Saturday, January 10, 2004

The joys of movie criticism

Louis Menand has a thoroughly odd essay in The New Yorker about movie criticism and the year-end ritual of top-ten lists. He does make a resonant point about the thinking that frequently goes behind such lists:

[B]est-ness isn’t the only factor that goes into the making of an annual ten-best list. After all, what does every critic who makes a ten-best list secretly wish? That his or her list will be the best ten-best list. The list itself has to be fun, interesting, good....

Uniqueness is the desideratum here. A critic does not want to see his or her “surprise” item turning up as the “surprise” on another critic’s list. Conversely, in an “alternative” or highbrow publication the movie list needs one blockbuster—one film the critic liked despite the fact that everyone else liked it. The chief thing is to run an item or two against the grain of the readership.

However, Menand also seems way too willing to relinquish his own formidable critical faculties in order to accept those of the movie critic:

The fact of the matter is basic and ineluctable: we need these lists. The year would not be complete without them. The year would not make sense without them....

Above all, a good top-ten list should convey authority. Not quite Olympian authority, maybe; readers should be able to argue with it, to dissent a bit at the margins. But, ideally, the list should suggest a finality of judgment: life is short; your time is precious; spend it on these....

Pluralism and democracy are fine things, but they have no place in the evaluation and consumption of pop culture, especially today, when, all around us, the sea is rising. The critic is the dolphin who can take us over the waves.

As someone who loves movies, this judgment strikes me as downright bizarre. Part of the joy of seeing films is the discussions that the good ones and even the flawed ones generate among one's circle of friends and associates (last week, I had to defend Mystic River against a charge by two left-wing colleagues that the movie was really a veiled endorsement of American imperialism). True, most of them don't generate the kind of obsessive interaction that cult television shows can generate. However, an important part of the moviegoing experience comes in the talking after the watching.

Menand also fails to acknowledge that critics themselves are fallible creatures, vulnerable to their own forms of peer pressure and changes of mind. Which is why I heartily recommend Slate's online debate (which started last Monday) among David Edelstein, J. Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, Sarah Kerr, and A.O. Scott about the year in movies. Ostensibly it's about the best movies of the year, but for the layman it's also a welcome peek into what it's like to be a movie critic -- a job that many Americans, no doubt, would take in a heartbeat (except for Roger Simon).

Wednesday's entries were particularly interesting -- an entry by Dargis was particularly revealing on this front, in response to a claim by Sarah Kerr that Mystic River was overrated:

What people may not know is that a surprising number of film critics are friends or at least friendly; some, of course, are sworn enemies, but a number are engaged in regular discussion. The only reason that this is worth sharing is that it helps explain, if only a little, how criticism works in this country. (I'm fond of showing people what's behind the curtain.) There are all sorts of pressures, many unspoken and unacknowledged, that come with being a movie critic. There are agendas, ideologies, career factors, grudges, et cetera, at work....

I loved Eastwood's movie when I saw it at Cannes and wept copious tears (while sitting next to the N.Y. Times boyz, let me add gratuitously), but when the reviews and the gush started to pour forth, I just winced. What movie—even a movie as fine and as occasionally powerful as Mystic River—could live up to that hype? I understood when my non-critic friends started complaining, "Well, it wasn't that great."

Exercise your own critical faculties and go check it out [Couldn't they exercise their critical faculties by deciding that you're full of it, and not check it out?--ed. Well, yes, but that would just be... wrong somehow]

UPDATE: Some readers object to the vaguely leftish politics of the Movie Club participants. If that sort of thing truly puts you off, go read Julia Magnet's essay in the latest City Journal about the films of Whit Stillman.

posted by Dan at 02:55 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

January and February's book recommendations

I've been a bit tardy in updating the book recommendations -- still recovering from being Andrew Sullivan. So these recommendations will cover the next two months.

The international relations book for the next six weeks is Kenneth Dam's The Rules of the Global Game: A New Look at U.S. International Economic Policymaking. It's one of the primary textbooks for my U.S. Foreign Economic Policy class.

From an academic perspective, the book is a somewhat unusual recommendation -- there's not a lot of original theory or new models explaining either the global economy or U.S. economic policy. However, Dam's comparative advantage is formidable. First, his policy experience (OMB staffer under Nixon; Deputy Secretary of State under George Schultz; Deputy Secretary of the Treasury under Paul O'Neill) dwarfs that of any academic currently writing on the subject. Second, Dam's academic experience at the University of Chicago makes him singularly suited to translate the arcana of policy into an accessible format. Go check it out.

The general interest book is Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. This choice is partially inspired by a series of blog entries that Brad DeLong, Mark Kleiman, and Tom Spencer posted at the end of last month about living "through both the Fourth Great Awakening and the Second Gilded Age," as Mark put it. As I read this, I was ruminating about something Kevin Drum posted last month after hosting a blog dinner party:

Most lefty bloggers are actually pretty moderate liberals: me, Josh Marshall, Atrios, Matt Yglesias, Jeralyn Merritt, Brad DeLong, etc. (Atrios is a hardnosed partisan, but his politics are actually fairly centrist liberal. Surprise!) Most righty bloggers are actually libertarians, not conservatives.

I think Kevin's assessment is correct. What's missing from that political spectrum is anyone who would actually participate in any kind of religious activity that could be linked to a Great Awakening -- the evangelical community in particular. I wouldn't say that the leading lights of the blogosphere are exactly hostile to the devoutly religious. There might, however, be a gulf of understanding that needs to be bridged. The Fourth Great Awakening -- written by a Nobel prize-winning economic historian -- seems like a good start, in discussing the role that religious awakenings have played in American history.

Fogel's book is an interesting mix of economic and social history, with a partial explanation for the occurrence of religious revivals. It's also something that's been on my "need to read" list for some time. Click here for a precis of Fogel's argument, and here for his whiggish predictions for the future.

posted by Dan at 10:36 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, January 9, 2004

A small request

Via Josh Chafetz, I see that the 2004 Weblog Awards are accepting nominations.

Now, my small request is not to ask you to nominate this blog for any awards. But, I see that one of the categories is "Best article or essay about weblogs."

For that category, I humbly request you submit Erika Drezner's "My Life as a Blog Widow." Judging from some of the reaction it has received, I think it's touched a deeper chord than many of the press articles on the phenomenon.

Here endeth the request.

posted by Dan at 03:15 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

A hard sell

So the Bush administration is planning on going back to the moon, and then to Mars. When this was floated as a trial balloon last month, I wrote the following:

Given the fact that the current administration is racking up domestic spending obligations faster than Britney Spears racks up magazine covers, there is the minor question of cost....

The economic [rationale] rests on the innovations that would result from such a program. However, there are other, more cost-effective ways to do this instead going to Mars -- hell, just doubling government funds for basic research would probably achieve greater gains at lower costs....

I'd like to see a mission to Mars. I'd just like to see a lot of other things happen first.

Reading the Washington Post's description of the decision-making process, I'm even less sanguine:

The sources said Bush aides also view the initiative as a huge jobs program, and one that will stimulate business in the many parts of the country where space and military contractors are located.

"This is a boon for business and a boon for Texas," one official said, referring to the state where Bush was governor and the location of the Johnson Space Center, which is the home of mission control and the nerve center for human space flight.

The decision was controversial within the White House, with some aides arguing that it would make more sense to focus immediately on Mars, since humans have already landed on the moon and a Mars mission would build cleanly on the success of Spirit, the U.S. rover that landed safely on Mars last weekend. Bush himself settled the divisions, according to the sources, working from options that had been narrowed down by his senior adviser, Karl Rove.

One presidential adviser, who asked not to be identified, said, after discussing the initiative with administration officials, that the idea is "crazy" and mocked it as the "mission to Pluto."

"It costs a lot of money and we don't have money," the official said. "This is destructive of any sort of budget restraint." The official added that the initiative makes any rhetoric by Bush about fiscal restraint "look like a feint."

The fact that Rove -- and not Andy Card -- presented the policy options makes my blood run cold. [You saying that good policies are irreconcilable with good politics?--ed. No -- I'm saying that this is not a fiscally sane policy and appears to be ginned up entirely for political purposes]

UPDATE: Rand Simberg has more (link via Instapundit).

ANOTHER UPDATE: Gregg Easterbrook makes an amusing point about cost:

Spirit, the rover that just landed there, weighs half a ton. Spirit cost $410 million to build and place on Mars--and it's about the size of a refrigerator, and does not come back. Mars-mission proponents want to send something to the Red Planet the size of an office building, and bring it back.

posted by Dan at 11:03 AM | Comments (56) | Trackbacks (12)

Thursday, January 8, 2004

If Jerry Seinfeld was a dedicated blogger....

Is it just me, or have a lot of online news sites started parsing their stories into more than one page? It used to be just the New York Times, but now the Washington Post is doing it too.

Is this a sign of prestige? Am I, as a reader, supposed to be wowed by the fact I get to click a couple more times to look at the whole story? Is this going to make me think, "Wow, it took five clicks to read the whole story. That's quality journalism."

posted by Dan at 03:33 PM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (0)

Now this is bad economics

The opportunity cost of debating Brad DeLong over the operationalization of data sets is that truly stupid popular economic writing can slide by unscathed. Like the Senior Senator from New York, Chuck Schumer, who on Tuesday co-authored a New York Times op-ed that said the following:

The case for free trade is based on the British economist David Ricardo's principle of "comparative advantage" — the idea that each nation should specialize in what it does best and trade with others for other needs. If each country focused on its comparative advantage, productivity would be highest and every nation would share part of a bigger global economic pie.

However, when Ricardo said that free trade would produce shared gains for all nations, he assumed that the resources used to produce goods — what he called the "factors of production" — would not be easily moved over international borders. Comparative advantage is undermined if the factors of production can relocate to wherever they are most productive: in today's case, to a relatively few countries with abundant cheap labor. In this situation, there are no longer shared gains — some countries win and others lose.

What's wrong with this statement? Let's go to Noam Scheiber at TNR's &c.:

so-called factor immobility is NOT, in fact, one of the assumptions underlying the theoretical case for trade--at least not the way Schumer and Roberts seem to think it is. To see this, let's back up for a second. At its broadest level, the point of free trade is to expand the size of the global economic pie by eliminating production inefficiencies, which arise when one country tries to produce everything itself using only the "endowments" of capital and labor (i.e., machines and workers) it has within its borders. Now, there are two ways you can eliminate these inefficiencies: When it's not so easy to move machines and workers across borders, countries can specialize in the goods they produce most efficiently, which they then trade with one another. (We'll be more precise about what we mean by "most efficiently" in a second.) When it is easy to move machines and workers across borders, you don't have to specialize (at least not by country) and trade, because every country already has access to the most efficient machines and workers.

Put differently, you can either trade machines and workers (which is basically what you're doing when you're outsourcing), or you can trade the goods these machines and workers make. But, as a theoretical proposition, the two scenarios are EXACTLY THE SAME: They both maximize productive efficiency. Indeed, one of the great accomplishments of international trade theory, post David Ricardo, was to prove mathematically that trade in goods accomplishes the exact same thing, efficiency-wise, as trade in machines and workers.

David Adesnik has more on this as well, including links on the future of employment in the computer sector. [UPDATE: DeLong comments as well].

ANOTHER UPDATE: Michael Kinsley dissects the op-ed in Slate. Among the highlights:

Schumer and Roberts cling to the free-trade label and endorse the general principle while claiming it no longer applies because "the factors of production can relocate to wherever they are most productive." In fact, that makes the theory even more compelling. If the factors of production become more productive, the whole world becomes richer. If there is some explanation of how a society can get richer by denying itself the fruits of this process (and most likely curtailing the whole process itself, as others misguidedly retaliate), Schumer and Roberts do not offer or even hint at it....

But the real difference between traditional trade in heavy earth-bound objects and 21st-century trade in weightless electronic blips, or in sheer brainpower, is that the losers in new-style trade are more likely to be people that U.S. senators and fancy economic consultants actually know. These are people with advanced degrees and high incomes. Their incomes will likely be above average for our economy even if they are driven down by competition from poorer economies. Under these circumstances, denying the benefits of free trade to the whole nation—and denying opportunity to the rising middle class in developing countries—in order to protect the incomes of a relative few seems harder to justify, not easier, than it was back in the days when our biggest fear was Japanese cars.

This last point is one I have made before. The first point is spot-on. Going back to the op-ed, here are the sinister forces that, according to Schumer and Roberts, undercut the free-trade position:

[There has been] a seismic shift in the world economy brought on by three major developments. First, new political stability is allowing capital and technology to flow far more freely around the world. Second, strong educational systems are producing tens of millions of intelligent, motivated workers in the developing world, particularly in India and China, who are as capable as the most highly educated workers in the developed world but available to work at a tiny fraction of the cost. Last, inexpensive, high-bandwidth communications make it feasible for large work forces to be located and effectively managed anywhere.

More political stability. Better education. Lower communication costs.

Yeah, I can see how this devastates the free trade position.

[What about Joe Stigltz's gloomy op-ed on NAFTA on the same day? Aren't you going to pick on him?--ed. Well, according to Mark Kleiman, I'm supposed to tread carefully on the domain of other experts. But, I will point out that even Stiglitz acknowledges that Mexico's growth in GDP per capita since NAFTA's ratification is "better than in much of the rest of Latin America". Stiglitz also overlooks the political benefits of NAFTA in democratizing Mexican politics and improving the rule of law south of the border.]

posted by Dan at 03:01 PM | Comments (30) | Trackbacks (1)

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Howard Dean -- Democratic insider

The narrative about the Democratic primary over the past month has been that Dean represents an insurgency that threatens established Democratic party elites. In this post I said, "It's already clear that DC Democrats loathe and fear Dean."

This AP story suggests some revisionism may be in order:

Self-styled outsider Howard Dean holds the first lead in the chase for delegates for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he can thank party insiders for the early advantage, according to an Associated Press survey.

The former Vermont governor holds endorsements or pledges of support from 86 Democratic "superdelegates" elected officials and other Democratic leaders who will help nominate a candidate at this summer's convention.

Rival Dick Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader who has served as Missouri congressman for 28 years, has the backing of 58 superdelegates. Four-term Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has the support of 53....

In the survey, 598 of the 725 superdelegates listed by the Democratic National Committee were contacted. Of those, only 270 had endorsed a candidate. Another 328 said they were uncommitted or declined to answer, while 127 could not be reached.

Superdelegates are spread out across the country, so this does not necessarily reflect an absence of DC animus. At a minimum, however, it suggests that the Democratic establishment in the rest of the country feels sympatico with Dr. Dean.


UPDATE: It's a good day for Wesley Clark as well.

posted by Dan at 05:05 PM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Let the people read the links

Looking for more on today's TNR Online article?

I'll break these links down into theory vs. empirics:

Theory: The Thomas Schelling quote comes from his pathbreaking book, The Strategy of Conflict, chapter two (p. 22). Robert Putnam extended Schelling's analysis in an article for the Summer 1988 issue of International Organization entitled "Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: the Logic of Two-level Games." It's reprinted in a 1993 book devoted to the article, Double-Edged Diplomacy, edited by Peter Evans, Harold Jacobson, and Putnam.

A good book on what happens when revolutionary/radical groups seize power is Stephen M. Walt's Revolution and War.

Empirics: I've blogged recently about both Pakistan (click here as well) and Saudi Arabia. On Pakistan in particular, here's the latest story on their role in nuclear proliferation, and today's good news about warming relations in South Asia. Pakistan's role in nuclear proliferation. On Saudi Arabia, Michael Doran's analysis of Saudi internal politics can be found online at Foreign Affairs.

Max Boot ripped the Bush administration for coddling both states in this Los Angeles Times op-ed.

The Samantha Power quote came from her review of Noam Chomsky's book in the New York Times Book Review:

As for Iran, NRO has a nice story on popular attidues towards the regime -- and towards the United States -- in the aftermath of the Bam earthquake. One section:

Though the European aid workers are treated with respect, they also receive a great deal of aloofness. The arrival of a U.S. colonel and his aides in Hercules C130 military transport planes, however, proved to be a raging success. Iranians had gathered in the Kerman airport to greet them with arms full of flowers, shouting, "AMRIKAAYEE...KHOSH AMADEE" (American, you're welcome). Iranians hugged them and hung on to them as if their "saviors" had come. Departing Americans were met with pleas from the crowd, begging them to stay. One of the American aid workers involved said that she was shocked and deeply moved to receive such a reception.

Khatami and Khamenei's visits to Bam, however, lasted no more than a scant hour each. Though they were surrounded by "walls" of bodyguards, they could not be shielded from harangues and insults hurled at them. "It is your fault this happened to us," one woman cried. "You knew that this could happen and you liars never warned us." The hatred for the regime reached a fever pitch as it became clear that, in fact, all the information about the seismic activities and dangers of the region had been made available to the clerics for years, and they had simply ignored it.

Finally, in response to James Joyner's request to flesh out "a policy of aggressively supporting democratization," I'm talking about a menu of choices that include linking security assistannce, intelligence-sharing, foreign aid, and market access to improvements in human rights and democracy-building.

posted by Dan at 03:53 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (1)

Let the people vote

My latest TNR Online essay is up. It's an argument for encouraging democratization in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, despite the strong anti-American elements in both countries. Go check it out.

Footnotes and documentation to follow this afternoon.

posted by Dan at 10:09 AM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (1)

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Hiss. Hiss, I say.

Brad DeLong is pissed off:

Daniel Drezner screams and leaps, fangs bared, for Paul Krugman's jugular. However, he trips over a tree root and falls off a cliff....

Misrepresent somebody [Krugman] as saying something they did not say. Attack them for it. And then accuse them of "distortions." Way to go, Dan: you're now at the loony hack level. You ought to at least try to be better than that.

What could prompt Brad to say this?

It all starts with this post I wrote last week while subbing at the Daily Dish. The relevant portion:

CORRECTING KRUGMAN: In his Tuesday column, Paul Krugman made the following aside:

[H]ow weak is the labor market? The measured unemployment rate of 5.9 percent isn't that high by historical standards, but there's something funny about that number. An unusually large number of people have given up looking for work, so they are no longer counted as unemployed, and many of those who say they have jobs seem to be only marginally employed. Such measures as the length of time it takes laid-off workers to get new jobs continue to indicate the worst job market in 20 years. (emphasis added)

Krugman's assertion here is that the number of discouraged workers ("those who have given up looking for work") plus the number of part-time workers who wish they were full-time ("only marginally employed") are unusually high by historical standards.

I then linked to Don Luskin and Bureau of Labor Statistics data suggesting that the numbers of discouraged workers and those who work part-time for economic reasons are not unusually high.

Brad's beef is with my operationalization of what Krugman said:

There are, of course, two big problems with Drezner's "argument." When Krugman writes "an unusually large number of people have given up looking for work" he is tracking the flow of people who used to be employed into out-of-the-labor force status, and is referring to a much larger category of people who have dropped out of the labor force over the past three years than just the Bureau of Labor Statistics's "Discouraged Workers" category. When Krugman writes "many of those who say they have jobs seem to be only marginally employed" he is referring to a large group that has nothing at all to do with those who are working part-time for economic reasons. He is referring to those who tell the BLS household survey interviewers that they are working but for whom there is no corresponding employer telling the BLS payroll survey that they have somebody working for them

Does Krugman say that those who have "given up looking for work" are in the BLS "discouraged worker" category? No. Does Krugman say the words "discouraged workers" at all? No. Does Krugman say that those "marginally attached" are in the BLS "part-time for economic reasons" category? No. Does Krugman say the words "part-time for economic reasons" at all? No.

It is true that anybody who has been watching the labor market over the past three years--and seen the remarkably large fall in employment coupled with the remarkably small rise in the unemployment rate--will know that what Paul Krugman wrote was completely correct: this recession looks small as measured by the rise in unemployment, but it looks large as measured by the fall in employment as a share of the population or the duration of unemployment. Anybody who has been watching will know that Daniel Drezner's fangs-bared attack is fake and loony.

Brad then presents data showing that by his operationalization of Krugman's words, the employment situation looks recession-like.

How to respond?

One way is to point out that Brad doesn't directly address the point of the post -- that Krugman's claim that this job market is unusually bad is an exaggeration. Brad's data suggests that the percentage of people not working has dropped by a fair amount since 2000 -- but it's still higher than Bush I recession levels, and way higher than Reagan recession levels. Part of this may be due to greater female participation in the work force -- and part of it may be due to the economy being in better shape than it was in 1990 or 1984. Similarly, the discrepancy between the household survey and the payroll survey -- which Brad displays in this post -- is still less now than it was in 1990. As to what explains fluctuations in this number, even DeLong confesses puzzlement.

My primary concern in the Krugman post was the word "unusual" and "the worst job market in 20 years." I wasn't saying that the employment situation was rosy -- merely that it was not as bad as Krugman asserted. The measures I used confirmed this.

Another response is to use DeLong's logic right back at him. Does Krugman say that those who have "given up looking for work" are "people who have dropped out of the labor force over the past three years"? No. Does Krugman say the words "over the past three years" at all? No. Does Krugman say that those "marginally attached" are in the category of "those who tell the BLS household survey interviewers that they are working but for whom there is no corresponding employer telling the BLS payroll survey that they have somebody working for them"? No. Does Krugman say the words "payroll survey" at all? No.

So which operationalization is correct? This depends on whether you're talking about Krugman's intent versus what Krugman has written on the page. If you go by intent, it's far more likely that DeLong knows what Krugman meant than myself. DeLong has a Ph.D. in economics -- I possess a measly M.A. DeLong is pretty tight with Krugman -- I'm not. Maybe they had an exchage where Krugman said, "Yes Brad, when I say 'marginally attached,' I'm talking about those who tell the BLS household survey interviewers that they are working but for whom there is no corresponding employer telling the BLS payroll survey that they have somebody working for them."

However, I couldn't read Krugman's mind when I wrote what I wrote. All I could do was read what he wrote. This is a danger with popular writing on economics -- plain language can be interpreted in a number of different ways. I think the operationalizations I used are valid and straightforward -- but Brad's are certainly plausible. So are Arnold Kling's, for that matter.

A final point about Brad's language -- the "screams and leaps, fangs bared" deal. This implies that I engaged in massive rhetorical overkill in my post on Krugman.

In the original post, there were no exclamation points. No ALL CAPITAL LETTER statements. No adjectives to describe Krugman. I didn't impugn his motives. Unlike Luskin, I didn't say Krugman lied -- I said I thought he was wrong, without ascribing intent. When Brad e-mailed me to say that there was another way to interpret Krugman's paragraph, I linked to his points (as soon as Blogger would permit) in an update to the original post (by the way, the term "quasi-response" was not meant to say that Brad's posts were weak, but rather that he never linked to my original post, so it wasn't a direct response. In retrospect, "indirect" might have been the better word choice).

If this is what Brad means by "screams and leaps, fangs bared," he's way more thin-skinned than I had previously thought.

UPDATE: DeLong responds, as does Mark Kleiman. Both Kleiman (directly) and DeLong (sarcastically) say my rhetoric was inflammatory. As Kleiman puts it:

The point that Drezner misses is that he (more politely than Luskin) accused Krugman of either incompetence or dishonesty in a matter within Krugman's professional competence. "Krugman is either wrong or has a different definition of 'unusual' than the rest of the English-speaking world. Distortions such as this ..."

Not only are such charges unlikely to be correct, they are, if believed, extraordinarily damaging. That's two good reasons for making them only hesitantly and retracting them quickly when they turn out to have been incorrect.

You know what, I'll meet them halfway -- instead of "distortion," which does hint at intent, perhaps I should have used "error."

posted by Dan at 05:43 PM | Comments (50) | Trackbacks (12)

Good retail news

Before the end of the year there was a lot of murmuring about the holiday shopping season being subpar. Just to pick a name out of a hat, Paul Krugman wrote a week ago:

It was a merry Christmas for Sharper Image and Neiman Marcus, which reported big sales increases over last year's holiday season. It was considerably less cheery at Wal-Mart and other low-priced chains. We don't know the final sales figures yet, but it's clear that high-end stores did very well, while stores catering to middle- and low-income families achieved only modest gains.

Based on these reports, you may be tempted to speculate that the economic recovery is an exclusive party, and most people weren't invited. You'd be right.

Well, the data are coming in, and things look pretty good across the board. From today's Chicago Tribune:

The world's biggest retail trade group expects the 2003 holiday season to be the most robust since 1999, and better yet, the fun may not be over.

The National Retail Federation believes holiday revenue will rise 5.7 percent from the year-ago period, the fastest growth in four years, and feels the industry can sustain its momentum in 2004 as the economy continues to perk up.

Read the whole thing -- there's promising news about employment in the retail sector as well.

And here's the National Retail Foundation's (NRF) press release on the topic, which has the following quote:

“This has clearly been a much stronger holiday season than last year,” said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin. “Consumers have not only shown that they are ready to spend, but it appears they are spreading their spending more equally among diverse retail segments. This is a great sign for the industry.” (emphasis added)

Slightly off-topic, the NRF also reports robust online sales:

More than half (59%) of retailers reported revenue growth for the 2003 online holiday season of 25 percent or higher. Almost a third (30%) reported revenue increases of 50 percent or more.

Online shopping was also a positive experience for consumers during the 2003 eHoliday, with 89 percent of shoppers somewhat or very satisfied with their online buying experience, up from 84 percent last year.

UPDATE: The New York Times has more mixed news:

Store sales for last month, measured against the same stores open in December 2002, rose 3.7 percent, according to the Bloomberg composite same-store sales index. Last year, called one of the worst in decades by analysts, holiday sales rose 2.2 percent.

While the numbers released yesterday were better than last year's, they were less than the double-digit turnaround retailers had hoped for in September, before three major snowstorms hit the Northeast, and buyers told pollsters there was no must-have toy or item of clothing.

At the same time, this was the most interesting phenomenon in the story:

All told, the discount stores that strived for the high-end seemed to do well. Costco, the discounter that offers some high-end branded goods at a discount, rose 8 percent in December, while Target, which some analysts say has lost a lot of its chic image, rose 4 percent.

posted by Dan at 10:19 AM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (1)

Monday, January 5, 2004

A very important post about... Britney Spears


I'm sorry, I just haven't been able to focus today because of Britney Spears' marriage/annulment. What could explain this sort of tabloid celebrity behavior by such a... celebrity?

I think it was that Christina Aguilera. According to the Associated Press:

[Spears] relates a story about seeing Aguilera, her former friend and fellow Mouseketeer, for the first time in two years: "She comes up to me in a club in front of all these people and tries to put her tongue down my throat!

"I say, 'It's good to see you,' and she goes, 'Well, you're not being real with me.' I was like, 'Well, Christina, what's your definition of real? Going up to girls and kissing them after you haven't seen them for two years?'

That and a liplock from Madonna? You can witness the bad morals spreading from mouth to mouth!

More seriously, Entertainment Weekly (subscription required) had a great November cover story -- that's the cover above -- that chronicled the beginning of Mariah Carey-like behavior. One section:

[E]ver since her breakup last year with first love Justin Timberlake (who later cast a Britney look-alike in a none-too-flattering role for his ''Cry Me a River'' video), and that much-publicized but never-materialized yearlong hiatus she promised to take, there have been plenty of highly visible symptoms. Like her tear earlier this year through virtually half the nightclubs in New York (where she couldn't even light up a cigarette without tabloids making a huge fuss). Those rumors of a fling with the balding 32-year-old Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst were pretty shocking too. (Durst went on ''Howard Stern'' and gallantly described Spears' pubic region to millions of listeners.) Add to all that the legitimate anxiety over her musical staying power.

And throw in all the other stresses and strains of being the world's most scrutinized 21-year-old pop star -- the grueling video shoots, the countless interviews, the big-dollar endorsements, the endless grind of disrobing for magazine covers, not to mention the hurtful backlash from conservative Brit-haters like Kendel Ehrlich, the governor of Maryland's wife, who announced her desire to ''shoot'' Spears (while speaking at a domestic-violence conference, of all places) -- and it's easy to see why the poor girl got the flu.

''She probably needs to get laid,'' Spears says, rolling her eyes, when asked about that trigger-happy governor's wife. ''These parents, they think I'm a role model for their kids, that their kids look at me as some sort of idol. But it's the parents' job to make sure their kids don't turn out that shallow. It's the parents who should be teaching their kids how to behave. That's not my responsibility. I'm not responsible for your kid.''

Even more seriously, Andrew Sullivan notes:

[C]an you not see how something like Britney Spears' insta-marriage in Las Vegas might infuriate long-committed gay couples who, even now, don't have a shred of the rights Ms Spears enjoyed for a few days? It is one thing for people to declare their commitment to traditional marriage - i.e. procreative, life-long, heterosexual. It is another thing when that ideal has almost no relationship to civil marriage as it now exists for straights; and when it is nevertheless used to deny gay people access to the institution. Over the holidays, I found myself watching all those VH1 list shows, and happened across the top ten or twenty (I forget which) shortest Hollywood marriages in history. Ha ha ha. We live a world in which Britney Spears just engaged in something "sacred" (in the president's words), where instant and joke hetero marriages and divorces are a subject of titillation, and where a decades-long monogamous lesbian marriage is a threat to civilization as we know it. Please.

I wonder if Britney is still Karl Rove's dream voter.

UPDATE: Scrappleface has more. And since Instapundit says this is "the only Britney Spears wedding post you need to read," I'll also link to the Smoking Gun, which has Spears' annulment papers.

posted by Dan at 05:47 PM | Comments (62) | Trackbacks (9)

Drudge gets results from

Matt Drudge writes about another ad at -- as part of their contect for the best 30-second attack ad against Bush -- that compares Bush to Hitler. The key part:

GRAPHIC: Hitler With Hand Raised
BACKGROUND: Sig Heil! Sig Heil!

GRAPHIC: President Bush With Hand Raised At Inauguration
BACKGROUND: Sig Heil! Sig Heil!

This was (NOT: SEE CORRECTION) one of's fifteen finalists for the ad competition.

Or was it? If you now go to MoveOn's page of commercial finalists, you will note that the ad in question appears to have been yanked. It should have the url:

But the sequence of ads skips from id=01 to id=03.

Damn!! I thought I had my first Godwin award nominee!!

Well, at this rate, I seriously doubt that the Nazi analogy well will run dry in 2004.

CORRECTION: has released a statement saying that the Hitler ad was never a finalist:

None of these was our ad, nor did their appearance constitute endorsement or sponsorship by Voter Fund. They will not appear on TV. We do not support the sentiment expressed in the two Hitler submissions. They were voted down by our members and the public, who reviewed the ads and submitted nearly 3 million critiques in the process of choosing the 15 finalist entries.

We agree that the two ads in question were in poor taste and deeply regret that they slipped through our screening process. In the future, if we publish or broadcast raw material, we will create a more effective filtering system.

My apologies for the error.

UPDATE: Ralph Peters is definitely a nominee:

I can predict with certainty that Dean's Internet Gestapo will pounce on this column, twisting the facts and vilifying the writer, just as they do when anyone challenges Howard the Coward.

Free speech, you see, is only for the left.

Dean wants to muzzle his Democratic competitors, too. He believes the Democratic National Committee should shut them up. His followers try to intimidate other presidential aspirants by surrounding the cars delivering them to their rallies and chanting to drown out their speech. Of course, Dean denies any foreknowledge or blame.

These are the techniques employed by Hitler's Brownshirts. Had Goebbels enjoyed access to the internet, he would have used the same swarm tactics as Dean's Flannelshirts.

posted by Dan at 12:45 PM | Comments (49) | Trackbacks (10)

What's the difference?

Howard Dean caught a lot of flak last month for saying he didn't particularly care where Osama bin Laden was tried.

I raise this again because of something Wesley Clark said in James Traub's New York Times Magazine cover story on the Democrats and foreign policy (which, by the way, seemed to me to be a decent piece that was completely scrambled by Saddam's capture):

When I asked Clark how he would have behaved differently from Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 -- we were sitting on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport beside his campaign plane -- he said, ''You could have gone to the United Nations, and you could have asked for an international criminal tribunal on Osama bin Laden,'' thus formally declaring bin Laden a war criminal. ''You could then have gone to NATO and said: 'O.K., we want NATO for this phase. We want you to handle not only military, we want you to handle cutting of fund flow, we want you to handle harmonizing laws.''' NATO had, in fact, declared the terrorist attack a breach of the common defense pact, but the Bush administration had brushed it aside. Clark said that he would have made Afghanistan a Kosovo-style war. (emphasis added)

Dean said he didn't care where bin Laden was tried. In his comment, Clark seems to care a great deal -- he wants/wanted bin Laden tried in an international tribunal.

I have no polling data to back this up, but my gut instinct is that a majority of Americans would want to see Osama tried in the U.S. So here's my question -- why isn't Clark catching the same hell as Dean?

Possible answers:

1) What really attracted criticism of Dean was the equivocation about bin Laden's guilt;

2) Dean's the frontrunner, ergo he gets more flak;

3) Dean's statement fits the dominant narrative of him being a foreign policy neophyte, while Clark's statement does not fit the dominant narrative of him being a foreign policy professional -- therefore, the latter quote gets overlooked.

4) Whatever you think of Clark's answer, it's clear that he cares about the question, and thinks the answer has important foreign policy implications. Dean thought the question to be unimportant.

5) It's early in the news cycle.

posted by Dan at 01:25 AM | Comments (44) | Trackbacks (1)

Sunday, January 4, 2004

How to make professors rebel

A while back, in commenting on the prevalence of fictional academics bedding their students, I wrote:

There is no fighting it; if a fictional character is a white male professor, nine times out of ten he’s sleeping with the co-ed.

Why is this? Probably because, in the absence of illicit sex, our jobs appear to be intensely boring to the outside world.

Sleeping with students is not just for fictional treatments anymore -- it's also a trope for amusing nonfiction discussions.

Laura Kipnis has a droll Slate essay on how colleges are dealing with professor-student relationships. My favorite part is when the profs rebel at a sensitivity training:

I signed up for a university sexual-harassment workshop. (Also two e-mail communiqués from the dean advised that nonattendance would be noted.) And what an education I received—though probably not the intended one.

Things kicked off with a "Sexual Harassment Pretest," administered by David, an earnest mid-50ish psychologist, and Beth, an earnest young woman with a masters in social work. It consisted of unanswerable true-false questions like: "If I make sexual comments to someone and that person doesn't ask me to stop, then I guess that my behavior is probably welcome." Everyone seemed grimly determined to play along—probably hoping to get out by cocktail hour—until we were handed a printed list of "guidelines." No. 1: "Do not make unwanted sexual advances."

Someone demanded querulously from the back, "But how do you know they're unwanted until you try?" (OK, it was me.) David seemed oddly flummoxed by the question, and began anxiously jangling the change in his pants pocket. "Do you really want me to answer that?" he asked.

Another person said helpfully, "What about smoldering glances?" Everyone laughed. A theater professor guiltily admitted to complimenting a student on her hairstyle that very afternoon (one of the "Do Nots" on the pretest)—but wondered whether as a gay male, not to have complimented her would be grounds for offense. He started mimicking the female student, tossing her mane around in a "notice my hair" manner. People shouted suggestions for other pretest scenarios for him to perform. Rebellion was in the air. Someone who studies street gangs whispered to me, "They've lost control of the room." David was jangling his change so frantically you had to strain to hear what anyone was saying.

My attention glued to David's pocket, I recalled a long-forgotten pop psychology guide to body language that identified change-jangling as an unconscious masturbation substitute.

Note to self -- do not jangle change when lecturing.

For more on professor-student relationships, see Glenn Reynolds and Amanda Butler. My opinion on the general mattter most closely mirrors Beth Plocharczyk's. [So what about your opinion specific to you?--ed. My opinion is that I'm happily married to an exceptionally witty and attractive woman -- and she can operate pruning shears. Good answer!--ed.]

posted by Dan at 10:46 PM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (1)

Being Andrew Sullivan's wife

Bet you never thought you'd see that post title!

This special guest post is by my lovely wife Erika, who has been tremendously supportive of my blogging efforts this week -- which means that it's payback time:

MY LIFE AS A BLOG WIDOW -- by Erika Drezner

It’s not that I’m anti-blog or anything…

Dan’s blog has been something of a test. I can’t remember him being so consistently distracted since he was writing his dissertation. We were newly dating then, I would catch him sort of staring off in the distance when we were talking and I’d say, “you’re thinking about the dissertation again, aren’t you?” Now it is not so much the thinking as the doing.

For example, the scene in our house on an average day: Our son is yelling for something, dinner is on the stove – which, to be fair, Dan likely cooked – the dog is throwing up on the carpet. I look for my husband as some sort of help and he is tethered to the computer. I am thoroughly convinced that he will blog through the birth of any future children. I think I may have to ask Andrew Sullivan to coach me through my next delivery.

And it would serve him right. As I have said, being married to one blogger has been difficult enough. Not only does my husband spend time working on this thing, but people actually read it – no surprise to you, dear reader, but a hell of a shock to me. I’ll listen to what Dan’s saying maybe half the time – on a good day.

And I’m surprised by the audience members: a friend’s dad, my closest friend from college, our neighbors. The blog recently came up at the condo board meeting! Don’t these people own televisions?

Now in our small community of academics and students, most of whom are liberal, everyone knows what Dan thinks. “Drezner is a Republican, Drezner worked for W., Drezner is a Halliburton apologist…” I constantly get dirty looks on the street. As a liberal, I know that many liberals think that Republicans are people who eat babies and kick puppies. For the record, I have never seen Dan do either, and I have watched carefully.

If all that wasn’t enough, Mr. Andrew Sullivan decides he needs a vacation. We all know that Andrew Sullivan is an important guy. He’s a senior editor at The New Republic. TNR is a very important publication. All you have to do is see the movie Shattered Glass during which the audience is assured, at least twice, “The New Republic is the in-flight magazine of Air Force One!” So naturally it is a pretty big deal to guest blog for Andrew Sullivan. Who would say no?

And truth be told, Dan has some journalistic tendencies. He started writing for the Hartford Courant as a high schooler. His work was very popular with anyone who interacted with my mother-in-law on a regular basis. She actually carried his clippings around in her purse and showed them to everyone. If you don’t believe me, you need just ask any of the veteran cashiers at the Crown Kosher Supermarket in West Hartford. (By the way, the Crown does an excellent white fish salad, if you’re ever in West Hartford.)

Well, if you read the blog, you know what has happened. It’s been a tough week.

Andrew Sullivan, if you're reading this, some flowers would be nice.

NOTE: the comments on this post do not reflect the opinions of the blog's proprietor.

posted by Dan at 04:58 PM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (5)