshore.

Wow, you learn something new every day. Oh, wait.....

posted by Dan at 07:15 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

My mad math skills

Well, this is a relief:

You Passed 8th Grade Math
Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

This, on the other hand, makes me seriously doubt the testing methodology:

You Are Los Angeles

Young and fun, you always know where the best parties are.

And while you tend to keep things carefree and casual...

You certainly can glam it up when you need to.

posted by Dan at 01:35 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Still looking for a reason to get riled up....

I'm still trying to find a reason to get exercised about the Dubai port deal. The latest is Mickey Kaus' argument:

I recommend Daniel Engber's Explainer on what a port operator actually does:
It gets cargo containers off of ships and puts them onto trucks or trains. A port operator also provides other services to the shipping industry: It does the paperwork to get incoming shipments through customs and uses its computer system to help connect the goods with potential recipients. ...

Most operators invest in a computerized yard management system to help each trucker connect with his payload. ... The port operator also handles personnel issues.

If we're afraid of bad guys sneaking something dangerous into the U.S., it sure seems like there are lots of opportunities for mischief if you can infiltrate the firm that does the paperwork and runs the computer system and handles the "personnel issues"! Is it comforting matter that "security" at American ports will still be "controlled by U.S. federal agencies led by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Control Agency ... ." Not if what you're worried about is a small cell of people looking for a way to get around the Coast Guard's security. Just having a port operator that is more easily approached by people who speak Arabic vastly increases the risk, at least the risk from Arab jihadists, no? (emphasis added)
I would recommend that Mickey read this Washington Post story by Jim VandeHei and Paul Blustein. It's ostensibly about the White House's lugubrious reaction to the ports controversy, but it also sheds some light on how the CFIUS process addressed U.S. security concerns:
The process began on Oct. 17, when representatives of the Dubai company informally approached the Treasury Department to disclose that they were planning to purchase the British firm, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., according to testimony by administration officials at a Senate hearing last week. Treasury officials directed them to consult with Homeland Security because of the port security question.

The executives of Dubai Ports World -- several of whom are American -- well understood that they might face extensive scrutiny.

"You don't have to do this, but I brought a small team here [from Dubai] to meet with the CFIUS agencies in early December," said Edward H. "Ted" Bilkey, the company's chief operating officer and former U.S. Navy officer. The idea was to give the panel plenty of time even before the company formally filed to start a standard 30-day review.

Homeland Security officials, especially in Customs and Border Protection, had high regard for the company, which is owned by the government of Dubai and operates terminals in 19 ports in Asia, Europe and South America. It was the first in the Middle East to participate in a post-Sept. 11 program in which Customs agents are posted overseas to screen containers before they are loaded onto U.S.-bound ships. U.S. intelligence agencies -- who were asked on Nov. 2 for any information they had on the company -- produced nothing "derogatory" about it, Baker said.

Even so, the department had enough qualms to insist on a number of legally binding conditions for approving the deal -- a frequent CFIUS practice. The company pledged to maintain its participation in the Customs program, "and they agreed to open their books, and give us access to records, without any formal legal process," Baker said.

The department also wanted to ensure that the personnel at the U.S. terminals to be taken over by the company would remain almost entirely American. So it extracted a pledge that the company intended to keep the current management of U.S. operations in place. (emphasis added)

Given the concessions obtained through the CFIUS process -- DPW's participation in the Customs initiative, the transparency of DPW's books, the continuance of the current management team for the U.S. ports -- is there any rational reason to get exercised about this deal? Is Mickey's assertion that jihadists would have a better opportunity to infiltrate DPW's ports a valid one, given the layers of American management involved?

The Post story also aleviates the other small concern I had about this deal -- that the Bush administration bollixed up the process. The New York Times story I cited in my first post on this topic asserted:

The administration's review of the deal was conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body that was created in 1975 to review foreign investments in the country that could affect national security. Under that review, officials from the Defense, State, Commerce and Transportation Departments, along with the National Security Council and other agencies, were charged with raising questions and passing judgment. They found no problems to warrant the next stage of review, a 45-day investigation with results reported to the president for a final decision.

However, a 1993 amendment to the law stipulates that such an investigation is mandatory when the acquiring company is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government. Administration officials said they conducted additional inquires because of the ties to the United Arab Emirates, but they could not say why a 45-day investigation did not occur.

VandeHei and Blustein have a different desription of the process in the Post story:
[O]nce Dubai Ports World had agreed to the conditions required by Homeland Security, none of the agencies on CFIUS objected to the transaction when the 30-day review was completed on Jan. 17. If even one agency had objected, the matter would have gone to a 45-day investigation -- which would have required a presidential decision at the end. Moreover, a single dissent would have meant bringing the matter before higher-ranking officials in each department.

But instead, the matter stayed with assistant secretary-level officials, who told the company the transaction could go forward.

I should know which version of the process is correct, but I don't. Readers are encouraged to enlighten me on this [UPDATE: Thank you, Chris! This comment clears up much of the confusion.].

UPDATE: Mickey e-mails me to suggest I read Charles Krauthammer's thoughts on the matter:

[T]he problem is not just the obvious one that an Arab-run company, heavily staffed with Arab employees, is more likely to be infiltrated by terrorists who might want to smuggle an awful weapon into our ports. But that would probably require some cooperation from the operating company. And neither the company nor the government of the UAE, which has been pro-American and a reasonably good ally in the war on terrorism, has any such record.

The greater and more immediate danger is that as soon as the Dubai company takes over operations, it will necessarily become privy to information about security provisions at crucial U.S. ports. That would mean a transfer of information about our security operations -- and perhaps even worse, about the holes in our security operations -- to a company in an Arab state in which there might be employees who, for reasons of corruption or ideology, would pass this invaluable knowledge on to al-Qaeda types.

That is the danger, and it is a risk, probably an unnecessary one.

Color me unimpressed. DPW already gets a lot of this information because Dubai is a participant in the Container Security Initiative. Furthermore, the on-the-ground environments in the ports themselves look like they won't be changed one iota because of this deal. It will still be U.S. longshoremen handling the cargo, U.S. managers running
port operations for DPW, U.S. managers at the upper echelon of DPW, and U.S. law enforcement managing port security. Where's the beef?

A final point -- my support for the Dubai deal should not be misinterpreted as a lack of concern about port security. I'm as sanguine now as I was before the deal -- that is to say, not all that sanguine. It's just that this deal is irrelevant to the real problems at hand for port security -- inadequate inspections.

An excellent primer on port security can be found in Jon D. Haveman, Howard J. Shatz, and Ernesto A. Vilchis (2005) "U.S. Port Security Policy after 9/11: Overview and Evaluation", Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management: Vol. 2: No. 4, Article 1.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Looks like DPW has requested the 45 day review, which has gone a long way towards alleviating Congressional concerns.

posted by Dan at 10:23 AM | Comments (28) | Trackbacks (0)

Al Qaeda defines victory down

If this Associated Press report by Donna Abu-Nasr is correct, then Al Qaeda's spokesman is starting to sound a lot like the publicist for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Both are all too eager to declare moral victories when real ones aren't happening:

Al-Qaida on Saturday vowed more attacks on Saudi oil facilities, a day after an attempt to bomb the world's biggest oil processing complex showed the group still can strike inside the kingdom....

Two suicide bombers in explosives-packed cars traded fire with police at a checkpoint before a gate in the first of three fences around the sprawling, heavily guarded complex. One bomber collided with the closed gate, exploding and blowing a hole in the fence, a senior Saudi security official said.

The second bomber drove through the hole before police opened fire, detonating his car, the official added on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Witnesses on Friday reported that security forces traded fire with gunmen outside the facility after the explosions and that a hunt for attackers continued for hours. Saudi officials have not reported the capture of any assailants....

"There are more like them who are racing toward martyrdom and eager to fight the enemies of God,'' the posting said. "You will see things that will make you happy, God willing.''

In a later statement, the group said it carried out the attack "based on the instructions of our leader, Osama bin Laden'' and identified the two slain suicide bombers as Abdullah Abdul-Aziz al-Tweijri and Mohammed Saleh al-Gheith.

It denied that the bombing was foiled and gave its own account of the attack. It claimed that Al-Qaida fighters overcame guards at the gate, killing three and forcing others to flee. The fighters then opened the gate for a car that entered and blew up, it said, without specifying what the blast targeted.

The authenticity of the statements could not be independently confirmed.

I look forward to future Al Qaeda posting claiming that, "it was a good operation today, we just caught a bad break," and "With our farm system, we are confident in our ability to be a powerful terrorist group in 2010."

posted by Dan at 01:11 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Will the wheel turn on the ports deal?

Via NRO's the Corner, I see that Glenn Reynolds has an op-ed about the political reaction to the UAE ports deal in the weekend Wall Street Journal. Actually, the story is more about the blogosphere's reaction:

When the story first appeared, bloggers were overwhelmingly negative. My own reaction, on Feb. 12, was "color me unimpressed." Other bloggers were more pungent, but the story got little attention in the national media, which were mostly preoccupied with the Cheney quail-hunting story. ... Some bloggers, meanwhile, were having second thoughts. One of them was me: Although my initial reaction was negative, I started getting emails from readers -- some of them longtime correspondents -- who had experience with the UAE. One had served alongside troops from the Emirates in Afghanistan; another had spent time in Dubai. Some had worked with UAE ports officials. All were positive. ... As I write this, it's not clear where the rest of the debate is headed, but there are already some useful lessons for the White House. First, blogs make an excellent early warning system. The White House, unaccountably, seems to have been blindsided by the furor over this deal, though most people's gut reaction was negative. As with the many bloggers like me who changed their minds, gut reactions can be overcome by evidence -- but the White House should have taken advantage of this early warning to have its arguments in order. It didn't. That's the second lesson: The White House should not only have read blogs, but responded to them with information and arguments, rather than waiting for blog readers to weigh in.
I'll be intrigued to see whether the rest of the American people calm down as quickly as the blogosphere over a deal that should go through. I'd like to be optimistic, but I fear that Glenn's libertarian streak might be coloring how he thinks the rest of the vox populi will react. UPDATE: This is what I'm talking about.

posted by Dan at 10:08 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Your IR reading for today

I'm attending an all-day conference at Princeton on nested and overlapping international institutions.

IR and IL types should read some of the short papers linked to on the conference web site -- paticularly if you're interested in the politics of genetically modified organisms.

Less hard-core IR types might be more interested in the latest issue of The Washington Quarterly. David Adesnik and Michael McFaul have an article entitled "Engaging Autocratic Allies to Promote Democracy."

In a related vein, Jeffrey Kopstein asks in "The Transatlantic Divide Over Democracy Promotion," whether that policy become yet another new source of transatlantic tension, or will it be an area in which they can work together.

I expect 100 word comments by the end of the day.

posted by Dan at 08:11 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

My one post about Larry Summers

I've received a few e-mail queries about whether I would post anything on Larry Summers' resignation as president from Harvard and whether it's an example of:

A) Political correctness triumphing over rational discourse;

B) What happens when an out-of-touch faculty becomes too pwerful;

C) Larry Summers' inability to adapt to his environment;

D) All of the above.

Actually, I have only two thoughts.

The first is that Larry Summers is an exceptionally bright economist who might be a better public intellectual now that he can just speak his mind.

The second is that, much as one may want to buy into the argument that this is Harvard's liberal, elitist, out-of-touch faculty punishing a truth-teller, I strongly suspect there are other parts to this story. So before anyone jumps to conclusions, I'd suggest reading this Institutional Investor story by David McClintick.

posted by Dan at 12:14 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Freaking out about takeovers

It should be pointed out that the United States is not the only country currently wigging out about foreign direct investment. This seems to be the theme du jour across the globe. Some examples:

1) As much as Americans might not be thrilled with Google's new China presence, it appears that some Chinese aren't pleased either. Philip P. Pan reports for the Washington Post:
A state-run newspaper reported Tuesday that Google Inc. is under investigation for operating without a proper license in China and quoted an unnamed government official as saying the Internet giant needs to cooperate further with the authorities in blocking "harmful information" from its search results.

The report, in the Beijing News, was published the same day that another state newspaper ran a harshly worded editorial about Google. The paper accused the firm of sneaking into China like an "uninvited guest" and then making a fuss about being required to follow Chinese law and cooperate in censoring search results such as pornography.

The unusually bold attacks in the state media suggest that the Chinese government is unhappy with Google's efforts thus far to filter politically sensitive results from its popular search engine in China, and that its ability to do business in the country may be in jeopardy.

Google has since received is licence, but only after indicating that it was "'willing to receive guidance' from the authorities."

2) Bloomberg reports that the Spanish government is getting into trouble with the EU because of its resistance to a foreign takeover:

Europe's top regulators warned Spain against trying to block a $35 billion takeover of Endesa SA by Germany's E.ON AG as Spanish government leaders stiffened their opposition to foreign ownership of utilities.

The European Commission threatened legal action against Spain for seeking to keep its power and gas industry in national hands, a day after E.ON announced the 29.1 billion euro ($34.7 billion) bid, the biggest ever in the utility industry. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero today repeated opposition to the bid, calling Endesa "strategic'' for the country.

3) Other EU countries are also having fits about hostile takeovers. Martin Arnold and Tobias Buck report in the Financial Times that France is getting quite creative in trying to fend off Mittal Steel's bid for Arcelor:
France is preparing to push European Union takeover rules to their limits again by giving companies the right to use so-called poison pill defences to rebuff hostile takeover bids - even if they come from companies unable to use similar strategies.

The new rules allow companies subjected to a hostile bid, or expecting a possible raid, to issue warrants convertible into shares at adiscounted price to existing shareholders, making any offer more expensive and encouraging friendly talks.

Thierry Breton, finance minister, told the Senate yesterday: "To think we can keep economic activities in France by opposing any change in their owner-ship would be a great mistake."

Instead, he said he aimed to "give French companies the ability to defend themselves on equal terms".

But by letting companies use poison pills to ward off bidders - such as UK companies - that do not have access to similar measures, the French government seems to be going against the spirit, if not the letter, of the recent European takeover directive.

4) The French and Spanish moves could trigger a cascade effect within the European Union to restrict hostile foreign takeovers, as this companion FT story by Tony Barber relates:
The threat of creeping protectionism across Europe deepened on Wednesday when Italy raised the prospect of toughening Italian takeover laws in retaliation against France’s efforts to deter foreign bidders from acquiring French companies.

Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, said Italy was among the most “market-oriented” countries in the European Union and disliked protectionism, but it could not ignore France’s firm line on hostile takeover bids.

In a move that has rattled the European Commission, the French government is proposing to let companies use “poison pill” defences to thwart hostile bidders.

“The Italian law on takeover bids is among the most open and was written before the European [takeover] directive, which was then changed in a more restrictive sense, as is happening in France,” Mr Tremonti said.

“I don’t think this is the right way, but it has to be taken account of, if reciprocity is to be guaranteed. The company under attack at the moment has more limited defences than the attacker,” he told reporters.

Mr Tremonti said it was not only France’s preparations to tighten its takeover rules but also current German laws that had stirred concern in Italy.

As much as trade deficits trigger protectionist backlashes, there's something about FDI that generates even more nationalism.

Why? My hunch would be that it is easier to freak out about concrete examples rather than abstract statistics, and the FDI situations are all about individual takeovers. Plus, despite pretty strong evidence to the contrary, there is still a belief that a foreign firm will act as a willing and enthusiastic agent of the home country government (though, to be fair, this suspicion might be a bit more justified when you're talking about a state-owned company).

A question to readers who oppose the port deal -- what do you think of the Euro-reactions? Are they overblown or thoroughly rational?

posted by Dan at 05:54 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Open Iraqi civil strife thread

Comment away on the ever-worsening violence in Iraq, triggered by the bombing of the Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, in the city of Samarra. Dan Simon has a disturbing synopsis in the Christian Science Monitor.

It would be a cruel irony if a bombing that didn't actually kill anyone turned out to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

posted by Dan at 10:01 PM | Comments (33) | Trackbacks (0)

David Ignatius makes me so mad!!!

David Ignatius' column in today's Washington Post echoes some recent speculation about why globalization hasn't led to the kind of moderate, secular modernization predicted by the likes of Tom Friedman and other Davos men:

So why does the world feel so chaotic? Why is there a growing sense that, as Francis Fukuyama put it in a provocative essay in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "More democracy will mean more alienation, radicalization and -- yes, unfortunately -- terrorism"?....

A second explanation of the connectedness paradox comes from Charles M. McLean, who runs a trend-analysis company called Denver Research Group Inc. (I wrote a 2004 column called "Google With Judgment" that explained how his company samples thousands of online sources to assess where global opinion is heading.) I asked McLean last week if he could explain the latest explosion of rage in our connected world -- namely the violent Islamic reaction to Danish cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad.

McLean argues that the Internet is a "rage enabler." By providing instant, persistent, real-time stimuli, the new technology takes anger to a higher level. "Rage needs to be fed or stimulated continually to build or maintain it," he explains. The Internet provides that instantaneous, persistent poke in the eye. What's more, it provides an environment in which enraged people can gather at cause-centered Web sites and make themselves even angrier. The technology, McLean notes, "eliminates the opportunity for filtering or rage-dissipating communications to intrude." I think McLean is right. And you don't have to travel to Cairo to see how the Internet fuels rage and poisons reasoned debate. Just take a tour of the American blogosphere.

Wait a minute -- I thought blogs were dead. How can they be passe and a conduit for rage? Huh? HUH??!!

What the f@#$ does Ignatius know about blogs???!!! He's just a card-carrying member of the ELITE MAINSTREAM MEDIA!! ATTICA!!! ATTICA!!!!!

OK, got that out of my system.

I see the point that Ignatius and Fukuyama are trying to make -- that democratization creates real short-term problems by allowing radicals to take over governments. However, as I've said repeatedly, unless radical or revolutionary groups succeed at making the trains run on time, these groups (and blogs) become discredited and illegitimate over time. More generally:

[I]lliberal democracies are [not] necessarily better for world politics than slowly reforming authoritarian states are. But they are not necessarily worse, either. It's more a question of timing -- illiberal states that become democratic are more likely to have problems sooner rather than later, while authoritarian states that are slowly democratizing are likely to have problems later rather than sooner.
Fukuyama and Ignatius are correct to raise the short-term problems that come with globalization and democratization -- but they're wrong not to stress the long-term advantages that come along as well.

posted by Dan at 12:42 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

What's the big deal about the port deal?

I can certainly see why there's some political controversy about a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates helping to run ports on the Eastern seaboard -- but after reading this Christian Science Monitor story by Alexandra Marks, I don't think there's any real basis for the kind of outrage I'm seeing. This section in particular stands out:

Companies like P&O don't provide security at the ports. The US Coast Guard and Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement do. For instance, in New Orleans, P&O is one of eight terminal operators responsible for marketing the port, signing agreements with shipping lines, hiring labor, loading ships, and moving cargo.

But P&O has no responsibility for security. "We have our own police force, harbor patrol, customs officers, and Coast Guard," says Chris Bonura, spokesman for the Port of New Orleans. "That won't change no matter who is operating the terminal."

P&O is not commenting on the political uproar over the deal. But a source within the company worries that the media and politicians are misrepresenting the arrangements. Other who work within the port communities agree. They note that P&O will not be "managing" the ports, as many news organizations have reported. Instead, the company is one of many that leases terminals at the port.

"I've never quite seen a story so distorted so quickly," says Esther de Ipolyi, a public-relations executive who works with the port of Houston. "It's like I go to an apartment building that has 50 apartments, and I rent an apartment. This does not mean I took over the management of the whole building."

Then there's this from Heritage's James Jay Carafino in National Review Online:
What happens when one foreign-owned company sells a U.S. port service to another foreign-owned company. Not much. Virtually all the company employees at the ports are U.S. citizens. The Dubai firm is a holding company that will likely play no role in managing the U.S. facilities. Likewise, the company is owned by the government, a government that is an ally of the United States and recognizes that al Qaeda is as much a threat to them as it is to us. They are spending billions to buy these facilities because they think it’s a crackerjack investment that will keep making money for them long after the oil runs out. The odds that they have any interest in seeing their facilities become a gateway for terrorist into the United States are slim. But in the interest of national security, we will be best served by getting all the facts on the table.
Except, of course, all the facts were reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) earlier in the month. People aren't upset that there's been a review -- they're upset because there's been a review and the outcome is one they disagree with on a gut level. [Yeah, but hasn't CFIUS approved over 99% of the cases brought to its attention?--ed. Yes, but I dare the readers to find a case where CFIUS screwed up.]

There's been a lot of hot air in the blogosphere on this -- and even hotter air from the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and local politicians -- but I haven't seen anything approaching a rational, reality-based argument against this deal.

I've been quite critical of President Bush as of late, but he deserves significant credit for sticking to his guns on this one. There is little political upside -- but in this case, George W. Bush has made the right decision.

I have every confidence in the ability of my readers to try and persuade me that I'm wrong. But you had better have a better argument than American ports + UAE firm = terrorist attack in the U.S.

UPDATE: A few commenters have raised the point that Dubai is considered to be the hub of Middle Eastern money laundering. This is a) true; and b) irrelevant to the question at hand. Dubai is the center of money laundering in the Middle East because it's the principal financial center in the region. It is undeniably true that pre-9/11, the UAE was remarkably uncooperative on terrorist financing. That did change with the terrorist attacks, however. Furthermore, this issue is irrelevant. Why would the UAE's government -- which has been an ally of the U.S. for decades -- use the ports as a source for money laundering?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds is mystified why Bush is digging his heels in on this issue. I'm not -- I'm sure that Bush views the Congressional hullabaloo as legislative interference in routine executive branch functions. And we all know how Bush feels about that issue.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Steve Flynn has been concerned about homeland security for quite some time, and he's not exactly Polyannish about the state of security in American ports. So I think it's telling that in this Time story by Tony Karon, Flynn is untroubled by this port deal:

[T]o call the United Arab Emirates a country "tied to 9/11" by virtue of the fact that one of the hijackers was born there and others transited through it is akin to attaching the same label to Britain (where shoe-bomber Richard Reid was born) or Germany (where a number of the 9/11 conspirators were based for a time). Dubai's port has a reputation for being one of the best run in the Middle East, says Stephen Flynn, a maritime security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Dubai Ports World, which is a relatively new venture launched by the government of Dubai in 1999, has a number of Americans well known in the shipping industry in its senior leadership. It operates port facilities from Australia through China, Korea and Malaysia to India, Germany and Venezuela. (The acquisition of P&O would give them control over container shipping ports in Vancouver, Buenos Aires and a number of locations in Britain, France and a number of Asian countries.) "It's not exactly a shadow organization for al-Qaeda," says Flynn. Dubai, in fact, was one of the first Middle Eastern countries to join the U.S. Container Security Initiative, which places U.S. customs agents in overseas ports to begin the screening process from a U.S.-bound cargo's point of departure.
Flynn has more to say to the Washington Post's Paul Blustein and Eric Rich:
Stephen E. Flynn, a specialist in maritime security at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that although the company is state-owned, several members of its top management are Americans -- including its general counsel, a senior vice president and its outgoing chief operating officer, Edward H. Bilkey, who is a former U.S. Navy officer. And since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States has increasingly depended on such foreign port operators to cooperate in inspecting cargo before it heads for U.S. shores.

"It's a global network at the end of the day that we're trying to secure here," Flynn said. "And that doesn't happen by the United States owning every bit of it. What we should be focusing on instead is the question, are the security standards adequate?"

Robert C. Bonner, who until November headed U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agreed. Although U.S. dock workers have occasionally been caught colluding with drug traffickers, the possibility that terrorists or their sympathizers would end up working in U.S. ports is remote because of the strong role of unions in hiring, he said.

"I think there's some specter that people from the Middle East are going to come over here and operate terminals," he said. "I don't think anything like that is going to happen."

YES, I'M STILL UPDATING: David Sanger and Eric Lipton do raise a small but valid and reality-based concern in their New York Times story:
The administration's review of the deal was conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body that was created in 1975 to review foreign investments in the country that could affect national security. Under that review, officials from the Defense, State, Commerce and Transportation Departments, along with the National Security Council and other agencies, were charged with raising questions and passing judgment. They found no problems to warrant the next stage of review, a 45-day investigation with results reported to the president for a final decision.

However, a 1993 amendment to the law stipulates that such an investigation is mandatory when the acquiring company is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government. Administration officials said they conducted additional inquires because of the ties to the United Arab Emirates, but they could not say why a 45-day investigation did not occur.

I do get some hives whenever I hear that the Bush administration has circumvented standard operating procedures -- but, again, there's nothing in the reports I've seen to suggest that there is any substantive reason for concern. The alarmists on both sides of the aisle are making the kind of conspiracy-based arguments that would make Michael Moore blush. See, for example, this nice debunking by Dick Meyer of CBS News, or this Financial Times story by Andrew Ward, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Edward Alden. And see also this fact-laden Q&A by Eben Kaplan at the Council on Foreign Relations website. This sentence stands out in particular: "Calls from lawmakers to reconsider the approval have come after the thirty-day period to raise objections had expired."

WHAT THE HECK, ONE MORE LAST UPDATE: California Conservative -- one of the first bloggers to raise qualms about the port deal -- now concludes, "If you step back and look at the big picture, this isn’t about port security. It’s about elections and winning credibility on the issue of homeland security."

Finally check out Mansoor Ijaz's defense of Dubai in NRO. Key section:

Whatever the UAE's policies in the pre-9/11 world (whether as home to A. Q. Khan's illicit nuclear network, one of three Taliban embassies, questionable banking practices, or as an alleged repository for Iranian-terror funds), Dubai's record under these young leaders in the post 9/11 world reflects serious and structural change in national strategy. As Jim Robbins noted Tuesday, in December 2004, Dubai was the first Middle East government to accept the U.S. Container Security Initiative as policy to screen all containers for security hazards before heading to America. In May 2005, Dubai signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to prevent nuclear materials from passing through its ports. It also installed radiation-detecting equipment — evidence of a commitment to invest in technology. In October 2005, the UAE Central Bank directed banks and financial institutions in the country to tighten their internal systems and controls in their fight against money laundering and terrorist financing.

These are not the actions of a terror-sponsoring state.

posted by Dan at 06:16 PM | Comments (83) | Trackbacks (0)

Trailer libre!!!

What John Podhoretz said -- if the movie is as funny as this trailer, I'll be a very happy man come June.

posted by Dan at 03:23 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

How do you contain Iran?

Ron Asmus have a very intriguing answer to this question in today's Washington Post -- let Israel join NATO:

The United States already has a de facto security commitment to Israel. Any future U.S. president would go to the defense of that country if its existence were threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran. And in spite of the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic voices that one can hear in Europe, there is little doubt that European leaders such as Tony Blair, Angela Merkel and even Jacques Chirac would also stand tall and defend Israel against an Iranian threat. Given this situation, basic deterrence theory tells us that it is more credible and effective if those commitments are clear and unambiguous.

The best way to provide Israel with that additional security is to upgrade its relationship with the collective defense arm of the West: NATO. Whether that upgraded relationship culminates in membership for Israel or simply a much closer strategic and operational defense relationship can be debated. After all, a classic security guarantee requires clear and recognized borders to be defended, something Israel does not have today. Configuring an upgraded Israel-NATO relationship will require careful diplomacy and planning. But what must be clear is that the West is prepared to match the growing bellicosity against Israel by stepping up its commitment to the existence of the Jewish state.

There are growing signs that Israel is interested in such a relationship with NATO. About two years ago I was approached by a group of Israelis and asked to help facilitate a closer Israeli-NATO dialogue. At the time, the idea seemed a bit far-fetched to many. Since then, however, a real debate has emerged in Israel over building closer ties to both NATO and the European Union. Israel has also presented the alliance with a plan for a step-by-step upgrade in bilateral cooperation. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has paid his first visit there, and talks on closer cooperation are underway.

The obvious question, of course, is how Israel would deal with the occupied territories. This strikes me, however, as a problem that could also be an opportunity, even with a Hamas-led Palestinian government.

This kind of move would not be without risks, but if nothing else, it would give NATO a renewed sense of purpose.

Readers are warmly invited to provide reasons to shoot down this proposal.

posted by Dan at 11:47 AM | Comments (26) | Trackbacks (0)

Before you e-mail your prof, you may want to read this

Jonathan D. Glater has a front-page story in the New York Times that will amuse many professors and send a chill down many students' spines. Here's how it opens:

One student skipped class and then sent the professor an e-mail message asking for copies of her teaching notes. Another did not like her grade, and wrote a petulant message to the professor. Another explained that she was late for a Monday class because she was recovering from drinking too much at a wild weekend party.

Jennifer Schultens, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of California, Davis, received this e-mail message last September from a student in her calculus course: "Should I buy a binder or a subject notebook? Since I'm a freshman, I'm not sure how to shop for school supplies. Would you let me know your recommendations? Thank you!"

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

Glater has a one very odd quote on the implications of all of this. For example:
Christopher J. Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied technology in education, said these e-mail messages showed how students no longer deferred to their professors, perhaps because they realized that professors' expertise could rapidly become outdated.

"The deference was probably driven more by the notion that professors were infallible sources of deep knowledge," Professor Dede said, and that notion has weakened.

Well, any belief I had that Dede was an infallible source of deep knowledge has gone right out the window. I'd suggest, rather, that e-mail is simply a less formal means of communication, and students raised in an Oprah-fed confessional culture don't see a downside in sending them.

Because, most of the time, there isn't a downside -- stories like these inevitably pick on the 5% of emails that are annoying, tedious, or just plain stupid. And, I might add, the story contains the best response to these kind of electronic queries:

Many professors said they were often uncertain how to react. Professor Schultens, who was asked about buying the notebook, said she debated whether to tell the student that this was not a query that should be directed to her, but worried that "such a message could be pretty scary."

"I decided not to respond at all," she said.

Oh, and for the record -- all of my students are required to purchase Trapper Keepers to attend my classes.

UPDATE: Ah, it appears that the Times is behind the times -- Kathryn Wymer had a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month suggesting that e-mail is on the outs with the student body:

I pride myself on keeping up to date with the latest technology. I regularly use computers in my classroom, and have long been a fan of the educational potential of online discussion groups. So I was completely taken aback a few months ago when a colleague informed me of something she had recently learned from her students: Teenagers no longer check their e-mail.

I confirmed that in a subsequent conversation with a 16-year-old. "Yep," he said. "It's way too slow. I never check it."

The immediate gratification of instant messaging, commonly called IM, has superceded the possibilities of e-mail for teenagers and college students. My colleague commented that her students found e-mail to be "dinosaur-ish," good only for communicating with parents and teachers.

Intriguingly, Wymer's experiment with I-mailing students didn't work out so well: "I wonder if other students resisted the impulse to use instant messaging in order to keep their personal and professional modes of communication separate."

Wymer also touches on a problem Kieran Healy raises: "sometimes the students pick the kind of addresses for themselves that aren’t exactly professional-quality. Frankly it feels a bit odd to correspond with, e.g., missbitchy23 or WildcatBongs about letters of reference or what have you." Be sure to check the comments thread for some other amusing examples of poor e-mail choices.

ANOTHER UPDATE: See this comment on Tim Burke's blog on whether one of the profs in the story was accurately quoted.

posted by Dan at 11:16 AM | Comments (25) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, February 20, 2006

See if this sounds familiar....

Last month I blogged about the Newsweek story on the rebellion of politically-appointed Justice Department lawyers against the Dick Cheney/David Addington approach of how to run the war on terror and the executive branch.

I got a powerful whiff of déjà vu upon seeing that The New Yorker's Jane Mayer has a story about Alberto J. Mora, the general counsel of the United States Navy until January of this year. Why? Well, three reasons.

First, the rebellion story sounds awfully familar:

One document, which is marked “secret” but is not classified, is a twenty-two-page memo written by Mora. It shows that three years ago Mora tried to halt what he saw as a disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruelty toward terror suspects.

The memo is a chronological account, submitted on July 7, 2004, to Vice Admiral Albert Church, who led a Pentagon investigation into abuses at the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It reveals that Mora’s criticisms of Administration policy were unequivocal, wide-ranging, and persistent. Well before the exposure of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, in April, 2004, Mora warned his superiors at the Pentagon about the consequences of President Bush’s decision, in February, 2002, to circumvent the Geneva conventions, which prohibit both torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” He argued that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward U.S.-held terrorist suspects was an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also challenged the legal framework that the Bush Administration has constructed to justify an expansion of executive power, in matters ranging from interrogations to wiretapping. He described as “unlawful,” “dangerous,” and “erroneous” novel legal theories granting the President the right to authorize abuse. Mora warned that these precepts could leave U.S. personnel open to criminal prosecution.

In important ways, Mora’s memo is at odds with the official White House narrative....

Mora thinks that the media has focussed too narrowly on allegations of U.S.-sanctioned torture. As he sees it, the authorization of cruelty is equally pernicious. “To my mind, there’s no moral or practical distinction,” he told me. “If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America—even those designated as ‘unlawful enemy combatants.’ If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles. It’s a transformative issue.”

Second, the description of Mora sounds similar to the conservative DOJ lawyers who nevertheless resisted Bush's proposed policy changes:
Mora—whose status in the Pentagon was equivalent to that of a four-star general—is known for his professional discretion, and he has avoided the press. This winter, however, he agreed to confirm the authenticity and accuracy of the memo and to be interviewed.... Mora, a courtly and warm man, is a cautious, cerebral conservative who admired President Reagan and served in both the first and the second Bush Administrations as a political appointee. He strongly supported the Administration’s war on terror, including the invasion of Iraq, and he revered the Navy. He stressed that his only reason for commenting at all was his concern that the Administration was continuing to pursue a dangerous course. “It’s my Administration, too,” he said.
Third, the degree of duplicity going on just depresses the living hell out of me. Consider this section:
Without Mora’s knowledge, the Pentagon had pursued a secret detention policy. There was one version, enunciated in [Pentagon general counsel William] Haynes’s letter to [Senator Patrick] Leahy, aimed at critics. And there was another, giving the operations officers legal indemnity to engage in cruel interrogations, and, when the Commander-in-Chief deemed it necessary, in torture. Legal critics within the Administration had been allowed to think that they were engaged in a meaningful process; but their deliberations appeared to have been largely an academic exercise, or, worse, a charade. “It seems that there was a two-track program here,” said Martin Lederman, a former lawyer with the Office of Legal Counsel, who is now a visiting professor at Georgetown. “Otherwise, why would they share the final working-group report with [head of Southern Comabd General James] Hill and [Guantánamo commander General Geoffrey] Miller but not with the lawyers who were its ostensible authors?”....

The senior Defense Department official defended as an act of necessary caution the decision not to inform Mora and other legal advisers of official policy. The interrogation techniques authorized in the signed report, he explained, were approved only for Guantánamo, and the Pentagon needed to prevent the practices from spreading to other battlefronts. “If someone wants to criticize us for being too careful, I accept that criticism willingly, because we were doing what we could to limit the focus of that report . . . to Guantánamo,” the official said.

In fact, techniques that had been approved for use at Guantánamo were quickly transferred elsewhere. Four months after General Miller was briefed on the working-group report, the Pentagon sent him to Iraq, to advise officials there on interrogating Iraqi detainees. Miller, who arrived with a group of Guantánamo interrogators, known as the Tiger Team, later supervised all U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. And legal advisers to General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, used the report as a reference in determining the limits of their interrogation authority, according to a Pentagon report on Abu Ghraib.

A lawyer involved in the working group said that the Pentagon’s contention that it couldn’t risk sharing the report with its authors “doesn’t make any sense.” He explained, “We’d seen everything already.” The real reason for their exclusion, he speculated, was to avoid dissent. “It would have put them in a bind,” he said. “And it would have created a paper trail.”

UPDATE: Here's a link to Mora's memo (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan).

ANOTHER UPDATE: I've met John Yoo several times at conferences, and each time I've found him an engaging individual with a lively mind. But I have to think he's engaging in wishful thinking in this response to a Foreignpolicy.com interview:

I would like to say that it is my understanding that the United States does not engage in torture, and that the reports of abuses that have occurred in Iraq or elsewhere appear to have been the result of individuals acting outside official policy. Abuses, while regrettable, sometimes happen in large organizations when individuals violate the rules.
Link via Greg Djerejian.

posted by Dan at 01:04 PM | Comments (25) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The blogosphere, R.I.P. (2002-2006)

Well, it's time for me to pack it in -- blogs are finished, kaput, history.

How do I know this? Why, I've been reading what the media has said about it this month. They're doomed economically -- Slate's Daniel Gross says, "as businesses, blogs may have peaked. There are troubling signs—akin to the 1999 warnings about the Internet bubble—that suggest blogs have just hit their top."

Gross is just following up on a New York cover story by Clive Thompson, in which it turns out that it's difficult to eke out a living from blogging:

By all appearances, the blog boom is the most democratized revolution in media ever. Starting a blog is ridiculously cheap; indeed, blogging software and hosting can be had for free online. There are also easy-to-use ad services that, for a small fee, will place advertisements from major corporations on blogs, then mail the blogger his profits. Blogging, therefore, should be the purest meritocracy there is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nobody from the sticks or a well-connected Harvard grad. If you launch a witty blog in a sexy niche, if you’re good at scrounging for news nuggets, and if you’re dedicated enough to post around the clock—well, there’s nothing separating you from the big successful bloggers, right? I can do that.

In theory, sure. But if you talk to many of today’s bloggers, they’ll complain that the game seems fixed. They’ve targeted one of the more lucrative niches—gossip or politics or gadgets (or sex, of course)—yet they cannot reach anywhere close to the size of the existing big blogs. It’s as if there were an A-list of a few extremely lucky, well-trafficked blogs—then hordes of people stuck on the B-list or C-list, also-rans who can’t figure out why their audiences stay so comparatively puny no matter how hard they work. “It just seems like it’s a big in-party,” one blogger complained to me.

Read the whole thing -- there's some interesting confusion by either Thompson or Clay Shirky between power law distributions and cascade effects.

[OK, so maybe blogs can't rake in the big bucks -- they're still fun, right? They're a political force, right?--ed.] No, I'm afraid that the media has determined that neither assertion is true. The Financial Times' Trevor Butterworth says that blogs are culturally passé:

[A]s with any revolution, we must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor. Is blogging really an information revolution? Is it about to drive the mainstream news media into oblivion? Or is it just another crock of virtual gold - a meretricious equivalent of all those noisy internet start-ups that were going to build a brave “new economy” a few years ago?

Shouldn’t we just be a tiny bit sceptical of another information revolution following on so fast from the last one - especially as this time round no one is even pretending to be getting rich? Isn’t the problem of the media right now that we barely have time to read a newspaper, let alone traverse the thoughts of a million bloggers?....

Blogging - if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising - brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet.

The historical lesson here is one of cyclical rebellion at the US media for being staid, dull and closed off to change. Indeed, the underground press of the 1960s was described in almost identical terms as blogging is today. “The loudest voice heard in America these days,” said the radical journalist Andrew Kopkind in 1967, is the sound of insurgents chiselling away at establishments.”

The present round of chiselling may feel exciting and radically new - but blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift’s fleas sucking upon other fleas “ad infinitum”: somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism....

Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere - tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn’t leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium.

Butterworth is so convinced the blogosphere is passé, he's... er... set up a blog to handle the feedback.

Similarly, over at AlterNet, Lackshmi Cahudhry despairs about the inequality, corporatization, and general whiteness of the blogosphere:

As blogs have grown in popularity -- at the rate of more than one new blog per second -- they've begun to lose their vanguard edge. The very institutions that political bloggers often criticize have begun to adopt the platform, with corporate executives, media personalities, porn stars, lawyers and PR strategists all jumping into the fray. That may be why Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the founder and primary voice of Daily Kos, thinks the word "blog" is beginning to outlive its usefulness. "A blog is merely a publishing tool, and like a tool, it can be used in any number of ways," he says....

The past two years have also marked the emergence of a close relationship between top bloggers and politicians in Washington. A number of them -- for example, Jesse Taylor at Pandagon, Tim Tagaris of SwingStateProject, Stoller and Armstrong -- have been hired as campaign consultants. Others act as unofficial advisers to top politicos like Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), who holds conference calls with preeminent bloggers to talk strategy. When the Senate Democrats invite Moulitsas to offer his personal views on netroots strategy -- treating him, as a Washington Monthly profile describes, "a kind of part-time sage, an affiliate member" -- the perks of success become difficult to deny.

Armstrong sees the rise of the blogger-guru -- or "strategic adviser," as he puts it -- as a positive development. Better to hire a blogger who is personally committed to the Democratic cause than a D.C.-based mercenary who makes money irrespective of who wins.

But the fact that nearly all these "advisers" are drawn from a close-knit and mostly homogenous group can make them appear as just a new boys' club, albeit one with better intentions and more engaged politics. Aside from notable exceptions like Moulitsas, who is part-Salvadoran, and a handful of lesser-known women who belong to group blogs, top progressive bloggers tend to be young, well-educated, middle class, male and white....

The Washington Monthly profile of Moulitsas included a revealing quote, in which he expressed disappointment at not being able to fulfill his dream of making it big in the tech industry back in 1998: "Maybe at some time, Silicon Valley really was this democratic ideal where the guy with the best idea made a billion dollars, but by the time I got there at least, it was just like anything else -- a bunch of rich kids who knew each other running around and it all depended on who you knew."

The danger is that many may come to feel the same way about the blogosphere in the coming years.

So everyone go home -- blog are economically unviable, culturally spent, politically unequal, and in the end amount to nothing more than the lame afterbirth of the dot-com boom and bust....

Hey, what are you doing here? I thought I told you to go home. Ah, maybe you clicked through to see if, perchance, I was being sarcastic.

Well, yes and no. You can condense all the linked stories into a few central themes:

1) Not a lot of people will make a living off of blogging;

2) Power laws create an unequal structure in the blogosphere that gives power to those at the top of the pyramid -- the linkers rather than the thinkers, as it were;

3) Blogs will become co-opted by the mainstream media.

4) There are inherent constraints on the influence of blogs.

Well, all of this is very original. Oh, wait....

All of these articles do a decent job of puncturing the "blog triumphalist balloon" -- it's just that a lot of bloggers have been stomping on that balloon for years now. The key question to ask about blogs is the counterfactual -- do any of these writers truly believe that the information ecosystem would be more democratic, more entrepreneurial, or more culturally interesting if blogs did not exist?

In this way, these stories are correct in asserting that blogs are a synecdoche for the Internet as a whole -- they don't quite live up to the hype, but then again, the hype is so damn impressive that even if they live up to some of it, we should be impressed.

Hey, mainstream media types, I'll cut you a deal -- I will never say that the blogosphere is a harbinger of egalitarian democracy if you acknowledge that blogs, flawed though they may be, nudge the information ecosystem in many constructive ways.

Now, seriously, go home.

UPDATE: Further evidence that the blogosphere has died -- William Safire has a column on its jargon in the New York Times Magazine.

posted by Dan at 12:11 AM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Putin's party becomes a caricature

Steven Lee Myers reports in the New York Times about how a Russian province deals with cartoons that offend the sensibilities of Valdimir Putin's United Russia party:

In a controversy with echoes of the Islamic anger over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the authorities in a central Russian city today ordered the closing of a newspaper that published a cartoon showing Muhammad along with Jesus, Moses and Buddha.

The cartoon, published on Feb. 9 in the official city newspaper in Volgograd, prompted some criticism and a federal criminal investigation but no public outrage. That may be, in large part, because it depicted the figures respectfully, renouncing violence, though Islamic teachings forbid any depiction of Muhammad.

"Well, we did not teach them that," Moses says in a caption as the four watch a television set showing two groups confronting each other with banners and clubs and hurling stones. The cartoon appeared on Page 5, accompanying an article on an agreement signed by regional political parties and organizations to combat nationalism, xenophobia and religious conflicts.

Volgograd's first deputy mayor, Andrei O. Doronin, announced the closing of the newspaper, Gorodskiye Vesti, or City News, "in order not to inflame ethnic hostilities," according to the official Russian Information Agency. He gave the newspaper a month to liquidate its assets, leaving the fate of its staff unclear....

Most of the criticism against the cartoon in Volgograd came not from Muslim or other religious leaders, but rather from the local branch of United Russia, the pro-Putin political party that dominates governments across the country. Those complaints prompted Russia's deputy prosecutor general, Nikolai I. Shepel, to announce an inquiry on Wednesday.

Officials in Volgograd initially defended the newspaper, but another deputy mayor, Konstantin E. Kalachyov, said the decision to close the newspaper was an effort to contain a scandal that was "fanned up artificially" in the wake of the fury over the Danish cartoons.

"You can say that the journalists were taught a lesson in political correctness," he said in a telephone interview.

Since a city enterprise owns the newspaper, the mayor's office was essentially shutting its own business, though Mr. Kalachyov said he hoped the newspaper's staff could continue to work at a new city-owned paper that would replace Gorodskiye Vesti.

posted by Dan at 07:09 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Donald Rumsfeld's new front in the war on terror

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations today about a new front in the war on terror. Blogs are involved:

We meet today in the sixth year in which our nation has been engaged in what promises to be a long struggle against an enemy that in many ways is unlike any our country has ever faced. And in this war, some of the most critical battles may not be in the mountains ofAfghanistanor the streets of Iraq, but in newsrooms -- in places like New York, London, Cairo, and elsewhere....

I want to talk today about something that at first might seem obvious -- but isn’t. Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we -- our country -- has not -- whether our government, the media or our society generally.

Consider that the violent extremists have established “media relations committees” --and have proven to be highly successful at manipulating opinion elites. They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communications to intimidate and break the collective will of free people. They know that communications transcend borders -- and that a single news story, handled skillfully, can be as damaging to our cause and as helpful to theirs, as any other method of military attack. And they are able to act quickly with relatively few people, and with modest resources compared to the vast -- and expensive -- bureaucracies of western governments.

Our federal government is only beginning to adapt our operations for the 21st Century. In fundamental ways, we still function as a “five and dime” store in an E-Bay world.

Today we are fighting the first war in history -- unconventional and irregular as it is -- in an era of... blogs [among other IT-related innovations]....

What complicates the ability to respond quickly is that, unlike our enemies, which propagate lies with impunity -- with no penalty whatsoever, our government does not have the luxury of relying on other sources for information -- anonymous or otherwise. Our government has to be the source. And we tell the truth.

These new realities have placed unprecedented challenges on members of the press as well. Today’s correspondents are under constant pressure in a hyper competitive media environment to produce exclusives and breaking stories. Daily or weekly deadlines have turned into updates by the hour or even minute -- to feed a constant news crawl that now appears on most cable channels. And the fact is that the federal government -- at the speed at which it operates -- doesn’t always make their job easier....

Let there be no doubt -- the longer it takes to put a strategic communications framework into place, the more we can be certain that the vacuum will be filled by the enemy and by news informers that most assuredly will not paint an accurate picture of what is actually taking place.

Whether Donald Rumsfeld is the person best-suited for this kind of combat " in places like New York, London, Cairo" newsrooms, I'll leave to the readers.

posted by Dan at 04:54 PM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

A catastrophic victory for Hamas?

As Bob Uecker would put it, this New York Review of Books essay by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley on Hamas is juuuuust a bit slanted in its assessment of the Palestinian situation.

That doesn't mean it's devoid of value, however. Their take on Hamas after victory seems pretty much on point to me:

Out-and-out victory was not what Hamas had expected or, for that matter, what it had wished for. It had come to see itself as a watchdog on the sidelines, sitting in the legislature without controlling it, shaping the government's policies without being held accountable for them, taking credit for its successes and escaping blame for any setbacks. Its triumph presents it with challenges of a different, more urgent, and less familiar sort. Hamas suddenly finds itself on the front line, with decisions to make and relations to manage with the world, international donors, Israel, Fatah, and, indeed, its own varied constituents. The Islamists may have secretly expected to sweep the elections but, if so, that secret remains well kept. Referring to Iraq, President Bush once spoke of America's catastrophic success. Judging from the Islamists' initial, startled reactions to their triumph, this may well be theirs....

Hamas's leaders were counting on an honorable defeat, and they looked forward to the prospect of making the most of it. Coming in a close second, their options would have been wide open. They could have joined the government, or stayed out. Either way, they would have remained in the safety of the fringes, keeping a watchful eye on domestic issues, seeking to demonstrate that Hamas's presence, including the services it provides, could improve daily life, reduce corruption, and deal with lawlessness. Hamas would have concentrated on its long-term goal of Islamicizing Palestinian society, doing so doggedly, though in increments. It would have kept to its conditional truce, reserving the right to respond to Israeli attacks on Palestinian population centers and against its own leaders....

How swiftly victory can spoil the best-laid plans. Hamas's leaders had hoped to hide behind Fatah and the PA; they are now on the front lines. The burden that was supposed to be on others is now squarely on them. In the days just after the election, Hamas suddenly sounded more modest, restrained, and dependent on third parties. This was not a matter of choice. It had to reassure Fatah members and Fatah security forces that were knocked off balance by their loss, as well as donors hesitant to bankroll a Hamas-led PA, and Arab neighbors apprehensive about having an Islamist stronghold at their doorstep, doubly so about witnessing an Islamist success at the polls. The calm and quiet that Israel once requested has become a necessity for Hamas: if it is to consolidate and maintain its popularity, it will have to live up to the promise of reform and good governance. Renewed violence would lead to swift, devastating, and unrestrained Israeli attacks, thwarting any chance for the Islamists to have a successful domestic policy. Paradoxically, Hamas's electoral sweep has curbed its freedom of action far more than defeat would have....

Abbas's gamble was that integrating Hamas into Palestinian politics would moderate its behavior. To a degree, it already has. During the past eleven months, Hamas has demonstrated its willingness and ability to honor a cessation of violence, and Israeli officials regularly credit its discipline for the sharp drop in attacks. Elected in record numbers to municipal positions during 2005, local Hamas officials have maintained practical coordination with Israel wherever necessary. Throughout the campaign, the Islamic movement dropped repeated hints of possible flexibility. Its leaders did not rule out changing their charter ("It's not the Koran," they whispered), negotiating with Israel, or accepting a long-term truce based on Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Since the elections, the pattern has continued. Hamas has indicated that it is prepared to extend its truce, integrate its forces into a Palestinian army, and accept some past arrangements between Israel and the PA. There are serious caveats to all these positions and the ideological aggiornamento still will have to wait. But if it is a trend one is looking for, it is there.

If this trend holds -- and that's an admittedly big "if" -- then Hamas' catastrophic victory is good news for everyone else. And further evidence that the best way to deal with Islamists is to let them try to govern.

posted by Dan at 10:48 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Anti-semitic cartoon contest!!!

Well, after the whole cartoon flap over Mohammed, and the Iranian decision to hold a contest on the best cartoon mocking the Holocaust, you knew this was just a matter of time:

Amitai Sandy (29), graphic artist and publisher of Dimona Comix Publishing, from Tel-Aviv, Israel, has followed the unfolding of the “Muhammad cartoon-gate” events in amazement, until finally he came up with the right answer to all this insanity - and so he announced today the launch of a new anti-Semitic cartoons contest - this time drawn by Jews themselves!

“We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!” said Sandy “No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

The contest has been announced today on the www.boomka.org website, and the initiator accept submissions of cartoons, caricatures and short comic strips from people all over the world. The deadline is Sunday March 5, and the best works will be displayed in an Exhibition in Tel-Aviv, Israel.

Sandy is now in the process of arranging sponsorships of large organizations, and promises lucrative prizes for the winners, including of course the famous Matzo-bread baked with the blood of Christian children.

Mmmmm.... blood-soaked matzot.

Sandy has a running start on this. Today he was interviewed by Terry Gross for NPR's Fresh Air . Entries are starting to trickle in -- here's one of the first entries:

Furthermore, noted Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt has already agreed to be one judge.

If Sandy needs another judge, I'd be happy to volunteer. I have a Ph.D., I love cartoons, and as my darling wife said when she pointed out this story to me, "you're a prominent Jew in the blogosphere!"

UPDATE: This isn't as cool as the cartoon contest, but on a related note, the editors of PS: Political Science and Politics are calling for papers on The State of the Editorial Cartoon:

The editors of PS: Political Science and Politics invite contributions to a symposium on the state of the editorial cartoon. The symposium will explore the current condition of editorial cartooning, with an emphasis on daily newspaper editorial cartoons but encompassing politically minded weekly newspaper cartoons, magazine cartoons, comic strips, and web comics. The editors invite informed essays that advance our empirical, historical, and theoretical appreciation for editorial cartoons as art, politics, and culture.

The dramatic worldwide protests over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad are only partly about the cartoons themselves, of course. Yet the protests underscore the fact that editorial cartoons are or can be of immense political and social significance.

In recent years, political scientists have had relatively little to say about the history, form, ideology, and political economy of editorial cartooning. This symposium will bring together political scientists and other scholars to help situate editorial cartooning in relation to political communication and political conflict.

posted by Dan at 09:47 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

The GAO on TAA

The Government Accountability Office has a new survey of workers at five plant who lost their jobs due to trade competition -- the clear losers of trade liberalization. The survey was designed to see the extent to which Trade Adjustment Assistance -- a program born in the 1974 Trade Act and reformed as recently as 2002 -- was reaching the people it's supposed to.

Here are the key results:

At the time GAO conducted its survey, most of the workers had either found a new job or retired. At three sites, over 60 percent of the workers were reemployed. At another site, only about 40 percent were reemployed, but another third had retired. And at the final site, about a third were reemployed, but this site had the highest proportion of workers who entered training and most of them were likely still in training. The majority of reemployed workers at four of five sites earned less than they had previously—replacing about 80 percent or more of their prior wages—but at one site over half the reemployed workers matched their prior wages.

Few workers at each site received either the health insurance benefit or the wage insurance benefit available to some older workers. No more than 12 percent of workers at each site received the health insurance
benefit, and at four of five sites, fewer than half the workers who visited a one-stop center were aware of it. Many workers did not use it because they had other coverage or because the cost of available health insurance was too high. No more than one in five of the older workers at each site received the wage insurance benefit, and at two sites, fewer than half the older workers who visited a center were aware of it.

posted by Dan at 04:30 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

A libertarian barista on Starbucks

Jacob Grier has a blog post at Smelling the Coffee on the contradictory impulses he feels towards Starbucks -- as a libertarian who nevertheless thinks quality control at Starbucks has gone down.

Read the whole thing, but the part about how Starbucks has affected the industrial organization of coffeehouses is particularly interesting:

Let's begin with the easy issue: Starbucks is driving independent coffee shops out of business. Anecdotally, this may seem obviously true. Many people can name a favorite coffee shop that went out of business soon after a Starbucks moved into the neighborhood. The fact is, though, that Starbucks is creating a market, not destroying it. Growth in both independent and corporate coffee shops has been huge over the past fifteen years, thanks in large part to consumers being introduced to specialty coffee drinks in the safe confines of their local Starbucks.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America, a leading trade group, tracks American retail sales. In 1989, the SCAA estimates there were 585 coffee houses operating in the U.S. By 1995 that number had risen to 5,000. By 2003, there were 17,400 shops in operation.

Starbucks growth is notable, but it's far from the sole factor driving these new shop openings. The SCAA reports that 57% of the shops open in 2003 were independent, having only one to three locations. Microchains (4-9 units) made up another 3% of the market. All the large chains combined make up the remaining 40%. [Source .pdf]

A 2004 article in the Willamette Weekly finds a similar pattern at work in Portland. In 2003, a misguided miscreant attempted to blow up a new Starbucks in a neighborhood where residents claimed to not want the imperial corporate giant. But a survey of the local yellow pages reveals that indie shops were doing just fine in Portland:

According to the Portland Yellow Pages, before Starbucks came to Portland in 1989, there were 28 coffee shops in the city. Today, there are 91 non-Starbucks coffeehouses in Portland proper, compared with the chain's 48 stores within city limits.
Bellisimo Coffee Infogroup, a consulting company for coffee shops, notes that Starbucks plays an important role in giving people their first gourmet coffee experience, after which they can and often do branch out to try out other sources. Tully's, a smaller chain, agrees, intentionally locating new stores in the vicinity of existing Starbucks locations. In the same Willamette article, one coffee expert gets perhaps a bit too effusive, but his point is well made:
"Every morning, I bow down to the great green god for making all of this possible," says Ward Barbee, publisher of the Portland-based coffee trade magazine Fresh Cup.
Of related interest: this Tim Harford essay in Slate about why Starbucks doesn't advertise it's "short" cappucino.

posted by Dan at 04:19 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Could Åland secede from the EU? Where the f#$% is Åland?

David Rennie has a story in the Daily Telegraph suggesting that a very small cluster of Finnish islands could cause some headaches for the European Union:

In the decade since they voted to join the European Union the islanders of the Åland archipelago in the Baltic Sea have been outvoted and overruled by Brussels, time and again.

Now Åland, a unique, autonomous region of Finland, is about to teach Brussels a lesson in democracy it may never forget.

Thanks to a quirk of early 20th-century history, Åland's 26,000 people are essentially sovereign co-rulers of their home nation of Finland. As such, they can veto any international treaty that Finland wants to enter, including EU treaties.

And the islanders are threatening to do just that when the European Commission attempts to revive the moribund EU constitution later this year.

But last week the archipelago's head of EU affairs, Britt Lundberg, travelled to Brussels - a day-long trek - to deliver a warning that dismally low public opinion on Europe could mean Alanders prevent Finland from ratifying the constitution.

The islanders' revolt has been brewing for some time. First, this community of Swedish-speaking Finns lost the right to fish at sea with traditional nets.

Then Ålanders saw their beloved spring duck hunting virtually abolished. To the Ålanders' final outrage, local laws on consuming "snus" or Swedish chewing tobacco, are about to be quashed by the European Court of Justice....

Brussels is trapped in a "Catch 22" situation of the EU's own making. Snus, a form of chewing tobacco, has been outlawed by EU fiat in every nation except Sweden, which secured a -special opt-out as a condition of its joining the EU, and in every region - except Åland.

The Commission recently took Finland to court to quash Åland's snus law. But Finland has no power to change that law. Finland does not control laws covering health in Åland; Åland does.

Åland is not allowed to defend its law before the justices in Luxembourg because the court recognises only nations. So the court is set to convict and fine Aland, without allowing the island's government to plead its case....

The head of the Åland government, Roger Norlund, admitted that he did not even like snus. To him, the row is philosophical. "Åland finds small-scale solutions to its problems. But the EU model is one of large-scale solutions, and harmonisation."

Tomas Grunér, a navigator on the big boats, uses snus "24 hours a day". "It keeps me relaxed," he said. "I thought the EU was a good idea, but now I think it sucks."

For more on why snus is such a big deal in Åland, check out this Brussels Journal post.

Rennie might be exaggerating Åland's influence just a wee bit. It's true that the Finnish Customs Service confirms the special tax and regulatory status of the island. However, if you go to the Åland Islands' official home page, you discover the following:

Foreign affairs is not transferred to Åland under the Autonomy Act, but remains under the control of the Finnish Government. Even so, Åland has a degree of influence on international treaties that contain provisions relating to areas where Åland is the competent authority. The Autonomy Act states that an international treaty of this kind entered into by Finland requires the consent of the Parliament of Åland to become valid also in Åland.

Thus, when Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995, Åland’s accession was dependent on the consent of the Parliament. After the population had expressed its opinion in two separate referendums and it had been decided that Åland’s relationship to the EU would be regulated in a special protocol, the Parliament of Åland expressed its consent. The protocol, which is part of Finland’s treaty of accession, states that Åland shall be regarded as a third territory with respect to indirect taxation. It also contains certain special provisions relating to the purchase of real property and the right to conduct a business in Åland, and confirms Åland’s special status under international law. (emphasis added)

So, if I read this correctly, Åland can block the proposed European constitution from applying to its jurisdiction -- but it doesn't hold a veto over the rest of Finland. I will happily defer to real international lawyers on this question of law that probably interests only me.

Click here if you want to know the historical reasons for Åland's special status. For some irrational reason, I do find it amusing that a small jurisdiction of 26,200 people could decide to stymie the mighty, mighty European Commission.

posted by Dan at 08:34 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (2)

So what are you going to watch?

At six o'clock this evening EDT, you have a choice -- you could watch Vice President Dick Cheney's interview with Brit Hume on Fox News..... or watch me talk about offshore outsourcing on CNN International's Insight?

I thought so.

[You do realize most Americans can't get CNN International--ed. It was a rhetorical question... and I got my hypothetical rhetorical answer.]

posted by Dan at 04:47 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Your pop quiz on politics for today

Let's see what's on the front pages today.... hey, what do you know, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have stories on the fact that:

1) The Cheney hunting mishap story has some surprising legs;

2) The Bush White House staff would have handled the story a bit differently; and

3) There's some new tension between the POTUS staff and the VPOTUS staff

Here's my pop quiz. Beyond the obvious, what do these stories reveal?
A) Bush's staff is delighted to highlight one of the few arenas of press coverage -- presidential foibles -- where they've been perfectly forthcoming;

B) Bush's staff is trying to get as far away from this press debacle as possible -- by leaking to the Times and the Post as much as Brangelina insiders leak to People and Us Weekly;

C) Bush's staff apparently has so little influence with the Vice President that rather than simply, you know, ordering the VPOTUS staff to do what they're supposed to do, they're leaking more than Boston's Big Dig;

D) I really, really like lame leak metaphors similes;

E) The press is overjoyed that they've been able to convert what should have been an inside-the-fold-one-news-cycle story into a story that appears to symbolize how Bush's stonewalling on other issues has made their jobs very frustrating;

F) Cheney has generated absolutely zero loyaly among the Bush 41 team (see the Marlin Fitzwater quotes dotting the media landscape;

G) This event symbolizes two facts that, in combination with each other, are distrubing -- Cheney is the most powerful vice president in recent memory, and Cheney is also the vice president who cares the least about public feedback; and

H) All of the above.

posted by Dan at 10:41 AM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Decline and Fall of Europe?

Cato Unbound is having a debate around the question of "Old Europe," centered around this Theodore Dalrymple essay:

The principal motor of Europe’s current decline is, in my view, its obsession with social security, which has created rigid social and economic systems that are extremely resistant to change. And this obsession with social security is in turn connected with a fear of the future: for the future has now brought Europe catastrophe and relative decline for more than a century....

The problem is multiplied when a rigid labor market is capable of creating large castes of people who are unemployed and might well remain so for the whole of their adult lives. To the bitterness caused by economic uselessness will then be added, or rather be multiplied by, the bitterness of cultural separation. In the case of Islam this is particularly dangerous, because the mixture of an awareness of inferiority on the one hand, and superiority on the other, is historically a very combustible one.

Responses come from Timothy Smith, Charles Kupchan, and Anne Applebaum.

Meanwhile, Fareed Zakaria touches on a similar theme in his Washington Post column today:

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), headquartered in Paris, released a report, "Going for Growth," that details economic prospects in the industrial world. It is 160 pages long and written in bland, cautious, scholarly prose. But the conclusion is clear: Europe is in deep trouble. These days we all talk about the rise of Asia and the challenge to America, but it may well turn out that the most consequential trend of the next decade will be the economic decline of Europe.

It's often noted that the European Union has a combined gross domestic product that is approximately the same as that of the United States. But the E.U. has 170 million more people. Its per capita GDP is 25 percent lower than that of the United States, and, most important, that gap has been widening for 15 years. If present trends continue, the chief economist at the OECD argues, in 20 years the average U.S. citizen will be twice as rich as the average Frenchman or German.

Zakariacloses with some speculation on what Europe's decline means for world politics:
What does all this add up to? Less European influence in the world. Europe's position in such institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund relates to its share of world GDP. Its dwindling defense spending weakens its ability to be a military partner of the United States, or to project military power abroad even for peacekeeping purposes. Its cramped, increasingly protectionist outlook will further sap its vitality.

The decline of Europe means a world with a greater diffusion of power and a lessened ability to create international norms and rules of the road. It also means that America's superpower status will linger. Think of the dollar. For years people have argued that it is due for a massive drop as countries around the world diversify their savings. But as people looked at the alternatives, they decided that the chief rivals, the euro and the yen, represented economies that were structurally weak. So they have reluctantly stuck with the dollar. It's a similar dynamic in other arenas. You can't beat something with nothing.

One mild rebuttal -- Europe's decline does not mean it's influence in international institutions will automatically fall. International organizations have notoriously sticky rules, and those rules benefit those who were powerful in the past. By any measure of power, Britain and France have no business being permanent members of any Security Council that keeps India or even Japan out. Yet there they stay, for two reasons: 1) It's costly to change the rules; and 2) The U.S. doesn't want to change them.

For all of the guff about transatlantic tensions, the U.S. is still keenly aware that it has more shared prferences with Europe than with other regions of the globe. Until that changes, European countries may decline, but they won't fall.

posted by Dan at 10:53 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

Not the biggest shock in the world

Which sci-fi crew would you best fit in?

You scored as Serenity (Firefly). You like to live your own way and don't enjoy when anyone but a friend tries to tell you should do different. Now if only the Reavers would quit trying to skin you.

Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in?
created with QuizFarm.com

Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds -- but I'm still upset at him for this post -- I lost a good hour of productivity following the links to their logical conclusion.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be in my bunk.

posted by Dan at 01:16 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Are those netroots showing?

Ian Urbina reports in the New York Times that Pail Hackett has dropped out of the Democratic primary to challenge Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio. It appears that Hackett is none too happy about the way the Democratic establishment has treated him:

Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran and popular Democratic candidate in Ohio's closely watched Senate contest, said yesterday that he was dropping out of the race and leaving politics altogether as a result of pressure from party leaders.

Mr. Hackett said Senators Charles E. Schumer of New York and Harry Reid of Nevada, the same party leaders who he said persuaded him last August to enter the Senate race, had pushed him to step aside so that Representative Sherrod Brown, a longtime member of Congress, could take on Senator Mike DeWine, the Republican incumbent.

Mr. Hackett staged a surprisingly strong Congressional run last year in an overwhelmingly Republican district and gained national prominence for his scathing criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War. It was his performance in the Congressional race that led party leaders to recruit him for the Senate race.

But for the last two weeks, he said, state and national Democratic Party leaders have urged him to drop his Senate campaign and again run for Congress.

"This is an extremely disappointing decision that I feel has been forced on me," said Mr. Hackett, whose announcement comes two days before the state's filing deadline for candidates. He said he was outraged to learn that party leaders were calling his donors and asking them to stop giving and said he would not enter the Second District Congressional race.

"For me, this is a second betrayal," Mr. Hackett said. "First, my government misused and mismanaged the military in Iraq, and now my own party is afraid to support candidates like me."

Mr. Hackett was the first Iraq war veteran to seek national office, and the decision to steer him away from the Senate race has surprised those who see him as a symbol for Democrats who oppose the war but want to appear strong on national security.

"Alienating Hackett is not just a bad idea for the party, but it also sends a chill through the rest of the 56 or so veterans that we've worked to run for Congress," said Mike Lyon, executive director for the Band of Brothers, a group dedicated to electing Democratic veterans to national office. "Now is a time for Democrats to be courting, not blocking, veterans who want to run."

But Democratic leaders say Representative Brown, a seven-term incumbent from Avon, has a far better chance of toppling Senator DeWine.

"It boils down to who we think can pull the most votes in November against DeWine," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "And in Ohio, Brown's name is golden. It's just that simple."

Mr. Fern added that Mr. Brown's fund-raising abilities made him the better Senate candidate. By the end of last year, Mr. Brown had already amassed $2.37 million, 10 times what Mr. Hackett had raised.

I bring this up only because Hackett was Exhibit A in the power of the Democratic Party's "netroots." He almost won last year's special election in a district where no one thought Democrats could be competitive.

Hackett was also relying on the netroots in his nascent primary run -- this week he was TPM Cafe's Table for One (though it should be pointed out that Brown blogged last week for TPM). UPDATE: Here's a link to Hackett's withdrawal post at TPM.

The netroots ain't happy, either -- MyDD says, "This is ugly." Atrios concurs.

Click here to read the reaction among the Kossaks. Kos himself has a post that puts Hackett's decision into some perspective -- though I'm not sure his commenters would agree. Other liberal bloggers share Kos' sense that this was meant to be. This Ezra Klein post suggests Hackett would have given good interview).

It's worth remembering that Karl Rove has spent the last six years trying to hand-pick Senatorial candidates that can topple Democrats -- so it's hard to blame the Dems for doing the same.

[So why are you posting about this?--ed.] Because this is a pretty big slap in the face to the argument that the Democratic Party is being held hostage by its netroots base -- although the real test will be to see if Brown faces any backlash.

UPDATE: More on the netroots effect from Steve Clemons and Real Clear Politics' Nick Nordseth.

posted by Dan at 08:27 AM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Nobody give me a column!!

Note to self: if someone is ever so foolish as to offer me a weekly column, re-read this Jack Shafer paragraph:

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make a newspaper columnist. Most columnists start off with a bag full of ideas and endless energy. But the job begins to weigh on even the most talented journalist. He starts writing columns about columns he's written, about his kids, or about the deaths of relatives. He composes columns as open letters to world leaders—or writes from inside their heads. He quotes cab drivers. His columns become more assertion than argument. Finally, he starts picking silly, protracted fights with other media machers.
[Yeah, we're not worried about this possibility--ed.]

posted by Dan at 02:38 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Transatlantic radio and telly debate

Kieran Healy has a post up at Crooked Timber on the superiority of U.K. radio trivia to the United States, and then closes with this paragraph:

Incidentally, Radio 4’s The News Quiz, when set against NPR’s execrable Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, joins the long list of cultural objects that serve to illustrate the difference between Britain and the United States. Others include The Office (UK) vs The Office (US), Yes Prime Minister vs The West Wing, and so on.
This has prompted quite a lively debate in the comments section (including an intervention from yours truly), about a) whether Kieran was correct; and b) What kinds of programming do not appear to be replicable across the Atlantic?

For example, Kieran is correct to point out the complete lack of a U.S. competitor to Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister. At the same time, however, I'm not sure that there's anything in the U.K. that can compete with The Daily Show or The Simpsons. The U.K. version of Friends was pretty appalling (curiously, though, that didn't stop NBC from trying to copy it). Both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm are commedies of manners, yet I can't think of their British equivalents.

When it comes to genre shows, well, I can't think of any program that could compete with Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the new Battlestar Galactica.

I'm not sure there's any great lesson to be drawn from this, but I invite readers to do two things: 1) Isolate creative excellence in TV that appears to be non-replicable once you cross the border; and 2) Reasons for why this is so. For example, I'd wager that the U.S. does better at certain kinds of comedies and teen shows because television producers have a much greater comfort level with America's affluent class than British producers have with their yuppie audience (there's that whole need to sell advertising as well).

posted by Dan at 12:03 PM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

William Easterly trashes Angelina Jolie!!

William Easterly -- the anti-Jeff Sachs -- has an op-ed in today's Washington Post about Africa. He's upset at the do-gooding of Angelina Jolie and those of her ilk [Her ilk? You mean really attractive actresses? Is he upset at Salma, too?--ed. No, I'm talking about those who wish to "save" Africa.]:

Jeffrey Sachs and Angelina Jolie toured the continent on behalf of MTV, with Jolie asking how we can stand by and let it be destroyed. The world's leaders gathered at the United Nations in September to further discuss ending poverty in Africa, apparently unfazed by yet another voluminous U.N. report highlighting the failure of the grand plans (the "Millennium Development Goals") to make any progress. They repeated a familiar refrain: If aid efforts aren't producing the desired results, then redouble those efforts. The year closed with the rock star Bono being named Time magazine's person of the year (along with the rather more constructive Bill and Melinda Gates) for his efforts to save Africa....

Everyone, it seems, was invited to the "Save Africa" campaign of 2005 except for Africans. They starred only as victims: genocide casualties, child soldiers, AIDS patients and famine deaths on our 43-inch plasma screens.

Yes, these tragedies deserve attention, but the obsessive and almost exclusive Western focus on them is less relevant to the vast majority of Africans -- the hundreds of millions not fleeing from homicidal minors, not HIV-positive, not starving to death, and not helpless wards waiting for actors and rock stars to rescue them. Angelina, the continent has problems but it is not being destroyed....

The West's focus on sensational tragedies obscures the achievements of people such as Patrick Awuah and Robert Keter, who are succeeding even against tremendous odds. Economic development in Africa will depend -- as it has elsewhere and throughout the history of the modern world -- on the success of private-sector entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and African political reformers. It will not depend on the activities of patronizing, bureaucratic, unaccountable and poorly informed outsiders.

The hard-working staff here at danieldrezner.com takes great pride in its stout defense of American celebrities. So we feel compelled to point out to raise the possibility that Easterly is just ticked off because he didn't get to go on safari with the lovely and talented Ms. Jolie. But I doubt it.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan at 09:08 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Your headline contest for today

"Cheney Accidentally Shoots Fellow Hunter," The Associated Press, February 13, 2006.

If you want more details check out the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which broke the story.

What I would like my readers to propose is what the subhead should be to this story.

My suggestion: "Vice President, Relying on Raw Intel Reports, Convinced Victim was Deer."

UPDATE: Pajamas Media has a quick roundup of blog reactions.

posted by Dan at 11:42 PM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The intriguing rise of Shanghai Tang

When I was in Hong Kong in December, the one store I was told I had to go to was a place called Shanghai Tang; other bloggers have apparently received a similar message.. The people telling me to do this were right -- I'm not much into clothes stores, but even I was impressed by the quality and style of their merchandise. I wound up buying lots of nice things for my wife, which almost -- but not quite -- made up for me leaving her alone with the kids for nine days. Rest assured, Americans do not need to jet to Hong Kong to sample the store -- there's both an online catalog, and a store in Manhattan.

I bring this up because Shanghai Tang is the topic of Linda Tischler's cover story in this week's Fast Company. The story strongly suggests that China will be moving up the global supply chain to luxury goods very soon:

If, as global market watchers from Wall Street to Tokyo have claimed, this is the China Century, then Shanghai Tang may just turn out to be that century's banner--China's first global, upscale brand.

For this exuberant and increasingly entrepreneurial nation, it would be a natural evolution--and a stunning one. As China enters the modern economic market, it has gone from being the low-cost factory for Wal-Mart to the purchaser of big-name brands (think Lenovo's recent acquisition of ThinkPad from IBM). The third stage will be for China to create brands of its own, becoming a center of design and innovation capable of fielding products that can compete in quality, style, and prestige with anything from Paris, Milan, or New York. "The opportunity for Shanghai Tang right now is huge," says David Melancon, North American president of brand strategy firm FutureBrand. "They could be the first big luxury brand out of Asia."

Out of Asia, yes--and in it, too. While the global luxury market is already big--$168 billion a year, according to Bain & Co.--and growing at a rate of 7% per year, "big" doesn't begin to describe the potential market for glitzy goods in China itself. A quarter of a century ago, there were no millionaires in China; by the end of 2004, there were more than 236,000, Bain says. And Patrizio Bertelli, the CEO of another fashion house that's hungrily eying the market--Prada Group--figures that China could overtake the United States as a market for luxury goods by 2020.

In the meantime, the profits China's homegrown brands earn at home will help finance their forays into the rest of the world. Add in the cheap labor close at hand (an edge over many Western luxury labels, which are made in Europe), and the Guccis and Armanis could be facing competition like they've never seen before.

As you read a bit more into the story, however, you begin to wonder just how you would categorize the nationality of the firm. First, you discover that Shanghai Tang is majority-owned by Richemont, a Swiss-based luxury-brands holding company. Then you discover the background of the top people at the firm:
It's no surprise, says le Masne de Chermont, that the company's principals have been recruited from the carpetbagging global creative class. The brand's founder, British-educated David Tang, is from Hong Kong, that most Western of Chinese cities. [creative director Joanne] Ooi is American; Camilla Hammar, the marketing director, is Swedish. [CEO Raphael] Le Masne de Chermont, who is French, honed his luxury branding skills at Piaget before being deployed by Richemont, whose portfolio also includes Mont Blanc, Chloe, Dunhill, and Cartier, to fix its ailing Shanghai Tang brand.

"We're a melting pot of multicultural people who work on the same vision: a Chinese lifestyle brand that's relevant," he says. As for native Chinese, he says, they're starting to understand branding and sophistication, too. "They are so eager to learn, you cannot imagine."

What's most interesting are the firm's expansion plans:
While the privately held Richemont is cagey about divulging numbers, le Masne de Chermont says that the Madison Avenue's store's revenue is up 50% in 2005. Overall, Tang grew 40% last year, mostly in Asia, home to 70% of its stores. And it's profitable, though not quite yet in the United States.

But while le Masne de Chermont has plans to roll out additional U.S. shops, he's not as obsessed as his predecessor was with making it in America. The red-hot future of his business, he points out, is in Asia. "Can you imagine 1 billion Chinese getting into capitalism?" he says with undisguised glee. "It's unstoppable!"

So even though Tischler's story is titled, "The Gucci Killers," this is less about the rise of a global competitor than the mergence of a Gucci-type brand -- created by Asians, Europeans, and Americans -- that can penetrate the Asian market.

A final note: I'm genuinely surprised the New York store is not yet profitable -- to my admittedly uncouth eye, the clothes and accessories are world-class and, compared to other luxury brands, very reasonably priced.

UPDATE: Reena Jana did a story on Shanghai Tang for Business Week last December that's worth checking out as well.

posted by Dan at 11:41 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, February 9, 2006

"the biggest winners are consumers in the United States"

This is David Barboza's conclusion in the New York Times after looking at shifts in the global supply chain:

Hundreds of workers at a sprawling Japanese-owned Hitachi factory here are fashioning plates of glass and aluminum into shiny computer disks, wrapping them in foil. The products are destined for the United States, where they will arrive like billions of other items, labeled "made in China."

But often these days, "made in China" is mostly made elsewhere — by multinational companies in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States that are using China as the final assembly station in their vast global production networks.

Analysts say this evolving global supply chain, which usually tags goods at their final assembly stop, is increasingly distorting global trade figures and has the effect of turning China into a bigger trade threat than it may actually be. That kind of distortion is likely to appear again on Feb. 10, when the Commerce Department announces the American trade deficit with China. By many estimates, it swelled to a record $200 billion last year.

It may look as if China is getting the big payoff from trade. But over all, some of the biggest winners are consumers in the United States and other advanced economies who have benefited greatly as a result of the shift in the final production of toys, clothing, electronics and other goods from elsewhere in Asia to a cheaper China....

The real losers, it seems, are mostly low-wage workers elsewhere, like the ones at Hitachi who lost their jobs in Japan, along with workers in other parts of Asia who suffered as employers began relocating plants to China. Blue-collar workers in the United States have also lost out....

Foreign expertise has been critical as manufacturing supply chains become increasingly complex, involving countries' each producing components that are then shipped to China for assembly. Such a system can render global trade statistics misleading, and some experts say that a more apt label would be "assembled in China."

"The biggest beneficiary of all this is the United States," said Dong Tao, an economist at UBS in Hong Kong. "A Barbie doll costs $20, but China only gets about 35 cents of that."

Read the whole thing. One fact genuinely surprised me:
Asian exports to the United States have actually slipped over the last 15 years....

The migration has left footprints in trade statistics. In 1990, Japan was the United States' dominant trading partner in the Pacific, and Asia accounted for 38 percent of all American imports. Last year, China was the dominant Asian trader. Its trade with the United States has risen some 1,200 percent since 1990, even as the Asian share of American imports slipped to 36 percent.

What changed from 1990 to 2005 is that many goods became a lot cheaper as China took on a greater and greater role as the world's basic factory floor.

posted by Dan at 11:42 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

United States 2, Terrorists with shoe bombs, 0

So apparently an Al Qaeda plot to use shoe bombs to hijack a plane and fly it into LA's Library tower was thwarted in 2002. A few things are interesting about this:

1) Using shoe bombs are apparently the terrorist equivalent of walking under a ladder.

2) Al Qaeda's outsourcing operations haven't gone all that well. According to ABC News:

Six months after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda found itself under siege in Afghanistan. So Khalid Sheik Mohammed decided to contract out the Los Angeles attack. He turned to a terrorist named Hambali, the leader of an al Qaeda affiliate in Southeast Asia.

"Rather than use Arab hijackers as he had on September the 11," Bush said, "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sought out young men from Southeast Asia whom he believed would not arouse as much suspicion."

ABC News has learned Hambali recruited at least four men, including a pilot. Al Qaeda came up with a plan to break open a secure cockpit door using shoe bombs like those worn by al Qaeda operative Richard Reid before he tried to blow up an airliner in 2001.

"They are able to figure out what are the obstacles in front of them and figure out ways around those obstacles and they can do it in real time," said Dick Clarke, former White House counterterrorism czar and now an ABC News consultant.

Disaster was averted when one of Hambali's hijackers was captured in early 2002 by officials in an unnamed country, and he began identifying other members of the plot. Within five months, Hambali was arrested.

Clarke, in the quote, wants to make it appear that Al Qaeda is ultra-nimble and adaptive, and so therefore hard to defeat. This overlooks the fact that any group Al Qaeda outsources to is likely to be more incompetent than Al Qaeda. So this story puts me in a much better mood than Clarke.

3) Time's Brian Bennett and Matthew Cooper speculate on the politics of the disclosure: "The timing of the foiled plot's disclosure, coming as it did as the Administration defends its controversial wiretapping program, struck many observers as more than a little curious." None of these observers are actually named, but the rest of the paragraph suggests that while the reveal was political in the global sense, I tend to doubt it was consciously timed to deal with Bush's current difficulties on the anti-terrorism front:

[A]nother senior Administration official told TIME: "The speech was about international cooperation and to show that actions taken have real consequences." Said the official, "You intrepid journalists can deduce whether there's a connection between the NSA program and (the West coast plot). Was there a domestic component?" The answer, given that all the alleged cell leaders were captured overseas, would seem to be no.
This brings us to the elements of the Time story that are much more disturbing -- the escape of the Al Qaeda terrorists from Yemen:
But at the same time the Administration was chest-thumping about this victory in the war on terror, [counter-terrorism czar Frances Fragos] Townsend had to acknowledge that it is grappling with one of the worst examples of non-cooperation. Over the weekend, 13 convicted Al Qaeda members being held in a Yemeni jail escaped, including the reputed mastermind of the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole. Townsend acknowledged that the jailbreak is "of enormous concern to us, especially given the capabilities and the expertise of the people who were there." All 13 had been housed together, she said, and "we are disappointed that their restrictions in prison weren't more stringent." When asked why the U.S. wasn't keeping closer tabs on how the Al Qaeda prisoners were being incarcerated in Yemen, a U.S. law enforcement official said, "that assumes the Yemenis care what we think."

Still, the U.S., which has been caught off guard by everything from the flooding of New Orleans to the victory of Hamas, seemed stupified to discover that the Yemenis were allowing the Al Qaeda prisoners to be housed together and to communicate freely. The lax security measures stand in sharp contrast to the isolation of prisoners kept at American controlled facilities in Guantanamo Bay and around the globe.

posted by Dan at 09:57 PM | Comments (15) | Trackbacks (0)

The good news about cancer

Denise Grady has one of those stories in the New York Times that's worth emphasizing because the news is so good:

The number of cancer deaths in the United States has dropped slightly, the first decline in more than 70 years, the American Cancer Society is reporting today.

Much of the decrease is because of a decline in smoking and improved detection and treatment of breast, colorectal and prostate cancers, according to the society.

The decline occurred in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available. There were 556,902 cancer deaths, 369 fewer than in 2002. Deaths fell in men by 778, but rose by 409 in women.

"Even though it's a small number, it's a notable milestone," said Dr. Michael Thun, head of epidemiological research for the society.

Dr. Thun (pronounced tune) said the death rate from cancer had been falling by slightly less than 1 percent a year since 1991, but even so, the actual number of deaths kept rising because the population was growing and aging.

"The decrease from 2002 to 2003 means that the decline in death rates had become sufficiently large that it was bigger than the aging and growth of the population," Dr. Thun said.

"You would predict this is a trend that may have a few bumps but will continue," he said.

Dr. Robert A. Hiatt, deputy director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said, "From the beginning of the century it's been going up and up and up, and this is the first time we've turned the corner."

Here's a link to the American Cancer Society's press release. Among other things, they open with, "The American Cancer Society's annual estimate of cancer deaths says 2006 will see a slight decline in the projected number of cancer deaths compared to estimates made for 2005."

posted by Dan at 07:08 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Open cartoon thread

Readers may have noticed that I haven't posted on the whole cartoon business. To be honest, I didn't think it was that big a deal. Clearly, some Muslims disagree.

So, comment away. Click here or here for useful timelines.

A lot of blogs have posted deep, deep thoughts about the state of Islam and the perceptions of Muslims in the world. I'm afraid I can't muster anything beyond two quick, cryptic observations: a) there's a difference between a democracy and a liberal democracy, and it's clear that the Muslims exercised by this cartoon do not distinguish between the two at all, and b) this is neither the first or the last time we're going to see protests of this nature.

UPDATE: This Andrew Sullivan post seems pretty powerful to me.

posted by Dan at 11:20 PM | Comments (62) | Trackbacks (0)

What is the future of GMOs?

Edward Alden, Jeremy Grant and Raphael Minder report in the Financial Times that the WTO has just issued a ruling on genetically modified foods:

The World Trade Organisation ruled yesterday that European restrictions on the introduction of genetically-modified foods violated international trade rules, finding there was no scientific justification for Europe’s failure to allow use of new varieties of corn, soybeans and cotton.

The ruling was a victory for Washington in a long-running dispute that has pitted US faith in the benefits of the new crops against widespread consumer resistance in Europe.

It was immediately welcomed by US farmers and the biotechnology industry, but castigated by environmental and consumer groups who charged the ruling was a blatant example of international trade rules running roughshod over democratic decisions aimed at protecting consumer health and safety.

A US trade official, briefing reporters on the confidential decision that was released to the countries involved in the dispute late yesterday, said: “We’re please with the outcome. We’re not at the end of the road, but it’s a significant milestone.”

The EU would not comment on the ruling, which Brussels could appeal against, after the final report is issued in a few months.

The US, along with Canada and Argentina, launched the case in 2003 hoping that a favourable ruling by the WTO would prevent European-style restrictions on GM foods from spreading to Africa, China and other parts of the world. “One of the reasons we brought this case was because of the chilling effect the EU moratorium has had on the adoption of biotechnology,” the official said.

The immediate practical effect of the ruling is unclear. The European Commission halted the approval of new GM varieties in 1998, but began limited approvals again in May 2004, after the US launched the WTO case. Nearly two dozen applications remain in the pipeline.

The WTO decision also found against separate national bans established by Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg, which have refused to allow even those GM varieties approved by Brussels. Those national restrictions have remained in place even after the moratorium was lifted in 2004.

I cut and paste from the FT a fair amount, so et me help them out and post what the practical effect will be on the various players:
1) The effect on the EU is pretty much nil. They'll appeal, and probably lose their appeal, and then face punitive sanctions from the US, Canada, and Argentina. Just as with hormone-treated beef, the EU will suffer the sanctions rather than comply, given public attitudes about GM foods in Europe.

2) The effect on the US -- and biotech firms -- is slightly better than nil. They won't be able to crack open the EU market -- but the decision will serve as a useful precedent in dealing with the rest of the world, which does not want to be the target of WTO-approved sanctions. Countries that rely heavily on ag exports to the EU won't budge, but it could have a effect on other countries.

3) The effect on the WTO is slightly worse than nil. Every time the WTO issues a ruling and the response is non-compliance, it takes a hit. That's what is going to happen here. [So they should have ruled the opposite way?--ed. No, they made the right call on the merits of the case-- it's just that I'm pretty sure the WTO would have preferred not to rule on this case at all. For them, it's a lose-lose situation.]

4) The effect on environmental NGOs depends on what you believe they want. In terms of outcomes, the effect is pretty bad, because it increases the likelihood that more states will allow GMO use. In terms of process, the effect is pretty good, because they'll be able to use the WTO ruling to raise lots and lots of money.

5) I have no idea how this will affect human-animal hybrids.

[Sounds like you support the EU position--ed. Oh, no, I think the EU approach to GMOs is daft -- that, however, doesn't matter when you control a $11 trillion economy.]

posted by Dan at 07:54 PM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Just how unpopular is Iran?

The BBC World Service commissioned a survey to gauge public attitudes towards different countries in the world. My new favorite web site, worldpublicopinion.org, has a summary of the findings:

A major BBC World Service poll exploring how people in 33 countries view various countries found not a single country where a majority has a positive view of Iran’s role in the world (with the exception of Iranians themselves).

Views of Iran are lower than the US, although the US continues to get low marks, as does Russia. Views of China, France, and Russia are down sharply compared to a similar BBC World Service poll conducted at the end of 2004.

Japan is the country most widely viewed as having a positive influence, and Europe as a whole gets the most positive ratings of all....

In 24 of the 33 countries polled, majorities (in 14 countries) or pluralities (in 10) say that Iran is having a negative influence in the world. In five other countries a plurality says that Iran is having a positive influence, but in three of these the proportion who say this is less than a third. On average across the 33 countries just 18 percent say Iran is having a positive influence while 47 percent say Iran is having a negative influence....

Steven Kull, director of PIPA says, “Iran may imagine that there are many people out there rooting for it as it defies the big powers with its nuclear program. But this poll suggests that the number of people behind it is quite small and swamped by much larger numbers who are worried about the direction Iran is going.”

Here's a link to the full questionnaire and methodology.

Of course, if you look at the table below, the U.S. doesn't have a lot to crow about either:

There is one interesting tidbit from the individual country results -- the U.S. does extraordinarily well among African countries, better than the EU. I have no explanation for why this is true.

UPDATE: Just to clear up one confusion in the comments thread -- Europe did not earn a more favorable rating because Europeans were included in that measure. If you read the methodology document, you'll see that they were excluded from their own rating, just like the USA.

posted by Dan at 10:30 AM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, February 6, 2006

An FTA that makes economic and political sense

Most of the free-trade agreements put forward by the Bush administration over the past five years have made a lot of foreign policy sense, but have been pretty marginal in terms of their economic impact.

Last week, however, the U.S. and South Korea announced that they intended to negotiate an FTA over the course of this year. USTR representative Rob Portman said, "This is the most commercially significant free trade negotiation we have embarked on in 15 years," and he's not lying -- you'd have to go back to the start of NAFTA for an FTA that would have as big an economic impact.

Kudos to Portman for finally taking up the ROK's offer to negotiate. I'm also intrigued whether this was timed to prod the EU, India, and Brazil into moving forward on Doha.

posted by Dan at 01:59 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Would the Scandinavian model fit the United States?

Milton Friedman gave a wide-ranging interview with New Perspectives Quarterly editor Nathan Gardels last November. One of Friedman's answers intrigued me:

NPQ | Perhaps the Scandinavian countries are a model to look at. They are high-tax but also high-employment societies. And they have freed up their labor markets much more than in Italy, France or Germany.

Friedman | Though it is not as true now as it used to be with the influx of immigration, the Scandinavian countries have a very small, homogeneous population. That enables them to get away with a good deal they couldn’t otherwise get away with.

What works for Sweden wouldn’t work for France or Germany or Italy. In a small state, you can reach outside for many of your activities. In a homogeneous culture, they are willing to pay higher taxes in order to achieve commonly held goals. But “common goals” are much harder to come by in larger, more heterogeneous populations.

The great virtue of a free market is that it enables people who hate each other, or who are from vastly different religious or ethnic backgrounds, to cooperate economically. Government intervention can’t do that. Politics exacerbates and magnifies differences.

I suspect that Amy Chua would have some issues with Friedman' last assertion, but it is an interesting hypothesis. Could it be that the liberal market economy's primary advantage over the coordinated market economy is not it's better efficiency or productivity, but the fact that it works better over a wider variation of societies?

Check out the rest of the Friedman interview as well -- the dark matter controversy comes up.

posted by Dan at 10:59 AM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)

Super Dud XL

Yesterday afternoon, I was thinking that the Super Bowl had recently been on a decent run of gripping games. Between 2000 and 2005, three of the contests (St. Louis/Tennessee, New England/St. Louis, New England/Carolina) had been pretty gripping games, a vast improvement over the Super Bowls I remembered from childhood.

So much for the nice run -- this one was a stinker punctuated by the occasional nifty play. How much of a stinker? The lead Chicago Tribune sports columnist wrote an entire article about a play that wound up not affecting the final outcome.

As for the ads -- well, to quote Kieran Healy, "I hope next year Burger King Corporation just make a pile of 2 million dollar bills and set it on fire, rather than taking the roundabout method of pointlessly wasting money they opted for this year." On the upside, I did win $100 from a friend who was convinced that Karl Malden had appeared in one of the NFL Mobile ads.

posted by Dan at 10:22 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

How strong is the U.S. economy?

I've got an advanced degree in economics, and I'm here to tell you that the official numbers on the U.S. economy are just plain strange.

On the one hand, in the fourth quarter of 2005, GDP growth slowed to a crawl. On the other hand, that had little effect on U.S. labor markets, since the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday that the economy has generated more than 200,000 net new jobs a month, and that unemployment is now down to 4.7%.

On the one hand, the U.S. trade deficit shows no sign of reversing itself; on the other hand, some economists insist that dark matter is not being counted.

On the one hand, European work fewer hours than Americans. On the other hand, it's possible that Americans have more leisure time than Europeans.

The latest: Time frets on it's cover that we may be losing our edge.

Except that Michael Mandel says on the cover of Business Week that the economy is stronger than conventional statistics indicate (link via longtime reader Don Stadler):

[W]hat if we told you that the doomsayers, while not definitively wrong, aren't seeing the whole picture? What if we told you that businesses are investing about $1 trillion a year more than the official numbers show? Or that the savings rate, far from being negative, is actually positive? Or, for that matter, that our deficit with the rest of the world is much smaller than advertised, and that gross domestic product may be growing faster than the latest gloomy numbers show? You'd be pretty surprised, wouldn't you?

Well, don't be. Because the economy you thought you knew -- the one all those government statistics purport to measure and make rational and understandable -- actually may be on a stronger footing than you think. Then again, it could be much more volatile than before, with bigger booms and deeper busts. If true, that has major implications for policymakers -- not least Ben Bernanke, who on Feb. 1 succeeded Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Everyone knows the U.S. is well down the road to becoming a knowledge economy, one driven by ideas and innovation. What you may not realize is that the government's decades-old system of number collection and crunching captures investments in equipment, buildings, and software, but for the most part misses the growing portion of GDP that is generating the cool, game-changing ideas. "As we've become a more knowledge-based economy," says University of Maryland economist Charles R. Hulten, "our statistics have not shifted to capture the effects."

The statistical wizards at the Bureau of Economic Analysis in Washington can whip up a spreadsheet showing how much the railroads spend on furniture ($39 million in 2004, to be exact). But they have no way of tracking the billions of dollars companies spend each year on innovation and product design, brand-building, employee training, or any of the other intangible investments required to compete in today's global economy. That means that the resources put into creating such world-beating innovations as the anticancer drug Avastin, inhaled insulin, Starbuck's, exchange-traded funds, and yes, even the iPod, don't show up in the official numbers....

[O]ver the past seven years the economy has continued to evolve while the numbers we use to capture it have remained the same. Globalization, outsourcing, and the emphasis on innovation and creativity are forcing businesses to shift at a dramatic rate from tangible to intangible investments.

Read the whole thing, which gets around to the "dark matter" question as well (also click here to see the Boston Fed paper upon which Mandel got most of his info).

Mandel's story does offer an explanation about the fourth quarter numbers:

[T]he conventional numbers may be understating the strength of the economy today. The BEA announced on Jan. 27 that growth in the fourth quarter of 2005 was only 1.1%. In part that was because of a smaller-than-expected increase in business capital spending. However, employment at design and management-consulting firms is up sharply in the quarter, suggesting that businesses may be spending on intangibles instead. Indeed, the consumer confidence number for January zoomed to the highest level since 2002, as Americans became more optimistic about finding jobs.
In fairness, as Stadler pointed out in the e-mail that triggered this post, it is possible that redefining investment would also make the 2001 downturn look more serious that conventional GDP data suggested -- because there was such a fall-off in R&D spending at the time.

So, maybe the economy is much more robust than commonly thought. But there are three caveats to this that I can't quite shake. First, I very much want this to be true, which means that I might be accepting Mandel's suppositions too quickly.

Second, I still remember this Stephen Roach op-ed from 2003, which also pointed out the screwiness with existing data -- except that Roach thought the metrics under discussion were being too optimistic about labor productivity gains. Roach and Mandel are focusing on the same productivity figures -- but Mandel thinks it shows that other numbers are screwy, while Roach thinks the productivity figure is inflated. I'm not sure Roach is right either -- but it's worth bearing in mind that inaccuate data can cut both ways in trying to figure out the current economy.

Third, even if we're exporting knowledge capital in the form of FDI, we're also importing significant amounts of knowledge capital -- in the form of science and engineering Ph.D. students. What happens when those figures are thrown into the mix?

posted by Dan at 12:17 AM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, February 5, 2006

A correction and apology to Tom Friedman

A week or so ago I referenced a David Rothkopf blog post from Davos about a Tom Friedman faux pas. It turns out the post was in error. I'll just reprint what Rothkopf e-mailed me:

Several elements of this Davos Diary were picked up and run in other places, which is gratifying. However, in one instance, it is embarassing. In the item on the panel on Middle East nuclear proliferation chaired by Tom Friedman of the New York Times, it suggests that Friedman made a statement that suggested that none of the nations in the area should have nuclear weapons and that this was a source of embarassment re: Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, who was on the panel and whose nation does. Had the entry stated that it was Afghanistan's President Karzai who made the statement, it would have been accurate. That is what I intended to write and what my brain actually recalls having written. Being as how it was the truth and all. If it came out of my head otherwise or was somehow altered along the way, I apologize. Readers of the blog may recall I sustained several blows to the head along the way and anything is possible. Suffice it to say, Friedman ran the panel wonderfully with a light and informed touch and Karzai's misstatement was humorous and even he responded to his error with somewhat more grace than I have responded to this one.
Apologies to Friedman for propagating the original error.

posted by Dan at 04:32 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Work, leisure, and productivity

Last Sunday, the Boston Globe's Christopher Shea wrote a counterintuitive article about how well Europe compares with the United States:

In the face of rampant Europessimism, some contrarian scholars insist that European countries can thrive without embracing American-style labor markets (where most people can be fired at will) and relatively lean social programs.

Two years ago, the MIT economist Olivier Blanchard made news with an article claiming that Europe was gaining on the United States. True, gross domestic product per person was only 70 percent of America's, a gap that has existed for a generation. But by the measure of output per hour of work, Europe had reached 90 percent of American levels. Europeans were simply choosing to work fewer hours, Blanchard suggested-not an obviously dumb move. They were trading income for more leisure.

Sounds plausible.... until you get to this week's Economist. At which point you discover something very interesting... leisure time in the United States is on the increase:
A pair of economists have looked closely at how Americans actually spend their time. Mark Aguiar (at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston) and Erik Hurst (at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business) constructed four different measures of leisure. The narrowest includes only activities that nearly everyone considers relaxing or fun; the broadest counts anything that is not related to a paying job, housework or errands as “leisure”. No matter how the two economists slice the data, Americans seem to have much more free time than before.

Over the past four decades, depending on which of their measures one uses, the amount of time that working-age Americans are devoting to leisure activities has risen by 4-8 hours a week. (For somebody working 40 hours a week, that is equivalent to 5-10 weeks of extra holiday a year.) Nearly every category of American has more spare time: single or married, with or without children, both men and women. The only twist is that less educated (and thus poorer) Americans have done relatively better than more educated ones (see chart). And that is not just because unemployed high-school drop-outs have more free time on their hands. Less educated Americans with jobs—the overstretched middle class of political lore—do very well....

Messrs Aguiar and Hurst think that the hours spent at your employer's are too narrow a definition of work. Americans also spend lots of time shopping, cooking, running errands and keeping house. These chores are among the main reasons why people say they are so overstretched (especially working women with children).

However, Messrs Aguiar and Hurst show that Americans actually spend much less time doing them than they did 40 years ago. There has been a revolution in the household economy. Appliances, home delivery, the internet, 24-hour shopping, and more varied and affordable domestic services have increased flexibility and freed up people's time.

So women are devoting more hours to paying jobs, but have cut their housework and other burdensome tasks by twice as much. Men have picked up some of the slack at home; but thanks to technology and other advances, there is plenty of free time left over for them as well, since they have yielded some of their paid working hours to women.

This trend ties into the biggest productivity advantage the United States has over the rest of the advanced industriaized world -- the retail and wholesale sectors. Increases on productivity in those arenas don't only benefit producers -- they lead to significant benefits for consumers, in the form of fewer time and resources devoted to essential household tasks, like shopping for groceries.

In the paper cited by the Economist, Aguiar and Hurst observe that:

The present study focuses exclusively on the United States.... to our knowledge, there are no studies using European data that perform a time-series analysis similar to the one below. This remains an important area for future research.
That would be some interesting research. It is possible that heightened U.S. efficiency in the retail and wholesale sectors -- and maybe, come to think of it, the housing sector as well, though economists tend to think about housing productivity in terms of construction as opposed to usage -- means that Americans work more and play more than Europeans.

posted by Dan at 03:25 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Oxymoronic headline of the week

"U.N. braces for slow, drawn-out action on Iran"

I don't know whether the Malaysian Star or Reuters is to blame.

posted by Dan at 02:21 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, February 3, 2006

Welcome to the Fed, Mr. Bernanke

As Ben Bernanke took over from Alan Greenspan this week at the Fed -- and let's hear it for financial markets for not freaking out that much about Greenspan's departure -- it seems only fitting to link to Adam Posen's Institute for International Economics brief about what central banks should do when there's an asset price bubble.

Basically, they should do nothing:

Central banks should not be in the business of trying to prick asset price bubbles. Bubbles generally arise out of some combination of irrational exuberance, technological jumps, and financial deregulation (with more of the second in equity price bubbles and more of the third in real estate booms). Accordingly, the connection between monetary conditions and the rise of bubbles is rather tenuous, and anything short of inducing a recession by tightening credit conditions prohibitively is unlikely to stem their rise. Even if a central bank were willing to take that one-in-three or less shot at cutting off a bubble, the cost-benefit analysis hardly justifies such preemptive action. The macroeconomic harm from a bubble bursting is generally a function of the financial system’s structure and stability—in modern economies with satisfactory bank supervision, the transmission of a negative shock from an asset price bust is relatively limited, as was seen in the United States in 2002. However, where financial fragility does exist, as in Japan in the 1990s, the costs of inducing a recession go up significantly, so the relative disadvantages of monetary preemption over letting the bubble run its course mount. In the end, there is no monetary substitute for financial stability, and no market substitute for monetary ease during severe credit crunch. These two realities imply that the central bank should not take asset prices directly into account in monetary policymaking but should be anything but laissez-faire in responding to sharp movements in inflation and output, even if asset price swings are their source.

posted by Dan at 02:14 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, February 2, 2006

When political fiction becomes reality

Brendan Carlin, George Jones and Toby Helm report in the Daily Telegraph that the defeat of Tony Blair's proposed Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was in part due to defections from his Labor party -- and in part due to The West Wing.

Really. I'm serious:

The television series The West Wing about the life and times of a fictional US president was the inspiration for the "rebellion by stealth" that humbled Tony Blair and his Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong.

Slumped in front of the television on Sunday night, one of the leaders of the revolt watched with growing interest as Democrats won a key vote on stem cell research by pretending not to be around.

The congressmen hid in an empty office and then triumphantly emerged in force when the vote was called by the unsuspecting Republican speaker.

"That's where the idea came from," the MP, who declined to be identified, told The Daily Telegraph. "We had no big press conferences, no events announcing the coming protest. It was directly inspired by the West Wing," he said.

The Tories toasted their success with champagne on Tuesday night. Not only had the Labour whips blundered by failing to appreciate the scale of the rebellion on their own side: they had also been outsmarted by a classic "under the radar" whipping operation by the Tories.

As a result, Labour crashed to only its second and third Commons defeats since Tony Blair came to power in 1997.

I actually saw this episode, and remember snorting in derision that this could actually happen. Then again, what do I know -- I'm just a political scientist.

posted by Dan at 02:44 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

My hobgoblin on the State of the Union

If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then my hobgoblin is just a bit exercised about Bush's call for energy independence in the State of the Union -- nicely summarized in this Tom Maguire post.

Here are the two parts of the speech that I can't quite reconcile:

1) "In this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the character of our country. We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom -- or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy -- or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting -- yet it ends in danger and decline."

2) "Breakthroughs on [ethanol] and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past."

Here's my problem -- in what way is the provision massive government subsidies of alternative fuels not another example of import substitution and industrialization? Isn't trying to reduce Middle Eastern oil imports an example of how to "shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity"????

To be fair to Bush, what he's saying might be correct even if it's not internally consistent. Trade on the whole is a good thing, but dependence on oil is bad. Except that a big reason the U.S. has intervened so much in the Arab Middle East for the past 25 years is not just because we're dependent on Arab oil imports -- it's that our allies in Europe and Japan are really dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and we can't afford for their economies to be disrupted either.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I might be harping too much on two pieces of the speech that were meant to address different things. But in fairness to the isolationists, I suspect that they will be the biggest boosters of the President's energy policies.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan's hobgoblin is also exercised about the SOTU

posted by Dan at 04:58 PM | Comments (34) | Trackbacks (0)

February's Books of the Month

The international relations book for February is Jeffry Frieden's Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century.

About five years ago W.W. Norton started publishing a series of books on international relations theory, written by senior scholars in the field, with the stated purpose of appealing beyond a scholarly audience. Frieden's book is part of this project, and Global Capitalism should makethe Norton people happy. It's a concise, accessible history of international economic relations during the twentieth century -- a period that began with one era of globalization, suffered a thirty year spasm of instability and closure, sought a Keynesian compromise, and then embraced globalization again.

As policymakers and publics deal with the aftertaste of the current era, Frieden's book does a great job of setting the historical table of how we got to the present day. Go check it out.

The general interest book is Marjorie Williams' The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, And Fate. Williams was a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post, and published political profiles for Vanity Fair. She died of liver cancer in 2005. This book, edited by her husband (Slate's Tim Noah), is a compendium of her published writing, plus some previously unpublished work on her family and her experiences of living and dying from cancer.

Jack Shafer had a lovely elegy for Williams in Slate when she died last year, and I kept meaning to buy the book when it was released in November, but didn't get around to it until a few days ago. And now, even though I have a daunting pile of reading and writing to finish, I can't go a few hours without stealing into her book and soaking up one of the essays.

There are two things about The Woman at the Washington Zoo that stand out. The first thing is Williams' sharp observations about the role that individuals play in politics, and the role that positions of power play in shaping the individual. She has just the right tone -- realistic without being cynical, observational without suggesting that she was above it all, rendering judgments without smacking of partisanship.

The second thing is more humbling -- Williams could write like a song, regardless of the length or topic. Her essay on her mother is the written equivalent of thirty-year old tawny port, exceptionally smooth while still leaving one a bit buzzed afterwards.

So be warned -- read this book only if you have no illusions about being a great writer. As political scientists go, I'm pretty decent at cobbling sentences together in a jargon-free way. After reading Williams, I now know my true place in the literary cosmos -- academic hack.

posted by Dan at 02:06 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)