Saturday, October 9, 2004

Open second debate thread

Along with a few other hardy conference attendeess, I got up at 3 AM to watch the second presidential debate live. This means I did not get a lot of sleep, but my quick opinion was

a) Bush did better than the first debate;

b) Kerry also did a bit better -- he was sharp from the start this time;

c) Again, both candidates whiffed on the openings given by the other candidates;

d) If Kerry gets elected, you just know that his to-the-camera pledge not to raise taxes for households under $200,000 is going to bite him in the ass;

e) The bizarre moment of the night was the Bush foray into Dred Scott territory. But I do feel safer that Bush will not appoint pro-slavery judges. [UPDATE: Some have suggested that the Dred Scott reference was code to the anti-abortionists that he would appoint justices who would reverse Roe v. Wade. This would be consistent with efforts to get out the base, but it's still a bizarre move because it could alienate just as many swing voters who thought Bush sounded either drugged or incoherent in his response.]

So I think Kerry won, but not by as much as last time.

Post your own thoughts here!!

posted by Dan at 03:37 AM | Comments (83) | Trackbacks (3)

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

October's Books of the Month

I'll be at a conference in Milan for the next few days (yes, I know, I lead a rough life), so blogging may or may not take place. However, here are some belated October book recommendations.

The international relations book of the month is Sebastian Mallaby's The World's Banker, which avoids the common flaw of most books about the international financial institutions (IFIs) -- a dearth of amusing goat anecdotes.

To elaborate: tomes about the International Monetary Fund or World Bank tend to be drenched in a dull earnestness about the best ways to promote global development. The exceptions are the books slathered with righteous indignation about the alleged injustices committed by either institution towards the environment, local cultures, women or the poor in general. Either way, readers are frequently forced to wade through pages of exposition written with all the prose style of the phone book. The debate about the IFIs has a wide-ranging impact on global policy, but with the current state of the literature, even the eyes of interested readers start to glaze over.

Mallaby deals with this by writing a book about the World Bank under the guise of writing about the Bank's current president, James Wolfensohn. As a result, debates about the myriad complexities and paradoxes of fostering development and combating poverty are intertwined with tales about Wolfensohn’s life and times at the Bank – including the tangled fate of a goat given to him during a 1995 goodwill trip to Mali.

How well-researched is this book? Mallaby's description of Wolfensohn's first trip to Africa as World Bank president has a lot of eye-grabbing detail, including one graf that describes how Wolfemsohn looks at an airplane tarmac. The description was a bit thick, and I was ready to chide Mallaby for inserting colorful details that neither he nor anyone else could have remembered -- until I checked the footnotes. Mallaby had recreated the scene using a World Bank video recording. It sounds like a small thing, but is indicative of the excellent sourcing in The World's Banker.

Finally, you won't finish the book without having an indelible impression of Wolfensohn. I never thought anyone could write a book about the IFIs that merited a movie treatment, but after reading Mallaby's book, I can see an HBO film of Wolfensohn -- Michael Douglas would be perfect for the role.

As it's October, the general interest book is Steve Kettmann's One Day at Fenway. The book is a tick-tock account of an August 30, 2003 game between the Yankees and the Red Sox at Fenway Park through the eyes of twenty-five different people -- ballplayers, managers, executives, staff, fans, and the scoreboard operator behind the Green Monster. The subtitle of the book is A Day in The Life of Baseball in America, and that's pretty much accurate. The pointillist account would be fascinating on any terms, but the fact that it was a good game makes it all the more engaging. Kettmann had multiple eporters, writers and research assistants follow around each of these people for the entire day until the end of the game. For example, Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power shadowed Red Sox GM Theo Epstein for the whole day -- giving this blogger just one more reason to be unbelievably jealous of Ms. Power.

In the epilogue, Kettman reaches the following hopeful conclusion:

[Red Sox owner] John Henry may never take Sox fans closer [to a championship] than they were that night, five outs away from the World Series. The topsy-turvy Game Seven with Pedro Martinez on the mound might have been his one and only shot. But I don't think so. Based on what I saw during the several months of the 2003 season I spent studying the John Henry REd Sox from up close, and helped in the preparation of this book by unprecedented access, I believe the Henry ownership group is really going to do it. That is just a guess. But one thing I picked up in nine years covering professional sports for the San Francisco Chronicle was a conviction that when you have a hunch about a team, or an organization, you're right often enough to trust your hunches. Bostonians would be unwise ever to go on record with such a prediction, but as an outsider, a Californian of all things, I'm willing to say it here in black and white: The Red Sox will win a World Series on Henry's watch. It may be this October. It may be next October. It may take several mor years. But it will happen.

I hope he's right, but as a loyal Sox fan I am obligated to fear that he's wrong. Which leads to another side-effect of being in Milan -- I won't be able to watch any of the games.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.

posted by Dan at 03:59 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (1)

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Open veep debate thread

Feel free to discuss the before-and-after of the vice-presidential debate here. Discuss the following amongst yourselves: Historically, do VP debates matter at all?

My answer to this question is "no," which is why I won't be liveblogging this one.

UPDATE: OK, my take on this debate is constrained by the fact that, a) I spent the first 25 minutes of it reading Dr. Seuss to my son; b) I spent the rest of the time flipping between the VP debate and the Twins-Yankees game, and I found the latter far more riveting. That said, five thoughts:

1) Is it my imagination, or did Gwen Ifill sound like she'd either had some recent dental work done or stuffed about five cotton balls into her mouth?

2) I suspect Cheney will be perceived in the instant polling to have won the debate. Just as the right has tried to demonize Kerry, the left has tried to demonize Cheney. The fact that Cheney comes across as sober and plain-spoken clashes with the stereotype.

3) Frankly, both of them whiffed a lot on the questions I heard. On nuclear proliferation, for example, Cheney again claimed that the A.Q. Khan network had been satisfactorily dealt with -- a big fat slow curve over the plate. Edwards didn't even swing at that.

4) The most entertaining answer was Edwards' attempt to follow Ifill's directions and manage to answer one question without saying the words "John Kerry"

5) Stylistically, I suspect Cheney will also be crowned the winner -- he didn't seem to hestitate in his answers. Edwards seemed more hesitant in his responses.

That said, post your own thoughts!!

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan says I'm copping out on my own view -- the most devastating charge to be made in the blogosphere!! OK, bearing in mind I didn't watch the whole debate (which is why I was reluctant to proffer my own opinion), I'd give it to Cheney. His astringent style and well-versed talking points held up pretty well, and I picked up the same weak points in Edwards' performance as Mickey Kaus ("at times looked like a yapping ankle-biter, albeit a well-briefed one"). So Cheney won -- but not by any significant margin.

ANOTHER UPDATE: ABC's poll gives it to Cheney; CBS gives it to Edwards.

Here's a link to the full transcript.

My original conclusion stands, however -- the VP debate is irrelevant.

posted by Dan at 01:39 PM | Comments (69) | Trackbacks (8)

Monday, October 4, 2004

So how did that G-7 dinner go?

Remember that G-7 dinner that Chinese Finance Ministry officials were asked to attend? It took place over the weekend. Chris Giles and Andrew Balls report on the outcome in the Financial Times. First, the dinner:

China resisted pressure by industrialised countries to liberalise its currency regime at this weekend's meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Jin Renquin, China's finance minister, and Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank governor, attended a working dinner of the Group of Seven industrialised nations on Friday, but maintained China's previous stance that it needed more time before it could consider introducing greater flexibility into its exchange rate.

The dinner was the first time that China, now the world's seventh-largest economy, had attended a G7 meeting.

G7 countries praised the quality of debate and the openness of the Chinese officials, but little progress was made.

More interesting was the assessment at the end of the article on why there might not be any change in global macroeconomic imbalances anytime soon -- although they may be unstatainable in the long run, the status quo ante brings short-run economic benefits and minimal political costs for the U.S., China, and the European Union:

Unlike in many previous meetings, the US did not blame low growth in Japan and Europe for its current account deficit and European delegates refrained from criticising irresponsible US economic policy.

The rapid growth of the global economy in 2004 explains the improved mood in part. But it also reflects a growing understanding that global economic imbalances are the inevitable outcome of the combination of US efforts to boost domestic demand, Asian countries' desires to boost currency reserves and persistently low domestic demand in the eurozone.

"Policies to support an orderly resolution of global imbalances are a shared responsibility", the International Monetary and Financial Committee concluded.

What was left unsaid was that the current economic imbalances are boosting economic performance of most large economies and there is little appetite for the measures that could reduce them, such as tighter fiscal or monetary policy to reduce demand in the US or an appreciation of Asian currencies against the US dollar.

The consequence is likely to be that the US current account deficit will grow even larger as will foreign holdings of US dollar assets.

Few economists think these trends are sustainable in the longer term. They warn that the management of the global economy with ever larger imbalances and a large proportion of the global economy fixed to the dollar is likely to create a much less benign outlook for future IMF and World Bank meetings.

This post from a few weeks ago is also worth checking out -- both on the global imbalances and China's exchange rate policies.

UPDATE: The Economist has more on the G-7 meeting. Money paragraph:

The G7 once held great sway over exchange rates. When it met, in a previous incarnation, in New York in September 1985, it engineered a near-30% decline in the dollar. When it reconvened a year and a half later in Paris, it promptly halted that decline. By breaking bread with the Chinese on Friday, the current G7 is tacitly admitting that it can no longer achieve very much without them.

posted by Dan at 12:16 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Joe Queenan's huge glass house

The print version New York Times Book Review has been reformatted, with the curious decision to remove even the one-sentence summary of the book reviewer's bona fides (they're still on the online version, however). This is too bad, as it would prove most useful in assessing Joe Queenan's review of A.J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All.

Queenan trashes the book, and from the excerpted portions, it sounds like he's got a decent case to make. However, Queenan is aiming at a larger target:

[E]ven after allegedly reading the encyclopedia, Jacobs still doesn't know who Samuel Beckett is, an admission that is almost criminally stupid, even for someone who has written for Entertainment Weekly.

A graduate of the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan and Brown University, Jacobs is a prime example of that curiously modern innovation: the pedigreed simpleton. Blithely confessing to Brobdingnagian gaps in his knowledge even before he started reading the encyclopedia, Jacobs seems unaware that without some sort of mentor to shield him from his staggering lack of sophistication, he will seem more ignorant when his self-improvement project is over than when it began. Jacobs's biggest problem isn't that he doesn't know much; it's that he doesn't realize how much educated people do know. There's just no two ways about it -- people who read Marcel Proust and Bertrand Russell instead of Entertainment Weekly actually do learn stuff....

Far from becoming the smartest man in the world, Jacobs, at the end of his foolish enterprise, wouldn't even be the smartest person at Entertainment Weekly

Not even the great Flaubert could devise a condemnation harsher than that. (emphases added).

There's probably a lot of insider information about the cultural mediasphere that I'm missing out on (paging Jeff Jarvis), but what on earth is Queenan's beef with Entertainment Weekly? Jacobs now works (as a senior editor) at Esquire, but Queenan somehow shoehorns three mentions of EW into the piece. Did Jacobs beat out Queenan for a writing gig there or something?

This is niggling, but as someone who's read both Bertrand Russell and is an avid consumer of Entertainment Weekly, I'm genuinely puzzled by Queenan's hostility. It would be like erroneously blasting watchers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and assuming that this is where they get all of their political knowledge. In point of fact, Daily Show viewers are better informed than other viewers -- not because they watch The Daily Show, but because they gravitate to that program since, as this press release observes, "These findings do not show that The Daily Show is itself responsible for the higher knowledge among its viewers... The Daily Show assumes a fairly high level of political knowledge on the part of its audience – more so than Leno or Letterman." The same is true of Entertainment Weekly when compared to the other popular culture magazines -- such as, say, TV Guide, which is where Queenan wrote a column from 1996 to 1999.

A former TV Guide writer bashing Entertainment Weekly as being an attactor of uninformed writers? That's just too big of a glass house to pass up.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias points out some of the problems with reading Bertrand Russell. He's right -- if memory serves, Russell's take on Hegel is pretty distorted.

posted by Dan at 12:49 PM | Comments (15) | Trackbacks (0)