Saturday, July 10, 2004

Joseph Wilson's eroding credibility

I've been pretty hard in this space on l'affaire Plame. So it seems only fair to point out that Joseph Wilson's credibility has taken a serious hit with the release of the Senate intelligence committee report. According to the Washington Post's Susan Schmidt:

Former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, dispatched by the CIA in February 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq sought to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program with uranium from Africa, was specifically recommended for the mission by his wife, a CIA employee, contrary to what he has said publicly.

Wilson last year launched a public firestorm with his accusations that the administration had manipulated intelligence to build a case for war. He has said that his trip to Niger should have laid to rest any notion that Iraq sought uranium there and has said his findings were ignored by the White House.

Wilson's assertions -- both about what he found in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information -- were undermined yesterday in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report.

The panel found that Wilson's report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts. And contrary to Wilson's assertions and even the government's previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence that made its way into 16 fateful words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address....

The report also said Wilson provided misleading information to The Washington Post last June. He said then that he concluded the Niger intelligence was based on documents that had clearly been forged because "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong."

"Committee staff asked how the former ambassador could have come to the conclusion that the 'dates were wrong and the names were wrong' when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports," the Senate panel said. Wilson told the panel he may have been confused and may have "misspoken" to reporters. The documents -- purported sales agreements between Niger and Iraq -- were not in U.S. hands until eight months after Wilson made his trip to Niger.

Josh Marshall argues that Schmidt is just parroting Republican staffers -- as opposed to Josh, who would never just parrot Democratic staffers.

Marshall approvingly links to a Knight-Ridder report by James Kuhnhenn entitled "Ex-ambassador didn't 'debunk' Iraq-Niger deal." That's not exactly a friendly headline for Wilson. Kuhnhenn does not go as far as Schmidt in debunking Wilson -- but then again, Marshall fails to acknowledge that Wilson apparently lied to the Washington Post last June.

Marshall makes a valid point when he says:

There's no 'challenging the bona fides of a political opponent' exception to the law in question. While Plame's alleged role may have some political traction, it's legally irrelevant. Government officials are not allowed to disclose the identity of covert intelligence agents, whether they feel like they have a good reason or not.

Nevertheless, there's a reason this has political traction. The apparent disconnect between what Wilson said in his report versus what he said in June 2003 -- combined with Plame's role in hiring Wilson in the first place, contrary to previous reports -- make it appear that both of them were lying in order to try to embrrass the administration.

This does not excuse whoever leaked Plame's identity to Novak. It does, however, provide an more understandable motivation than simple intimidation.

UPDATE: Pejman Yousefzadeh has a round-up of links in addition to his own analysis on Wilson. Greg Djerejian and Tom Maguire are also essential reading on this front.

posted by Dan at 04:23 PM | Comments (85) | Trackbacks (4)

Trade and the productivity puzzle

In recent days and weeks, in various venues, Brad DeLong, Arnold Kling, and Virginia Postrel have stressed the importance of elevated productivity growth in the American economy. To quote DeLong:

On the structural side, the American economy has been growing fast over the past four years. The productive potential of the American economy has grown at an extremely rapid pace. But the rapid growth has not been the result of high investment (more capital). In fact, the rate of investment has been markedly slower than in the late 1990s. It has also not been the result of any action taken by the Bush Administration....

This story of positive structural changes in the American economy – the very rapid growth of potential output – is the big story about the economy during the past four years. It's important both at the macro level – why is output-per-man-hour 20 percent higher than it was five years ago? – and at the micro level – how are people today doing their jobs and being 30 percent more productive than their predecessors of a decade ago? The news media aren't covering this well. Yet it's the really big story about the economy in the Twenty-First century.

I've also recently blogged about this topic here and here.

However, as a public service of, I thought it worth linking to important and accessible discussions about the current productivity boom. Federal Reserve Vice-President Roger W. Ferguson gave a speech two days ago on the topic that's worth reading.

Shorter Ferguson -- the incredibly elevated productivity boom of the last three years is a temporary artifact of the recent economic downturn, and is not likely to last. On the other hand, the trend increase in productivity that's occurred since the early nineties is likely to persist for some time.

Of course, Ferguson has caveats to his prognostication. Here's one of them:

Although the exhaustion of technological possibilities seems unlikely to slow trend productivity growth, adverse changes in the economic, legal, and financial environment could threaten the longevity of the current productivity boom. For example, economists have long noted that free trade--and the specialization and economies of scale that it affords--fosters productivity increases. That our most recent productivity boom occurred against a backdrop of freer trade and increased globalization is likely no coincidence. However, the momentum for the liberalization of global trade now appears to be facing strong resistance. A halt in the movement toward freer trade or outright backsliding, such as the erection of new barriers to the trade of goods or services, would endanger the sustainability of the current productivity boom. Some observers believe that security-enhancing limitations on the international flow of capital, labor, and goods in response to an increased terrorist threat could have similar effects.

Read the whole speech.

posted by Dan at 12:59 AM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 9, 2004

Why Capturing the Friedmans freaked me out

Like David Bernstein, I watched Capturing the Friedmans last night and have not been able to not shake the heebie-jeebies since then. The reason?


The movie is about the bizarre case of Arnold Friedman, an award-winning teacher who lived with his wife and three children in Great Neck, NY. He tutored children in piano and computers on the side. In the late eighties, Friedman was arrested for solicitation of child pornography. Nassau County police started to investigate, and eventually charged Friedman and his 19-year old sone Jesse with sodomy and sexual abuse of minors. Eerily, during this entire episode, the family videoaped a lot of their deliberations about what to do. The documentary consists mostly of those videotapes plus contemporary interviews of the principals involved in the case.

After watching the movie, you come away convinced of two things:

1) Arnold Friedman is a pedophile who has sexually abused young children;

2) Arnold Friedman was, in all likelihood, innocent of the charges he faced.

For more on why I think this, read more from Debbie Nathan's Village Voice story (she appeared in Capturing the Friedmans as a talking head) and Harvey A. Silverglate and Carl Takei's discussion of the extras in the DVD version of the film.

What's so disturbing about the film is that watching it, I found myself desperately wanting Friedman to be guilty. However, it becomes clear that the dearth of physical evidence, combined with the questionable techniques employed in extracting information from alleged victims, raises a reasonable doubt about the Friedmans' guilt. Maybe something untoward happened, maybe not -- one has to think there's a high likelihood that Friedman would have molested a child in the future. All that said, the prosecution's version of events seems to stretch credulity. However, just because I want something to be true doesn't mean it is true.

Another reason I can't get the movie out of my head is the release of the Senate report on pre-war intelligence about Iraq. Here's a summary from the Financial Times.

The report blasts the intelligence community because it "ignored evidence that did not fit their preconceived notion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction." However, the report finds that "no evidence that intelligence analysts were subjected to overt political pressure to tailor their findings," according to the New York Times.

Conservatives are outraged that the intel community suffered from such groupthink. Liberals like Josh Marshall are outraged because their groupthink that the Bush team browbeat the intelligence analysts found no support in the report.

In other words, a lot of people are disturbed because their preconceived notions of the turth did not find any empirical support.

Those outraged on both sides of the aisle should rent Capturing the Friedmans, and then take a good hard look at the evidence they've got to back up their assumptions.

UPDATE: the following paragraphs jumped out in Mike Dorning's story on the Senae report in the Chicago Tribune:

The U.S. was handicapped in accurately assessing Iraqi weapons programs, the committee found, because intelligence agencies had not made development of Iraqi sources a top priority. Instead, spy agencies depended on UN weapons inspectors to collect information for them until the inspectors were thrown out in 1998.

Consequently, after that the U.S. did not have a single human intelligence source of its own inside Iraq collecting information about its weapons programs, according to the report.

The report said intelligence officials attributed the difficulty in developing sources to the lack of an official U.S government presence such as an embassy to provide cover for clandestine intelligence case officers. The panel said the spy agencies appeared to have concluded it was too risky to send in an intelligence officer without official cover.

An idle question: if the CIA thought sending an intelligence agent to Iraq without official cover was too risky, is there anywhere the CIA would be willing to take this risk? What is the cost of this risk-aversion?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Matt Yglesias thinks I should know better:

This makes it sound like the political pressure theory is just something Josh cooked up sitting in his armchair at the R Street Starbucks but there are some serious issues to grapple with here.

The political pressure meme is supported by original reporting in anti-war liberal magazines like The American Prospect, The Nation, and Mother Jones by Jason Vest, Bob Dreyfuss, Laura Rozen and others, while pro-war liberal magazines like The New Yorker and The New Republic have printed original reporting on this subject by Seymor Hersh, John Judis, Spencer Ackerman and others. Perhaps these people are all wrong -- being misled by their sources, say -- but it's not some crazy idea they made up one morning.

I certainly wasn't trying to give the impression that Matt got, and I agree on the extent of the reportage here. However, the point of connecting this post to Capturing the Friedmans was that -- as in that movie -- a massive amount of circumstantial evidence can still lead to an incorrect conclusion. It was logical to assume that, since Saddam Hussein had attempted multiple times to acquire WMD, he'd be doing so post-9/11. The exile reports merely buttressed the preconception. Among those who believe the Bush administration to be a bullying, illiberal, overly power-maximizing bunch, I can easily see this meme being the logical conclusion as well. That doesn't guarantee that it' true, however.

posted by Dan at 03:38 PM | Comments (33) | Trackbacks (0)

Don't rush me off the fence, part II

Virginia Postrel argues that fence-straddlers like me should resist the decision to despise George W. Bush because all the cool academics do it (Jacob Levy effectively defends himself against charges of trendiness).

More substantively, she argues that a Kerry administration would expand the size of government even more than a second Bush term:

Vote for Kerry if you must, folks. But don't pretend you're doing it because Bush's economic policies are insufficiently free market or fiscally responsible. Kerry wouldn't be any better on economics. He'd be worse.

Tyler Cowen supplies a counterargument. Some of it is compelling, but this part baffles me:

I look less at what politicians say, and more at what kind of coalition they would have to build to rule. The high domestic spending of Bush I take as a sign of perceived political weakness ("we need to buy more allies"), rather than a reflection of Bush's ideology.

Huh? This is an administration that controlled all three branches of government for a majority of the first term -- and they felt confident enough in their political position to piss off Jim Jeffords less than three months into office. Compared to most post-war governments, the Bush administration had fewer constraints on its governing coalition.

Meanwhile Robert Tagorda argues that Kerry's selection of Edwards hints at a more protectionist Kerry administration:

Whatever his overall record, Edwards is now associated with these "trade-bashing noises." Nobody believes that Edwards adds to the Democratic Party's national-security profile, right? He brings excitement, charisma, and message -- the "Two Americas," of which a skeptical attitude toward free trade is a part.

However, Ryan Lizza argues in The New Republic that this is a rhetorical smokescreen (thanks to this anonymous link):

The one major policy difference between Kerry and Edwards during the primaries was over free trade. Edwards attacked Kerry's vote for nafta, but, notably, he never called for its repeal and his criticism always smacked more of opportunism than of conviction. He didn't raise the issue strenuously until after Richard Gephardt was gone from the race, when he saw an opening with organized labor and working-class voters on Kerry's left. These attacks on free trade were an awkward fit with the rest of Edwards's middle-class, New Democrat agenda, and they will clearly not be a major feature of the Kerry-Edwards rhetoric.

The more I think about my choice, the more this election boils down to four questions:

1) Which candidate will prove most successful in prosecuting the War on Terror?

2) Which candidate is more likely to finish the job in Iraq?

3) Which do I prefer, a moderate increase in government spending accompsnied by a massive increase in the budget deficit, or a massive increase in government spending accompanied by a moderate decrease in the budget deficit?

4) Which John Kerry -- the internationalist or the populist -- would govern his foreign economic policy? Which George Bush -- the guy who talks a good game on trade or the guy who slaps steel tariffs on when he's got an 85% approval rating -- would have the upper hand in a second term?


UPDATE: Ezra Klein gives his answers to my Four Questions.

Roger L. Simon weighs in on the War on Terror and rebuts Mickey Kaus' line of argumentation.

On my first question, this Kerry answer on Larry King Live is not comforting:

KING: Let's get to, first thing's first, news of the day. Tom Ridge warned today about al Qaeda plans of a large-scale attack on the United States, didn't increase the -- do you see any politics in this? What's your reaction?

KERRY: Well, I haven't been briefed yet, Larry. They have offered to brief me; I just haven't had time. But all Americans are united in our efforts to defeat terrorism.

Later on, Kerry says he'll get briefed "tomorrow or the next day." On the other hand, this Washington Post story on Edwards' foreign policy background makes me believe that he does get the significance of the war on terrorism (link via Jack O'Toole).

[So your qualms about the administration's competence in foreign policy have been resolved?--ed. Hardly. I remain on the fence.]

posted by Dan at 12:10 PM | Comments (97) | Trackbacks (9)

Thursday, July 8, 2004

Rational discourse 1, conspiracy-mongering 0

What happens when a sober policy analyst who lives on the planet Earth tries to debate a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist?

Slate has the answer. For the past week, Rachel Bronson (a senior fellow and director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Craig Unger (author of House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties and featured player in Fahrenheit 9/11) have been debating the U.S.-Saudi relationship in a Slate Dialogue. The specific question: "How Does the Saudi Relationship With the Bush Family Affect U.S. Foreign Policy?"

Although I doubt this was her intent, Bronson pretty much wipes the floor with Unger. While critical of the Bush administration, her comments, when paired next to Unger, makes the latter's theory and evidence collapse like a house of cards. It also clarifies the important distinction between conducting a serious critique of the administration's Middle East policy (particularly pre-9/11) and throwing as much mud as possible at the administration and hoping some of it will stick.

Go read the entire exchange here, here, and here -- excerpting it doesn't do the dialogue justice. I can, however, capture the tone of their exchange:

UNGER: A growing number of people are convinced that 2 + 2 = 5

BRONSON: No, 2 + 2 = 4

UNGER: Yes, but isn't it convenient that this so-called "4" happens to be so close to the number 5? Isn't is essentially true that 2 + 2 is within shouting distance of 5?

BRONSON: No, five is the number after four.

UNGER: Consider the words "four" and "five". They have the same number of letters, and both start with the letter "f". That can't be a coincidence.

BRONSON: I'm not sure I can understand your logic here.

UNGER: You can't understand or you refuse to understand?

[Full disclosure: I know Rachel and thought she was whip smart long before reading her clinical dissection of Unger's half-baked innuendo. I referenced her previous work in this post and in this TCS essay.]

UPDATE: Greg Djerejian concurs in my assessment.

posted by Dan at 04:55 PM | Comments (35) | Trackbacks (3)

The latest cosmic mystery


Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman is having trouble meeting available men, according to the Associated Press:

Being a single mother makes it difficult to find a mate, says actress Nicole Kidman.

"I'm hoping to meet someone and be happy with them. But that's not as easy as it sounds. I'm a 37-year-old woman with two children. Men aren't beating a path to my door," she said in an interview published in the latest issue of "Now" magazine Wednesday.

"I don't want to sound like a woman from a lonely hearts club and I don't want to advertise. The children are my priority. I take them around with me — movies or baseball games or local shows — and that's not so appealing for any new man on the scene, is it?" she said.... "But I'm single and there's no-one out there for me at the moment." (emphasis added)

So, basically, Miss Kidman -- who has some noteworthy professional accomplishments on her vita and is by many accounts a charming conversationalist -- is having difficulties finding a kid-friendly boyfriend of a suitable age.

Let's take another gander at Nicole:



Possible explanations for this eligible bachelor gap:

1) Single men over the age of 30 are painfully shy;
2) Single men over the age of 30 are deathly afraid of rejection;
3) Single men over the age of 30 are morons.

posted by Dan at 04:18 PM | Comments (26) | Trackbacks (1)

Don't rush me off the fence!!

As I've said before, my vote is still up for grabs this year. However, it's getting harder to maintain my Hamlet-like indecision.* A lot of people I respect make compelling arguments against pulling the elephant lever this year. Mickey Kaus -- who will never fall under the category of "Friends of Kerry" -- says he's not only voting for the Democrat -- he gave him money. Why?

I plan to vote for him because I think a) we need to take a time out from Bush's strident public global terror war in order to prevent it from becoming a damaging, lifelong West vs. Islam clash--in order to "rebrand" America and digest the hard-won gains we've made in Iraq and Afghanistan (if they even remain gains by next January). Plus, b) it would be nice to make some progress on national health care, even if it's only dialectical "try a solution and find out it doesn't work" progress. I could change my mind--if, for example, I thought Kerry would actually sell out an incipient Iraqi democracy in a fit of "realistic" Scowcroftian stability-seeking (an issue Josh Marshall's recent Atlantic piece doesn't resolve). But I don't intend to agonize like last time.]

Hell, even Peggy Noonan echoes point (a) of Mickey's logic in her last Wall Street Journal column:

History has been too dramatic the past 3 1/2 years. It has been too exciting. Economic recession, 9/11, war, Afghanistan, Iraq, fighting with Europe. fighting with the U.N., boys going off to fight, Pat Tillman, beheadings. It has been so exciting. And my general sense of Americans is that we like things to be boring. Or rather we like history to be boring; we like our lives to be exciting. We like history to be like something Calvin Coolidge dreamed: dull, dull. dull. And then we complain about the dullness, and invent excitements that are the kind we really like: moon shots, spaceships, curing diseases. Big tax cuts that encourage big growth that creates lots of jobs for young people just out of school.

No, I am not suggesting all our recent excitement is Mr. Bush's fault. History handed him what it handed him. And no, I am not saying the decisions he took were wrong or right or some degree of either. I'm saying it's all for whatever reasons been more dramatic than Americans in general like history to be....

The American people may come to feel that George W. Bush did the job history sent him to do. He handled 9/11, turned the economy around, went into Afghanistan, captured and removed Saddam Hussein. And now let's hire someone who'll just by his presence function as an emollient. A big greasy one but an emollient nonetheless.

Plus, it's becoming less clear what the GOP stands for this year. Andrew Sullivan paints the following picture:

[W]hat is a "Bush Republican"? I think it has to be a combination of the social policy of the religious right (the FMA, bans on embryo research, government support for religious charities, etc), the fiscal policy of the Keynesian left (massive new domestic spending combined with "deficits don't matter"), and the foreign policy of liberal moralism (democratization as a policy in the Middle East).

I believe in the last component -- one reason why I'm still undecided -- but the first two make me think, "ewwwww."

Readers are welcomed to try and sway my vote in either direction.

UPDATE: Virginia Postrel's post does some decent swaying.

*Actually, it's not that hard -- the primary reason I'm still undecided is that the current domestic and international situations are both in extreme flux at the moment. There's no point in making a choice now if the state of the world is completely different three months -- in a way that makes one of the two principal candidates suddenly look really good or really bad. [Why not vote for a minor party candidate?--ed. Jacob Levy explains]

posted by Dan at 12:38 PM | Comments (107) | Trackbacks (7)

Bagel envy

Brad DeLong has an amusing post about a bagel store in Berkeley that solves the free disposal problem in a way that I like. Apparently, feeding them to goats is not the solution.

Meanwhile, the only semi-decent bagel shop in Hyde Park shut down a few months ago. To procure properly-made bagels, one has to schlep up to the north side of the city.

And don't get me started on the transaction costs involved in finding decent whitefish salad.

posted by Dan at 11:08 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (1)

It's a protectionist, protectionist, protectionist protectionist world

One could argue that, since John Edwards leaned more protectionist than John Kerry during the primaries, that Kerry's selection for veep shows how illiberal a Kerry administration would be towards trade. It's a thought that certainly gives me qualms.

Until I contemplate the Bush administration. Back in September 2003, I wrote:

The most likely outcome [for trade policy] for the next 18 months is a policy of "hypocritical liberalization." The Doha round will proceed, as will the Middle East Free Trade Area. But the administration will take advantage of every exception, escape clause, and loophole at its disposal to protect vital constituencies from the vicissitudes of the global market. This will hurt the broad majority of American consumers and a healthy share of producers that rely on imported raw materials.

Last month I said why I didn't think this would change. Today, Steve Chapman's column in the Chicago Tribune unfortunately provides further confirmation of this hypothesis:

Do you like shrimp but wish it cost more? Need some bedroom furniture but hate getting a good deal on it? If so, you're very different from most Americans. You are, however, one of the few people who can rejoice in our national trade policies.

Politicians know that consumers in this country are more than happy to buy foreign goods if the quality is sufficient and the price is right. They also know that explicit efforts to shut out imports are usually political fool's gold, more likely to bring defeat than victory at the polls.

So how can our leaders cater to corporate executives and workers who resent competition, without looking like hidebound protectionists? Simple: They don't attack trade--they attack "dumping."

When it comes to trade, many Americans cherish the notion that we are victims of our innocent good-heartedness. In this picture, we're always being cynically exploited by underhanded foreigners while our own companies play by the rules. The laws against dumping are supposed to correct the problem by banning any imports that are sold below "fair value," a baffling concept understood by bureaucrats but not economists.

The Bush administration made use of the law this week when it proposed slapping shrimp producers from China and Vietnam with special import duties of up to 113 percent. Earlier, it had imposed such tariffs on wooden bedroom furniture from China. It's also taken steps toward similar action on all sorts of foreign items, including lumber from Canada, aluminum from South Africa and steel wire strand from South Korea.

A spokeswoman for the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration, when asked how many anti-dumping orders are currently in effect, responds as though I've invited her to count all the cactuses in Arizona. She can't come up with a tally on short notice but says the number is "in the hundreds, maybe more than hundreds." And that's not including all the ones that are pending.

For an administration that boasts of its devotion to tax cuts, these efforts represent an unnoticed and unwarranted tax increase, which will come out of the pockets of American manufacturers, retailers and consumers. It's also a violation of President Bush's supposed faith in free trade, which he touts as a contrast to Democrats who believe that, in his words, "the solution to jobs uncertainty is to isolate America from the world."

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: On the other hand, here's a story where mercantilists and free-traders can be pleased at the outcome.

posted by Dan at 10:54 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (1)

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

A primer on the elite academic job market

Jason Zengerle, in a TNR effort to knock down Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski a peg or two, criticizes new Duke President Richard Brodhead for kowtowing to Coach K's market value:

Never, it seems, has a coach had such an upper hand in a relationship with a university president as Krzyzewski has at Duke. Confronted with the prospect of Krzyzewski's departure, Brodhead essentially begged him to stay. He took Krzyzewski to dinner to tell him, as he later recounted, "how deeply he was valued here and how much I hope he'll stay ... [and] of my personal respect for him and our deep hope that he'll serve out the rest of his career at Duke." He joined a rally outside Duke's basketball arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium, to chant "Coach K, please stay!"--even locking arms with students to form a big human "K." And, of course, he approved unspecified "modifications" to Krzyzewski's lifetime contract with the school--which had been signed in 2001--that, while certainly falling short of the Lakers' $8-million-a-year offer, no doubt cushioned the steep opportunity cost to Krzyzewski of staying at Duke. It's hard to imagine Brodhead doing all this for a star history professor tempted by the Ivy League.

I'll grant Zengerle that an indoor rally is highly unlikely for a star history professor. However, the other two measures -- personal schmoozing by the president and matching an Ivy League offer -- would actually be quite likely from a private university with deep pockets --i.e., Duke.

In fact -- even for social sciences like history -- the academic job market strongly resembles baseball after free agency. Star academics flit from institution to institution, or threaten to do so unless their demands are sated. For example, last year the New York Times Magazine ran a story about New York University's latest recruitment drive. One tidbit from the story:

Academic wooing makes other forms of romance seem straightforward in comparison. It begins in rumor and often ends in abject spurning; its convolutions occur somewhere near the juncture of Freudian psychology and economic game theory. Academic economists appear to have a peculiarly keen interest in continually testing their market value by flirting with interested schools. Yaw Nyarko, who has been at N.Y.U. since 1988, says ''it's taken for granted'' that some advance their salaries by getting the school to match an offer from somewhere else. As such, a department in the suitor's role often finds itself expending time, energy and self-esteem on what turns out to be an elaborate tease. According to economics department chair Douglas] Gale, a typical batting average in senior faculty recruitment is about .200 -- that is, two hires for every 10 offers.

Read the whole thing.

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

Overboard alert!

Josh Marshall -- in a follow-up to his Atlantic Monthly article on John Kerry's realist foreign policy principles -- has a provocative post up about the extent of the Bush administration's commitment to democratization. The key parts:

[W]hen you look at the actual record I think there is very little evidence that the assumption [that the Bush administration is focused on the goal of democracy promotion] is at all valid. I don't mean simply that the Bush administration has been unsuccessful or incompetent in pursuing its plans for democratization. I don't even mean that they've been hypocritical or inconsistent. I mean that democratization as a moral or strategic goal simply doesn't figure into the White House's plans.

Let's start with a review of the administration's record in the 189 UN member states whose governments the US has not overthrown in the last three and one half years....

Remember, the key here is the advancement of democracy not only as a good thing, a humanitarian gesture, a form of state-imposed meta-philanthropy, but as a way of advancing American national security. But for that to mean anything one would have to point to cases where we, or in this case, the administration made short-term geopolitical sacrifices to advance our long term interest in democratization.

And I cannot think of a single case whether in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Russia or China or Uzbekistan or anywhere where that has happened.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is not to say that the US should, willy nilly, upend friendly non-democracies with an indifference to American strategic interests. But if that's the model the administration is following then there's really, at best, no difference with previous administrations and the whole premise -- so widespread now in our political and foreign policy debates -- that the Bush administration is hawkish on democracy or neo-Wilsonian -- and that this is a departure from previous administrations or a potential Kerry administration -- is just an empty claim embraced by the inattentive and incurious. (bold emphasis added)

Josh makes an interesting argument, but I gotta call him on the bolded section, because in fact the Bush administration did take action in Egypt that fits Marshall's criteria.

In August 2002, after the arrest of democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the U.S. applied intense diplomatic and economic pressure at precisely the same time Iraq was moving to the very front burner. In particular, President Bush personally and publically criticized the Egyptian government, and the administration also declared a moratorium on new US assistance to Egypt as long as Ibrahim remained in prison.

Ibrahim was released in March 2003. Whether U.S. pressure accelerated or delayed Ibrahim's release is the subject of some debate -- but democratization activists of all stripes do agree that the U.S. risked a fair amount of diplomatic capital on the issue. The New York Times, in an March 19th, 2003 editorial, thought the pressure was a good thing:

To its considerable credit, last year the Bush administration froze additional aid to President Hosni Mubarak's government over Dr. Ibrahim's treatment. This pressure, and the efforts of human rights groups worldwide, helped persuade the government to back off and prosecute the case less aggressively

Given the timing of this pressure -- the start of the global debate on Iraq -- I'd say this counts as a situation when "short-term geopolitical sacrifices to advance our long term interest in democratization" were made -- in one of the countries Marshall highlights.

This example doesn't completely vitiate Marshall's point -- take U.S. policy towards Uzbekistan, for example -- but it does suggest that Marshall's exaggerating his case a bit.

Blog readers now may return to their "inattentive and incurious" mode.

UPDATE: While I'm discussing Egypt, David Remnick's "Letter from Cairo" in this week's New Yorker is a very sobering read.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Robert Tagorda provides another counterexample for Marshall -- the case of Tunisia. Greg Djerejian rebuts Marshall on Georgia. And David Adesnik addresses the Iraqi exception.

YES, A THIRD UPDATE: Beyond individual countries, it's also worth mentioning the G8 Greater Middle East Initiative, a follow-up to earlier Bush proposals from last year. It's obviously way too soon to debate the effectiveness of the proposal, but Al Jazeera certainly believed it was going to cover states of strategic interest to the U.S.:

The original document, intended for internal distribution among designated senior officials of the G8 (group of eight industrialised countries), was meant to signal a new US plan for reform of the Middle East and some other Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Turkey....

However, speculation is growing that the US plan may also take in other Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and the central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

AND NOW A FOURTH UPDATE: Earlier in this post, I gave Josh Uzbekistan as an example that supported his line of argumentation. Maybe I was too hasty -- Here's Central Asian expert Martha Brill Olcott's testimony to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on Uzbekistan's human rights situation (link via the Argus):

The [December 2003] decision by the U.S. Secretary of State to refuse to certify Uzbekistan as having made sufficient progress with regard to reforming human rights, got the attention of the government in Tashkent, and has already led to some small improvement, including a more open attitude toward the investigation of abuses in Uzbekistan's penal system.

By its actions in December the U.S. put the government of Uzbekistan on notice.

posted by Dan at 02:05 PM | Comments (70) | Trackbacks (10)

Minä haluan toisen kupin kahvia!

Pop quiz -- which country has the highest rate of coffee consumption in the world?

The language used in the post title is your clue.

Answer below the fold....

It's Finland!!

This fact comes from Janet Helm in today's Chicago Tribune, who writes about the health benefits that come from coffee consumption. The highlights:

Though the virtues of coffee drinking may have been debated in the past, now there appear to be new reasons to rejoice over java. More and more studies have linked coffee consumption to a number of health benefits, including a reduced risk of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, gallstones, colon cancer and potentially heart disease.

"Coffee has much more in it than caffeine," said Dr. PeMartin, director of the Vanderbilt University's Institute for Coffee Studies, which conducts medical research on coffee and is funded by a grant from a consortium of coffee-producing countries. "It's a very complex beverage that contains hundreds of compounds, including many with antioxidant effects."

Though the tea industry has been touting its antioxidants, turns out coffee may contain even more--specifically polyphenols. One of the most potent antioxidants in coffee is called chlorogenic acid, which is partially responsible for the coffee flavor. Some reports estimate that more than 850 compounds are packed inside the humble bean....

Some of the strongest and latest research may be the connection between coffee drinking and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, a growing health epidemic that is closely linked to the rising rates of obesity.

In Finland, where coffee consumption is higher than anywhere else in the world, researchers found that coffee appeared to have a protective effect against the development of type 2 diabetes. The more cups of coffee consumed, the greater the protection.

Published in the March 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study examined the coffee-drinking habits of 6,974 Finnish men and 7,655 women. After a 12-year follow-up, women drinking three to four cups of coffee a day experienced a 29 percent reduced risk of diabetes, while risk dropped by 79 percent for women who drank 10 or more cups a day.

For men in the study, drinking three to four cups of coffee a day was associated with a 27 percent lower risk for diabetes. Those men who drank 10 or more cups lowered their risk by 55 percent.

A second study examining an even larger population in the United States found similar results. After analyzing data on 126,000 people for as long as 18 years, Harvard researchers found that having six or more cups of coffee each day slashed men's risk of type 2 diabetes by 54 per-cent and women's by 30 percent compared to those who avoid coffee. Decaffeinated coffee had a weaker effect. The study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Before anyone starts consuming Brad DeLongish or Jacob Levyesque levels of coffee, be sure to read the caveat:

Though coffee may offer a bundle of benefits, nutritionists warn that you should choose your coffee drinks wisely. Some coffees--particularly the frozen or sweetened iced drinks--can pack a powerful caloric punch. Many are more like liquid candy or a slice of cheesecake than coffee. For instance, a 24-ounce Strawberries and Creme Frappuccino with whipped cream at Starbucks contains a whopping 780 calories and 19 grams of fat. A regular run for these drinks can pack on the pounds.

For college students, a study in the April issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests fancy coffee concoctions may be contributing to the "freshman 15." Researchers at Simmons College in Boston found that students who regularly drank gourmet coffees--cafe mochas, frozen coffee beverages and the like--consumed an extra 206 calories and 32 grams of sugar a day.

posted by Dan at 11:36 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (6)

The partisan divide spreads to the high seas

Surfing the web, I see that both the National Review and The Nation are planning post-election cruises for kindred spirits (click here for the list of National Review speakers, and here for the list of The Nation speakers). Intriguingly, both of the cruises are with Holland America.

Far be it for me to mock either trip -- I'll leave that to the commenters!

Still, it's somehow disheartening to see that what I think of as more centrist publications -- like, say The New Republic, Slate, the Atlantic Monthly, or The Weekly Standard -- don't appear to be sponsoring any post-election cruises on their web sites.

[You mean, it's too bad that neither magazine has asked you to participate in a cruise?--ed. The thought had never crossed my mind -- until now! Holland America needs to sponsor a blogger cruise!! I can see it now -- fun, sun, and a guaranteed wireless connection for participating bloggers. Readers are hereby invited to suggest which bloggers they would want on their cruise and why.]

UPDATE: Digging just a shade deeper, I'm disappointed to see that while Reason magazine has a weekend getaway planned for early 2005 (with Volokh contributor Randy Barnett participating, no less), they have no cruise. They're missing an opportunity here. Just think:

Join the staff of Reason, and a few luminaries from the Cato Institute, for a week of pirateering! Learn how to fence, shoot, navigate, comandeer, and many other techniques of property rights enforcement as we board The Nation cruise for our own little exercise in "wealth redistribution" in the anarchic world of international waters. No need to pay anything up front -- your booty from a successful raid will be a more than sufficient fee! Act now!

posted by Dan at 01:14 AM | Comments (22) | Trackbacks (1)

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Is civility an endangered species in the blogosphere?

There's been a lot of chatter as of late about the civility of bloggers and the people who comment on them. A few weeks ago, Matthew Yglesias argued that bloggers had an incentive to behave badly:

The trouble is that when you write something really good, in the sense of being sober, on-point, factual, and tightly argued, your targets would do well to simply ignore you. And so they do. Maybe a person or two will recommend the story to their friends, but basically it vanished into the HTML ether. Something sloppy, offensive, over-the-top, or in some minor way inaccurate, by contrast, will provoke a flood of responses. If you're lucky, those responses will, themselves, be someone sloppy, and folks start defending you. Then you find yourself in the midst of a minor contretemps, and everyone gets more readers.

Brad DeLong concurs. Laura at Apartment 11D is similarly disgusted with bad big blogger behavior:

[A] nasty side effect of blogging is that hit counts can go to your head. Occasionally, hit counts can inflate egos creating not only the so-called pundits, but a hundred little bullies. Blogs are not soap boxes for speaking your mind, because bloggers don’t have to respond to hecklers in the audience. Blog readers don’t have the opportunity to hear responses to posts and weigh differing points of view. The heckler has been effectively silenced.

More recently, concerns have been raised about the comments on popular blogs as well. Billmon recently shut down comments at Whiskey Bar; The Command Post has done the same. Commenting on this -- as well as his own difficulties with impolite posters -- Kevin Drum observes:

I get questions about the vitriolic tone of the comment section here with some regularity, and my answer is usually the same: there's just not much that I can do about it. True, I can ban people, but that works only if they have a fixed IP address, which these days most people don't. What's more, if the ban fails, the recipient is often pissed off enough to try even harder to make a pain in the ass out of himself.

It's also true that the problem is exponential. A year ago I got 10-20 comments on each post and had no trolls. As a result, the conversation was relatively civil. Today I get 100+ comments per post and the site has at least half a dozen trolls whose only love in life (as near as I can tell) is to start flame wars. The result is a melee....

I don't have any plans to either get rid of comments or to moderate them, at least for now. But as more and more blogs cross the 10-20,000 reader mark, which is where comment sections seem to break down, I wonder if comments will increasingly become a thing of the past in the upper reaches of the blogosphere.

Kevin is not the only one to observe this degenerative phenomenon. James Joyner points out the following:

Certainly, there’s value in interaction with readers. Unfortunately, there seems to be a strange variation on the Gas Law with regard to blog comments: As blog readership expands, the quality of comments declines geometrically. When OTB had 500 readers a day, the vast majority of the comments—whether from people who agreed or disagreed with me—were quite good. With readership in the 5000-10,000 range, most comments are crap. Reading—let alone policing—the comments gets to be more trouble than it’s worth.

A few weeks ago, Glenn Reynolds made a similar point:

[A]s Eugene Volokh noted in a discussion of this topic a while back (read it, as I agree entirely and he said it better than I could, as usual), the worst part isn't the flaming by people who don't agree with you, it's the nasty comments by people who generally agree with you....

Some blogs, like Daniel Drezner's or Roger Simon's seem to avoid that problem most of the time, but I think it's a scaling issue -- up to a certain level of traffic it feels like a conversation, past that it degenerates into USENET. At any rate, I'd rather blog than deal with comments.

The other problem, which I've seen both at blogs I agree with and blogs I don't, is that bloggers can be captured by their commenters. It's immediate feedback, and it's interesting (it's about you!) and I can imagine it could become addictive. My impression is that often, instead of serving as a corrective to errors, comment sections tend to lure bloggers farther in the direction they already lean. Anyway, I worry about that.

Eerily enough, now Roger is having difficulties with commenters.

With such an impressive consensus, it is very tempting to just shrug one's shoulders and accept that there is a rhetorical version of Gresham's Law in the blogosphere. It is undoubtedly true that in the short run, provocative, vitriolic, and/or sloppy writing -- by either bloggers or commenters -- can attract attention, whereas closely reasoned analysis sometimes falls by the wayside. The fact that so many top-notch bloggers have made similar observation about the correlation between hit counts and trolls is indeed disturbing.

However, I remain stubbornly optimistic on this front for five reasons:*

1) In the long run, reputation matters. Sure, being a bombthrower can attract attention -- but it's hard to do successfully over a prolonged period of time. Inevitably this kind of ranting leads to major as well as minor missteps. Once a commentator commits a major rhetorical gaffe or colossal misstatement of fact, it becomes impossible to take them seriously. Which is why it's so easy to discount the statements of Ann Coulter, Noam Chomsky, Pat Robertson, or Michael Moore.

2) Technology can help as well as hinder. I've raved about MT-Blacklist before for blocking spam, but an unanticipated bonus has been the ease with which I can delete any comment. Blacklist rebuilds my site much more quickly than MT -- so it's been far easier to prune away comments now than before.

3) Commenters usually follow the blogger's lead. Whenever I use profanity in my posts, the language in the comments inevitably becomes coarser. This works in reverse, however -- the more civil my posts, the better the tone of the comments. In this respect, the presence of comments has affected me in one way -- I'm much more polite on the blog now than I used to be.

4) Compared to academia, this is a tea party. Another blogger once asked me whether I felt "surprised at the angry tone of the comments your readers leave... It can be odd to be shouted down on your own website."

Look, I'm an academic, and this stuff is nothing. I've attended seminars where the paper presenter ran out of the room because s/he was crying. I've presented papers that have been likened to poor undergratuate theses. I've had papers rejected by top journals because they were "narrow and without much theoretical interest." I've heard cruelties uttered that will be burned in people's psyches until the day they die. In other words, I'm used to a pretty high standard of criticism. Compared to that, a line like "Hey, Drezner, let's outsource your job, you f***ing a@#hole!" -- or letters like these -- just come off as histrionic nonsense.

5) Don't forget the benefits. Laura at Apartment 11D and Henry Farrell both point out the social value-added of blogs. Henry gets at something with this comment:

The most attractive ideal for the blogosphere that I’ve come across is in sociologist Richard Sennett’s brilliant, frustrating shaggy-dog of a book, The Fall of Public Man. Sennett is writing about the eighteenth century coffee-house as a place where people could escape from their private lives, reinventing themselves, and engaging in good conversation with others, regardless of their background or their everyday selves....

Like Sennett’s patronizers of coffee shops, bloggers don’t usually know each other before they start blogging, so that it’s quite easy for them to reinvent themselves if they like, and indeed to invent a pseudonym, or pseudonyms to disguise their real identity completely. This has its downside - some bloggers take it as license for offensive behaviour - but in general, if you don’t like a blog, you can simply stop reading it, or linking to it. The blogosphere seems less to me like a close-knit community (there isn’t much in the way of shared values, and only a bare minimum of shared norms), and more like a city neighborhood. An active, vibrant neighborhood when things are working; one with dog-turds littering the pavement when they’re not.

Eszter Hargittai has more on this.

As for comments, sure, the trolls can be annoying. However, they usually don't crowd out the good. For example, check out the comments to this post about rethinking the National Guard and Reserves. This is an issue on which I know only the broad contours -- and thanks to the informed comments (click here, here, here, and here for just a few examples) I know a lot more about the subject than I used to. For me, that benefit outweighs the occasional irritations that come from blogging.

*Two caveats. First, I don't have the traffic that Kevin, Glenn, Andrew, James or Michelle have. The scale factor is undeniable. Second, from now until November, extreme partisanship is going to be contributing factor to the level of discourse across the blogosphere.

UPDATE: CalGal poses a fair question in the comments:

If you can delete any comment you want, then how can you honestly declare that the comments are reflective of your reputation? An edited comments section is "letters to the editor" with you, the editor, deciding what feedback is worthy of your publication.

When you're at the point of blessing your software for making it easy to purge comments, it's time to get rid of comments entirely.

Actually, I'm blessing the software because without it, deleting a comment takes 10 minutes of rebuilding; without it, it takes 10 seconds. In a world with spam, that's not a minor convenience, it's a major one.

This does not mean that I delete a lot of comments, however -- you can read my criteria here. At this point, I'd say I delete maybe one comment a week that's not either spam or an accidental double post. I don't think that translates into a "letter to the editor" section.

posted by Dan at 05:29 PM | Comments (164) | Trackbacks (29)

Experts be warned!!

As an aspiring media whore, I feel compelled to warn fellow aspiring media whores that Comedy Central has a new show called Crossballs, a spoof of Crossfire/Hardball-style shows. The reason I bring this up is that the patsies on this show are -- expert commentators. Steve Johnson explains in the Chicago Tribune:

It's a concept neatly described in the opening credits, which also reference "Crossfire" and "Hardball": "comedians, posing as experts, debating real [experts] who don't know the show is fake."

Certainly, the shouting and screaming and polarization that is encouraged by real-life "issue shows" needs to be taken down a few pegs....

Could the nation survive without Chris Matthews? Yes, the nation could.

And "Crossballs," whose executive producers include the first-rate Matt Besser (Upright Citizens Brigade), does the job of satire quite nicely, thank you.

But it's even better in execution than in the concept. Besser is hilarious as a variety of yahoos, lowlifes and provocateurs. In Tuesday's first episode... he's a reality-TV veteran debating an actual actor trying to defend scripted fare.

On comes a mock film professor who argues that reality TV has knocked film out of the box. When the actor tries to argue the point, the professor says, "Sir, you're Donna Summers, and I'm Alicia Keys."....

Is this fair to the authentic experts? Probably not. But I have a feeling the show would work just as well if the real folk were let in on the joke from the start.

Matthew Gilbert sorta disagrees in the Boston Globe:

The twist here is that one of the experts in each episode is real, and not an actor, and he or she is supposedly being duped. Yes, "Crossballs" incorporates a touch of reality humiliation in its format, even in an episode that finds the panelists debating the humiliation on reality TV. Skewering the army of cable blowhards is a worthy and funny endeavor; ensnaring actual ones to ridicule them is less enjoyable.

Of course, these experts can't be very shrewd if they think they're on a real debate show. With a howling audience and panelists in favor of hunting animals with cars, the atmosphere is unmistakably, and sometimes hysterically, surreal.

Clueless media whores -- you've been warned!! [Do clueless media whores read Good point. That's our new motto -- " -- the blog for clued-in media whores!"]

posted by Dan at 11:49 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (1)

Monday, July 5, 2004

Open veep selection thread

Matt Drudge says that everyone will know the identity of Kerry's VP pick tomorrow:

Kerry intends to begin calling the major candidates in contention around 7 a.m. Tuesday to give them the news of his choice...

Kerry's aides reported placards had been printed with three versions of the Democratic ticket: Kerry-Edwards, Kerry-Gephardt and Kerry-Vilsack, though they acknowledged that Kerry could still surprise even them with a different selection...

Kerry will appear at a big morning rally in Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh and announce choice at 9 a.m. Tuesday, before flying to Indianapolis.

Combining this AP report with ABC's The Note, I'd have to give the inside edge to Edwards, but really, who the hell knows?

Feel free to comment on the possibilities here. Beyond what I said about Gephardt before, I can't resist quoting Matthew Yglesias here:

In general Gephardt will give the GOP about seventeen million new votes to scrutinize for further flip-flops and differences with Kerry's. Also -- people hate him. Also -- no one likes him. I'm not saying that if Kerry picks Gephardt that then all of a sudden voting for Bush becomes a good idea, but picking Gephardt is a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad idea and choosing that bad idea will reflect badly on Kerry. There's no getting around that.

UPDATE: Kerry picks Edwards -- get your talking points here!!:


  • Props to the Senator for choosing his most formidable rival for the nominattion, as well as someone he was visibly uncomfortable with just a few months ago. It shows a healthy ego on Kerry's part.

  • In the Internet age, Kerry actually managed to prevent his decision from leaking -- an impressive feat. Added bonus for Dems -- the New York Post has massive amounts of egg on its face.

  • The contrast with Cheney in a debate will probably help the donkey ticket. The knock on him is that he lacks experience and that the contrast with Cheney merely highlights this fact. However, this lowers expectations in a one-on-one with the VP -- and there's no way Edwards could do worse than Joe Lieberman in 2000. So, post-debate, Edwards wins!

  • Seriously, who else among the picks was gonna be better on the stump or gibe a better speech at the convention?

  • Props to Kerry -- he picked the cute protectionist who promotes class warfare over the ugly, robotic protectionist who promotes class warfare.

  • Kerry's first choice was McCain -- which says that a) the depth of the Democratic bench ain't that great; and b) Kerry's belief that McCain was a live possibility does not demonstrate the strongest political acumen

  • Trial lawyer!! Trial Lawyer!! TRIAL LAWYER!!! [Isn't that a bit stale?--ed. Not to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.]

  • The Edwards pick shows the diminishing returns of "regional" picks. Edwards probably won't bring a lot of Southern states with him -- but he probably plays better with swing voters across the country than Kerry's other options.

  • If Kerry wins, it will be a historic reversal of the Vice President's role. Since 1988, Vice Presidents have inserted themselves more and more into the policy process, culminating with Richard Cheney. While Edwards would obviously have some influence, it wouldn't be at the level of Cheney's portfolio.

  • If Kerry wins, this will echo Clinton's choice of Al Gore. If he loses, it will echo Dukakis' choice of Lloyd Bentsen.

  • Look for the Kerry team to play up the Kennedy echo during the campaign -- the Democratic ticket again consists of two sitting U.S. Senators, one from Massachusetts and one from south of the Mason-Dixon line.
  • LAST UPDATE: Robert G. Kaiser led an interesting online disacussion on on the Edwards pick that's worth checking out. This point was particularly interesting:

    I think the degree to which young voters can be mobilized this year is a key to Kerry's chances. Battleground polls, particularly the well-respected Ohio Poll, show that 18-25 (or is it 18-30?) year old voters heavily favor Kerry so far. If that holds, and if chosing Edwards encourages it, then obviously Kerry would benefit enormously from a big turnout of young voters.

    posted by Dan at 11:55 PM | Comments (67) | Trackbacks (6)

    The philosophy of Spider-Man 2

    Matthew Yglesias believes that Spider-Man 2 -- while being a good popcorn flick -- has a hollow philosophical core [WARNING: MASSIVE SPOLIER ALERT]:

    The thing of it is that you can't -- you just can't -- make a whole film whose entire theme is that sometimes in order to do the right thing you need to give up the thing you want most in life and then have it turn out in the end that chicks really dig guys who do the right thing and the hero gets the girl anyway. Just won't fly....

    For most of the film, Spiderman 2 is very good at dramatizing the reality of this ideal. Being the good guy -- doing the right thing -- really sucks, because doing the right thing doesn't just mean avoiding wrongdoing, it means taking affirmative action to prevent it. There's no time left for Peter's life, and his life is miserable. Virtue is not its own reward, it's virtue, the rewards go to the less consciencious. There's no implication that it's all worthwhile because God will make it right in the End Times, the life of the good guy is a bleak one. It's an interesting (and, I think, a correct) view and it's certainly one that deserves a skilled dramatization, which is what the film gives you right up until the very end. But then -- ta da! -- it turns out that everyone does get to be happy after all. A huge letdown.

    Henry Farrell posts a mild dissent, pointing out that this move is only part of a lonfer narrative arc:

    [W]hat Matt doesn’t take into account is that this is the second of three, closely interconnected movies. The first movie provides a thesis - that Spiderman has to renounce love in order to fight evil-doers, and take what joy he can from the solitary pleasures of web-slinging. The second is the antithesis - that he can too get Mary-Jane and swing between the roof-tops. The third, one can confidently predict, is going to be the synthesis - the discovery that balancing different responsibilities is a lot more difficult than Peter Parker thinks at the end of Spiderman 2. First witness for the prosecution: the mixed feelings playing across M-J’s face as Spiderman leaves her to chase after the cop-sirens, 30 seconds after she’s declared her undying love, engaged in passionate clinch etc etc.

    Having seen the movie myself -- with another philosophically-inclined blogger -- I agree with Brayden King that both Matt and Henry are omitting a crucial part of the philosophical equation:

    Peter’s choice really wasn’t entirely his to make. While he may have wanted to do one thing (forsake the love of his life for the good of all), there was another part to this equation that he couldn’t ignore or control - MJ. MJ made a choice that not only cancelled out Peter’s choice but actually turned the equation around, forcing Peter to take her back into his life.

    Indeed -- the women who went to see the movie with us -- i.e., our wives -- both said that they liked MJ's rejection of passivity at the end of the film, forcing Peter to deal with her as an equal.

    While I suspect that Matt is cool with female empowerment, he dislikes the notion that doing good rarely translates into doing well. As I just posted, however, I'm more optimistic than Matt on this score. Furthermore, as the movie suggests, deriving some sense of benefit from being Spiderman is essential to Peter Parker being able to continue to be Spider-Man.

    This does not mean that this tension between virtue and earthly reward is resolved, or that it ever will be permanently resolved. But the tension can be temporarily reconciled, which is what makes the ending of Spider-Man 2 satisfying and incomplete at the same time -- which is what the middle films in a multi-picture arc should accomplish.

    posted by Dan at 11:41 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (2)

    Life lessons from Robert Rubin

    Over the past few weeks I've been slowly reading Robert Rubin and Jacob Weisberg's In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington. The style of Rubin's memoirs perfectly match his deliberative demeanor. I'm not finished yet, but so far there are two things worth singling out as tips for those who aspire to pominent positions in their lives:

    p. 54: "Anyone who is honest about having done well will acknowledge the enormous role played by chance." To some this statement might be so obvious as to appear banal -- but as someone who's digested more than their fair share of memoirs, this might be the first time I've encountered an "eminent person" actually saying it out loud. I strongly suspect that many who have reached Rubin's stature believe that their success has little to do with luck and eveything to do with their own diligence, brilliance, piety, or strategy. It was nice to see -- and thoroughly appropriate from a man who lives by the princple of expected value theory.

    2) In recounting how his career progressed, Rubin goes into detail about what he did at Goldman Sachs. However, he also thinks that his non-profit and charitable activities were essential to advancement (p. 85):

    You can draw a... straighter line from my joining the board of ABT [American Ballet Theatre] to subsequent opportunities, because being on the board of an arts organization caused people to view me as someone who was involved in civic activities.... And so it went, with one involvement leading to another. The key was to get in motion to begin with.....

    [O]utside involements added other dimensions to my life, providing a glimpse of what other people's jobs and lives were like and an opportunity to contribute to purposes beyond my work. What's more, outside involvements helped my Goldman Sachs career, as I met well-established people who were also clients or potential clients of our firm.

    I've read a few other biographies that point to the same synergy between civic involvement and career advancement. Some might argue that this is an example of slef-interested behavior wrapped in the guise of acting the do-gooder. Me, I think tt's nice to see that it is possible to do well in part by doing good.

    posted by Dan at 11:02 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

    Why talking points are a good idea

    Brad DeLong and Matthew Yglesias both endorse and demonstrate the practice of developing their own talking points when they do television interviews. In a follow-up post, DeLong observes that the exercise is useful -- but does not necessarily translate into a better media appearance:

    The discipline of preparing talking points for TV forces us to focus and to strip our arguments down to their bare minimum, which is a very useful exercise. But when we actually get on TV, we are relatively feckless and ineffective. We treat the camera as a bizarre electro-photo-mechanical device, rather than as a human being we are talking to and in whose facial expressions and feedback we are greatly interested. Even or stripped-down arguments are still much too long--with many too many subordinate clauses and qualifications. And so (with tape) they chop us up. And (live) we get interrupted and the conversation moves on.

    Much better to use the internet, gaining (a) the space for print, and (b) the power of rapid response.

    I still hink Brad and Matt are onto something -- and it doesn't just apply to television. Read this outsourcing story (here's a link to part two) by Kamil Z. Skawinski in California Computer News, in which I'm quoted liberally -- too liberally. Skawinski did not misquote me, so it's not the media's fault. Reading the story, I wish I'd provided more focused answers and better message discipline -- I rambled too much and therefore did not express my views effectively. A set of talking points would have helped here -- and since this was a phone interview, I wouldn't have needed to memorize them.

    Live and learn.

    posted by Dan at 10:33 AM | Trackbacks (0)