Friday, February 25, 2005

The Saudis move, but move slowly

Richard Cohen pointed out recently that:

When coming to Saudi Arabia from the United States, you need to set your watch. Officially, the time difference is eight hours ahead of the East Coast. Unofficially, I think it's about 250 years behind.

Indeed, as Glenn Reynolds has recently pointed out, the Saudis remain a potent source of terrorist support.

Neverheless, the Saudi regime does seem to be moving forward -- however slowly -- in altering their behavior in constructive ways. Again, it's maddeningly slow, but progress nevertheless.

This week saw further evidence of this. This past week the British and Saudis held a two-day conference entitled "Two Kingdoms: The Challenges Ahead," and some constructive things were said. Khaled Almaeena reports an example of this in Arab News :

It was a cold day in London, but the near zero degree temperature did not chill the second day of Saudi-British conference, where the two nations’ chief diplomats reflected on eight decades of warm relations between their two peoples and charted an equally amicable course for the future.

Addressing the conference, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal announced plans to appoint women to the Foreign Ministry for the first time this year. He pointed out that successful political reforms required “an evolutionary process.”

Similarly, the Saudi government is making tentative noises about giving women the right to vote in future election. Beth Gardiner explains this in an Associated Press report:

Women may be allowed to vote in future Saudi Arabian elections, but such political reforms must be implemented "gradually," the kingdom's foreign minister said Wednesday.

The Gulf nation, an absolute monarchy, recently held its first regular election, for city council members. But the vote was open only to men.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in London for meetings with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and other officials, said his country's election commission had recommended women participate in the next vote.

"I would not be surprised if they do so in the next round of elections," he said.

Two more phases of the municipal vote will be held in March and April, but it was unclear whether Saud was referring to those elections....

Saud, however, said political reforms would have to come slowly.

"The wish is to move as fast as we can, the reality says that you have to move gradually," he said. "We in Saudi Arabia believe in the necessity of political reform, but it must be evolutionary."

He said the government wanted to improve human rights, an issue Straw said was on the agenda for the ministers' talks.

"We're working very hard for that ... to assure that justice reaches every single human being in the country," Saud said.

One wonders if the strong performance of the conservatives in the first round of regional elections convinced the regime that giving women the political franchise might be in their own self-interest.

This post is not meant to be a jumping up and down saying, "Look, Saudi reforms!! Yippee!!" Clearly, this is going to take a while.

But it would be nice if one could say that the Saudis were only 85 years behind the times -- instead of 250.

Developing.... very, very, slowly.

posted by Dan at 11:28 AM | Comments (29) | Trackbacks (4)

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Call me "Dr. Dre" from now on

Josh Levin compares rappers to bloggers in Slate:

Essentially, blogging is sampling plus a new riff. Political bloggers take a story in the news, rip out a few chunks, and type out a few comments. Rap songs use the same recipe: Dig through a crate of records, slice out a high hat and a bass line, and lay a new vocal track on top. Of course, the molecular structure of dead-tree journalism and classic rock is filthy with other people's research and other people's chord progressions. But in newspaper writing and rock music, the end goal is the appearance of originality—to make the product look seamless by hiding your many small thefts. For rappers and bloggers, each theft is worth celebrating, another loose item to slap onto the collage.

Rap music and blogging are populist, low-cost-of-entry communication forms that reward self-obsessed types who love writing in first person. Maybe that's why both won so many converts so quickly. If you want to become MC I'm Good at Rapping, all you have to do is rustle up a microphone and a sampler. If you want to blog as AngryVeganCatholicGOPMom, bring a computer, an Internet connection, a working knowledge of Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V, and a whole lot of spare time.

Although bloggers and rappers are free to write about whatever they damn well please, they mostly talk to each other and about each other. That's partly because it's so easy to communicate with your fellow working professionals. If Nas disses you for not having a moustache, it's easy enough to come right back and tell him you slept with the mother of his child. When Markos from Daily Kos offhandedly admits that he doesn't read many books, Little Green Footballs steps up to hammer the softball.

But rappers' and bloggers' self-importance also has something to do with the supremely annoying righteousness that rides along with those who believe they're overturned the archaic forms of expression favored by The Man—that is, whitey and/or the mainstream media. Ninety percent of rap lyrics are self-congratulatory rhymes about how great the rapper is at rapping, the towering difficulties of succeeding in the rap game, or the lameness of wanksta rivals. Blogging is a circle jerk that never stops circling: links to posts by other bloggers, following links to newspaper stories about bloggers, following wonderment at the corruptions and complacency of old-fashioned, credentialed journalism.

Sampling, cutting, pasting, and then writing a few short words of commentary? That b**ch Levin don't know what the f*** he's talking about. [Fo'shizzle!--ed.]

[Did Levin get the "circle jerk" meme from Bill Keller--ed. Beats me. Speaking of Keller, however, Jeff Jarvis has posted his ongoing correspondence with the New York Times Executive Editor. Oh, and Slate has added a new feature, Today's Blogs -- which appears to be a useful compliment to their equally useful Today's Papers feature.]

UPDATE: South Knox Bubba has his own retort to Slate.

posted by Dan at 01:55 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (1)

How stable is Bretton Woods 2?

The Bretton Woods regime for managing the international monetary system was inherently unstable because of the Triffin dilemma. Nevertheless, the true Bretton Woods system did last for 14 years (1958-1971). It lasted for eleven years after Triffin explained the system couldn't last forever.

Economists are labelling the current monetary arrangements as Bretton Woods 2. Under this system, the U.S. is running massive current account deficits to be the source of export-led growth for other countries. To fund this deficit, central banks, particularly those on the Pacific Rim, are buying up dollars and dollar-denominated assets.

The dollar’s fall in value relative to the euro is costly for the central banks holding large amounts of dollar-denominated assets. In purchasing so many dollars, these banks have a powerful incentive to ensure that their investment retains its value -- but they an equally powerful incentive to sell off their dollars if it appears that they will rapidly depreciate. This cost creates a dilemma for these central banks. Collectively, these central banks have an incentive to hold on to their dollars, so as to maintain its value on world currency markets. Individually, each central bank has an incentive to sell dollars and diversify its holdings into other hard currencies. This fear of defection leads to a classic prisoner’s dilemma—and the risk that these central banks will simultaneously try to diversify their currency portfolios poses the greatest threat toward a run on the dollar.

So, the stability of this arrangement depends heavily on how much cooperation there is among the official purchasers of the dollar, and the extent to which these institutions are willing to absorb the costs of holding a depreciating asset compared to the benefit of subsidizing export-led growth as a means of absorbing underutilized labor.

What are the answers to these questions? Pick your door. Behind door # 1 is Nouriel Roubini and Brad Setser. Billmon ably summarizes the latest version of Roubini and Setser's paper:

The major Asian central banks hold $2.4 trillion in reserves, and probably around $1.8 trillion in dollars (roughly half the US [net international investment position). Asian central banks . . . cannot avoid taking capital losses on their existing holdings of dollar reserves. The only question is when they will incur the unavoidable losses, and to a lesser degree, how large those losses will be.

For another voice behind this door, see this FT article (both links courtesy of Brad Setser).

Earlier this week it looked like South Korea was about to trigger the fall in dominoes. As Brad recounts:

It looks the remarks of Korea's Central Bank President last week were a leading indicator of today's big news: Korea plans to diversify its reserves away from the dollar!

....the real question is who [formerly, how -- oops] else follows suit -- Thailand already has shifted out of the dollar (look at how its reserves moved in January, when the dollar rose v. the Euro), Russia too. But most central banks are still massively overweight dollars....

The other big question, of course, is how much additional pressure this all places on China: the Bretton Woods 2 system of central bank financing of the US current account deficit increasingly hinges on the People's Bank of China's willingness to keep adding to its dollar reserves at an accelerating rate.

However, it turns out that the predictions of Korean behavior were greatly exaggerated, as Hae Won Choi, Seah Park, and Mary Kissel explain in the Wall Street Journal:

Maybe it was all just a big misunderstanding.

Central bankers in South Korea and around Asia fought yesterday to reassure traders that they aren't about to dump their dollar holdings. Fears a day earlier that such a move might be imminent caused the U.S. currency to fall 1.4% against both the yen and the euro, roiling securities and commodities markets around the globe. Official denials helped stabilize the U.S. currency yesterday....

The dollar selling was ignited by market reports that the Bank of Korea sought to "diversify" its foreign-exchange reserves -- the world's fourth-largest -- something traders interpreted as a decision by the bank to cut its dollar holdings.

Central-bank officials insisted their statements had been misconstrued.

Kang Myun Mo, director general of reserve management at the bank, said that there is no plan to sell dollars and that the "proportion of U.S. dollars in the bank's foreign-exchange reserves will not change." The bank, he says, simply intends to invest more in higher-yielding nongovernment bonds in the future. "At the moment, there is no reason to sell U.S. dollars," Mr. Kang said.

In response to comments from Mr. Kang and other officials -- as well as statements by central bankers in Japan and Taiwan that they don't plan to sell dollars, either -- the currency rebounded during the Asian trading day against both the won and the yen.

[So Roubini and Setser weren't right today -- what about next week, next month, or next year?--ed.] Ah, this leads to door #2: David H. Levey and Stuart S. Brown's "The Overstretch Myth" in the March/April 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs. The key section:

U.S. financial markets have stayed strong even as the financing of the U.S. deficit shifts from private investors to foreign central banks (from 2000 to 2003, the official institutional share of investment inflows rose from 4 percent to 30 percent). A large percentage of the $1.3 trillion in Asian governments' foreign exchange reserves is in U.S. assets; central banks now claim about 12 percent of total foreign-owned assets in the United States, including more than $1 trillion in Treasury and agency securities. Official inflows from Asia will likely continue for the foreseeable future, keeping U.S. interest rates from rising too fast and choking off investment.

In a series of recent papers, economists Michael Dooley, David Folkerts-Landau, and Peter Garber maintain that Asian governments--pursuing a "mercantilist" development strategy of undervalued exchange rates to support export-led growth--must continue to finance U.S. imports of their manufactured goods, since the United States is their largest market and a major source of inward direct investment. Only a fundamental transformation in Asia's growth strategy could undermine this mutually advantageous interdependence--an unlikely prospect at least until China absorbs the 300 million peasants expected to move into its industrial and service sectors over the next generation. Even the widely anticipated loosening of China's exchange-rate peg would not alter the imperatives of this overriding structural transformation. Ronald McKinnon of Stanford argues that Asian governments will continue to prevent their currencies from depreciating too much in order to maintain competitiveness, avoid imposing capital losses on domestic holders of dollar assets, and reduce the risk of an economic slowdown that could lead to a deflationary spiral. According to both theories, there should be no breakdown of the current dollar-based regime.

Official Asian capital inflows, moreover, should soon be supplemented by a renewal of private inflows responding to the next stage of the information technology (IT) revolution. Technological revolutions unfold in stages over many decades. The it revolution had its roots in World War II and has proceeded via the development of the mainframe computer, the integrated circuit, the microprocessor, and the personal computer to culminate in the union of computers and telecommunications that has brought the Internet. The United States--thanks to its openness, its low regulatory burden, its flexible labor and capital markets, a positive environment for new business formation, and a financial market that supports new technology--has dominated every phase of this technological wave. The spread of the IT revolution to additional sectors and new industries thus makes a revival of U.S.-bound private capital flows likely.

An abstract of one of the Dooley, Folkerts-Landau, and Garber papers concurs with this evaluation of the "peripheral" economies:

Financial policies in these countries are seen as a component of a more general portfolio management policy in which the formation of an efficient domestic capital stock is a key objective. Because intervention in financial markets is an important part of their development strategy, intervention in exchange and financial markets has, and we argue will continue to be, large and persistent enough to generate predictable deviations of exchange rates and relative yields in industrial country financial markets from normal cyclical patterns. We argue that management of the currency composition of international reserves by emerging market governments and central banks is unlikely to alter these conclusions.

[So who's right? WHO'S RIGHT-???!!!ed.] I'm not so stupid as to claim the ability to render a judgment on this question. What I can say is that among the economists I talk to, more of them to open door #2. However, the market hiccup that took place earlier this week highlights the fragility of this equilibrium. In the end, this is more a question of political economy than straight economics, and the likelihood of successful cooperation among this group of economies makes me wonder about the robustness of Bretton Woods 2. So even though I understand the logic of their arguments, I remain a little less sanguine than my economic advisors.


posted by Dan at 12:57 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (5)

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Interesting facts of the day

The Economist has a survey on New York City that is chock full of fascinating information. Some of the items that piqued my interest:

Manhattan is still enormously wealthy. The residents of just 20 streets on the east side of Central Park donated more money to the 2004 presidential campaigns than all but five entire American states....

Most immigrants live in the outer boroughs, two-thirds of them in Queens or Brooklyn, where they build businesses and often homes. Flushing in Queens, whose population is now nearly two-thirds immigrant, is a striking example. Poor and virtually all white in the early 1970s, the place is now Asian and flourishing. Across the city there has been a boom in housing construction. From the start of 2000 to July 2004, permits for about 85,000 new units were issued, almost as many as in the whole of the 1990s. And nearly half of all new housing in the past seven years is reckoned to be occupied by immigrants or their children....

Sex and the City” stars four young career women and is ostensibly about the difficulties of finding a man in New York. It has a point. According to an analysis for The Economist, there are 93 men to every 100 women among single New Yorkers aged 20-44. In the country as a whole, and in most other big cities, there are more young single men than young single women....

Leave out the passengers and crew on the aeroplanes that were flown into the World Trade Centre, and about 2,600 people were killed in New York on September 11th 2001. Put that tragic number in perspective, and you can perhaps see how it is possible for New York to be a powerful magnet for talent, youth and energy once more. In 1990 there were 2,290 murders in the city; last year there were 566. Thus even if a September 11th were to occur every other year, the city would by one measure be quite a lot safer than it would be with crime at its 1990 level and no terrorism.

Click here to hear an audio interview with the survey's author, Anthony Gottlieb.

posted by Dan at 09:37 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Technical difficulties solved

For the past week there had been some difficulties with the trackback feature on the blog.

Everything should be working properly now.

Apologies to one and all for the inconvenience.

posted by Dan at 04:26 PM | Trackbacks (0)

Help out the Millennium Challenge Corporation!

I received the following e-mail from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government entity designed to administer the Millennium Challenge Accounts proposed by President Bush during his first term. Here's the key parts of the e-mail:

[W]e believe that you may be able to help us identify or develop a cross-national indicator or index that measures sustainable natural resource management policies. MCC currently uses a set of sixteen indicators developed by independent third parties to measure governments' policies in three categories: ruling justly, investing in people and promoting economic freedom. Using these indicators, the MCC's Board of Directors has already selected seventeen countries as eligible for assistance. MCC's selection methodology and scores of candidate countries are available at

In its authorizing legislation, MCC is also asked to use "...objective and quantifiable indicators of a country's demonstrated commitment to economic freedom, including a demonstrated commitment to ... economic policies that promote ... the sustainable management of natural resources." Thus far, we have not been able to identify an indicator or index that meets MCC criteria in this area. As set out in our FY05 selection methodology and elsewhere, in selecting and evaluating any indicator, MCC favors indicators that:

· are developed by an independent third party;

· utilize objective and high-quality data;

· are analytically rigorous and publicly available;

· have broad country coverage and are comparable across countries;

· have a clear theoretical or empirical link to economic growth and poverty reduction;

· are policy-linked, i.e. measure factors that governments can influence within a two to three year horizon; and

· have broad consistency in results from year to year.

To identify an indicator, MCC announced plans today for a Natural Resources Working Group (NRWG) that will explore existing metrics and discuss new possibilities. On February 28, 2005, MCC Board Member Governor Christine Todd Whitman will chair a public session to explain the NRWG process, our criteria for proposal evaluation, and our timeline. She will also invite comments and proposals.... Throughout this period, we will also be accepting proposals from the academic community, public and private sector practitioners, and researchers at think-tanks and non-governmental organizations for indicators or indices that measure a country's natural resource management policies....

Finally, we would like to underscore the policy significance of this endeavor. MCC, unlike many other donors, is willing and able to put up large sums of money in exchange for meaningful and verifiable policy reforms. By making the sustainable management of natural resources an MCC policy indicator in its own right, we believe that MCC can raise the profile of environmental issues in developing countries and provide a powerful financial incentive for improving natural resource management institutions. We also hope that this new legislative mandate will stimulate discussion and improve data quality.

As many of you know, despite a large qualitative literature on natural resource management in developing countries, unreliable time-series environmental data have hindered the accumulation of knowledge in this field and led to tired and sterile policy discussions. Sadly, as a result, policy makers are many times not able to allocate scarce taxpayer dollars efficiently. Thus, we believe that the MCC's NRWG represents a unique opportunity to pool our collective knowledge and inform U.S. government decision-making with systematic, objective, and detailed data.

I'm happy to hear useful suggestions on this front. The indicators that I've seen on this issue are mostly the macro-historical stuff coming from the world polity paradigm in sociology. I suspect that even the progenitors of these measures would acknowledge that they wouldn't be of much use for the MCC.

posted by Dan at 01:38 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

How offshore outsourcing has devastated the high tech sector

A year ago I was in the middle of writing "The Outsourcing Bogeyman" for Foreign Affairs. When it came out, I received a fair amount of static from tech workers explaining that I didn't understand the situation they faced. Since offshore outsourcing is an ever-increasing phenomenon, perhaps we should examine how offshoring devastated the tech sector over the course of the past year.

Let's see, Ed Frauenheim has some interesting reporting on this topic for CNET News:

Large-scale layoffs, prevalent in the technology industry since the dot-com implosion, are scaling back.

So indicates a fourth-quarter U.S. Department of Labor report released Wednesday. The study also suggests that offshore outsourcing--widely blamed for tech-related layoffs and other potential economic problems in recent months--accounted for just a small fraction of major, extended layoffs in the United States last year.

In the three months ended Dec. 31 of last year, 7,857 workers in the IT industry lost their jobs as part of "extended mass layoffs," down significantly from 15,318 a year earlier. That compares with 236,637 such layoffs in all sectors, down from 325,333 in the fourth quarter of 2003.

Hmmm.... well, just just means fewer tech people are losing their jobs. Surely it doesn't mean that these firms are hiring again, right? Let's check out this Kathie O'Donnell story for CBS MarketWatch:

For the first time, Yahoo Inc. is recruiting MBAs on campus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is welcome news to Jeffery Sean Davis, who expects to graduate this spring owing $120,000 in student loans.

Davis, 35, worked in tech research and development for the U.S. government before enrolling in the two-year program at MIT's Sloan School of Management. The Los Angeles native said he's glad to be graduating this year rather than 2004, given the increase in recruiting he's seen.

Many technology firms that slashed jobs in leaner times are finding they must hire to position themselves for growth, Davis said. In 2004, he found recruiters sought to fill specific needs, while this year, there's more general, overall hiring.

"The war for talent really is back on," said John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas....

The jobless rate for master's degree holders in computer and mathematical fields was 3.3 percent last year, down from 5.5 percent in 2003 and 5.3 percent in 2002, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that's still nowhere near the 1.1 percent rate in 2000, it's still a marked improvement.

"After somewhat sluggish labor-market conditions following the 2001 recession, the job market for individuals in computer and mathematical occupations with master's degrees has improved recently," Bureau economist Steve Hipple said....

MIT statistics show prospects for its MBA grads are improving. In 2004, 96 percent had job offers three months after graduation and 91 percent had accepted. Tech positions accounted for 19 percent of accepted jobs. In 2003, 91 percent had job offers in that timeframe and 88 percent accepted. Tech jobs accounted for 20 percent of jobs accepted.

Well, I'm sure this doesn't translate into increased demand for white collar workers across the board or anything.

Besides, as the smarter critics point out, what matters less than the number of jobs lost or gained is the downward effect that offshoring has on wages. Surely, offshore outsourcing would have put a damper on wages in the high-tech sector, right? Let's check out this Frauenheim story for CNET:

Computer professionals of different stripes saw their wallets get fatter last year, according to government data.

From 2003 to 2004, the average weekly earnings of employed, full-time software engineers rose 8.8 percent to $1,418, according to statistics from the U.S. Labor Department. Average weekly earnings climbed 6.8 percent to $1,205 for computer scientists and systems analysts, and increased 7.7 percent to $1,194 for network systems and data communications analysts....

Electrical and electronics engineers saw their average weekly earnings increase by a more modest 3.3 percent, to $1,402. That rise amounted to treading water in the overall economy, given that the consumer price index also rose 3.3 percent for the year.

The data on rising earnings comes amid conflicting signals about the job situation for technology professionals in the United States. Reports have documented fewer layoffs for IT workers, and the average number of unemployed workers in nine high-tech categories--including computer programmers, database administrators and computer hardware engineers--fell from 210,000 in 2003 to 146,000 in 2004, according to Labor Department statistics.

To be fair, there is contradictory information on the wage issue. This Dice survey suggests that wages fell overall in the computer sector in 2004. But even this report observes that:

Salaries have improved in Washington D.C. (up 3.6 percent), Atlanta (up 2.6 percent) and Southern California (up 1.1 percent) from 2003.... These metro areas have also seen significant growth in job postings on the Dice site, up 93 percent, 140 percent and 74 percent respectively between December of 2003 and December of 2004.

This would be consistent with the homeshoring phenomenon of tech sectors doing well in lower-wage areas outside of Silicon Valley. The fact that the Dice survey does not appear to cover new tech hotspots like Oklahoma leads me to trust the Labor Department figures more.

[So things are better in 2004 than in 2003 -- but the labor market in IT has sucked for a couple of years. Why are you so giddy about one year of positive data?--ed. The downturn in the IT labor market was real, but there were a lot of reasons for that -- the end of Y2K, the dot-com crash, the recession, and, yes, offshore outsourcing. However, offshoring critics has insisted that the problem is only getting worse and will lead to devastating employment and wage effects on the IT sector. Clearly, offshoring is not going away in the IT sector -- but the 2004 data suggests that the götterdammerung assumption was, at the very least, a gross exaggeration.]

posted by Dan at 10:43 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (3)

North Korea zigs, North Korea zags

It appears that North Korea has changed its mind about walking away from six-party talks on its nuclear ambitions. Anna Fifield and Richard McGregor provide the following report in the Financial Times:

North Korea suddenly reversed its position on multilateral nuclear talks on Tuesday, offering to discuss its nuclear weapons programmes with the US and its neighbours, if Washington showed “sincerity” and met its “mature conditions”.

The reversal, less than two weeks after Pyongyang captured the world's attention by declaring it had already made nuclear weapons, follows the dispatch of Wang Jiarui, a high-level Chinese envoy, to the North Korean capital.

The U-turn, offering the hope of a resumption of the six-party talks, is the latest bout of erratic behaviour from a North Korean regime that has so far evaded all efforts to disarm it.

The official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, as offering to return to negotiations, adding that his country “never opposed the six-party talks but made every possible effort for their success”.

“We will go to the negotiating table anytime if there are mature conditions for the six-party talks,” KCNA reported.

It is rare for Mr Kim to be quoted directly, and this is his first statement since the February 10 nuclear announcement.

Here's a link to the KCNA press report. This is certainly a change from North Korea's rhetoric and actions earlier this month.

If this change of tack pans out -- the North Korean statement has an awful lot of wiggle room -- then North Korea has put China into an increasingly awkward position. This episode would demonstrate that China is the one country that can get the North Koreans to cooperate. Which means, down the road, that China will be pressured by the other members of the six-party talks to compel North Korea to halt its weapons program.

posted by Dan at 12:05 AM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (1)

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A different take on the female public intellectual "problem"

I've got a lot on my plate right now, which is why I've been studiously avoiding the whole Larry Summers kerfuffle -- I haven't had the time to read his remarks in full and don't want to wade in those waters until/if I do.

However, I do want to wade into an eddy of the Michael Kinsley/Susan Estrich blood feud over a Los Angeles Times op-ed by Charlotte Allen. To be specific, I don't want to bother with Estrich or Kinsley -- click here, here, here, and here for more on them -- but rather examine Allen's original hypothesis a bit more carefully -- because, to put it kindly, it's a crock of s***.

Here's the nub of Allen's argument:

When Susan Sontag died recently, she was mourned as America's leading female intellectual. So the question naturally arose: Is there anyone to take her place? If you can't come up with many names, you're in good company. The list is short.

This wasn't always the case. Ironically, during that part of the 20th century when overt discrimination barred many women from advanced educations, lucrative fellowships and prized teaching and editorial positions preparatory for the world of public letters, there were many brilliant, highly articulate female writers who combined a rigorous mind with a willingness to engage broad political, social and literary issues for an audience beyond academia. We still read their books (or at least their epigrams), and we remember their names: Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, Mary McCarthy, Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt and Sontag, to name several.

Some of these women possessed glittering scholarly credentials. But most did not, because a public intellectual is more than simply an intellectual. Unlike the academic version who speaks mostly to fellow scholars, public intellectuals pitch their ideas to the general reading public — and their writings appear in newspapers, magazines and books. Garry Wills is a public intellectual; Berkeley's jargon-laden postmodern theorist Judith Butler is not.

Public intellectuals also explore the implications of ideas, which distinguishes them from sharply observant journalists. When Sontag wrote about camp — or Tom Wolfe about customized cars as kinetic sculpture — they joined writing about popular culture with the long tradition of writing about high culture.

One possible explanation for the dearth of Sontag successors is our electronics-saturated age that is inexorably diminishing the number of people who read. Our hyper-specialized higher education system is another candidate. Academic postmodernism, with its contempt for the general public, has largely replaced the core liberal arts curriculum that once created a shared literary culture and an appetite for serious ideas.

Still, there is no shortage of well-known male intellectuals. Besides Wolfe and Wills, we have Richard Posner, Louis Menand, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Buruma and Henry Louis Gates Jr., to name some, along with scientists who write provocatively for a general readership: Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond. In books and magazines, these intellectuals, who represent a wide variety of ideological perspectives, debate a broad spectrum of topics: science and politics, high and low art, literature, evolution, the Iraq war, campus sexual mores, the origins of the universe.

There are female intellectuals with stellar credentials and bestselling books: Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Deborah Tannen, Natalie Angier. But there's a big difference between these women and their forebears. They are all professional feminists. They don't simply espouse feminism; they write about little else. Feminist ideology forms the basis of their writings, whether it's Greer on the infantilization of women by a patriarchal society, Tannen on how the sexes are socialized to communicate differently, Faludi on how white men have reacted to women's progress, Ehrenreich on how the male medical establishment intimidates female patients, or Angier on how humans ought to be more like bonobos, the female-dominated, sexually liberated cousins of chimpanzees.

Let's conduct a little experiment: as a faculty member at the University of Chicago, and looking only at my colleagues within my university, can I gin up a list of notable public intellectuals who write on topics beyond feminism? Why, yes, yes I can!!:

Danielle Allen
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Melissa Harris-Lacewell
Martha Nussbaum
Saskia Sassen
Iris Marion Young

Hey, I did that without breaking a sweat!!

If Allen -- who co-edits (???) Inkwell, the blog of the Independent Women's Forum -- wants to claim that female public intellectuals are hostage to doctrinnaire feminism, I'll concede that she doesn't have to search that far to find examples to support her hypothesis. However, she appears not to have searched at all for any cases that contradict her hypothesis. And that doesn't make her a very good public intellectual at all.

[You only searched within the confines of your ivory tower. Maybe your university is atypical--ed. I'd agree, but beyond the U of C, it's still not that difficult to think of counterexamples to Charlotte Allen's hypothesis -- Deborah Dickerson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Jessica Tuchman Matthews, Peggy Noonan, Virginia Postrel, Diane Ravitch, Claudia Rossett, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Theda Skocpol, etc. (UPDATE: Other excellent suggestions from the comments thread -- Anne Applebaum, Amy Guttman, Samantha Power, Elaine Scarry, etc.)]

UPDATE: Aspiring public intellectual Phoebe Maltz offers her take:

[P]art of the reason things have changed since Arendt et al is that there's now this huge workforce of female professionals, so brilliant women who might have once gone into public-intellectualizing are now investment bankers, lawyers, etc. So the women who remain are the ones who don't just need to channel intellect, but who really do just want to get paid to write about whatever happens to be on their minds. Well, Andrew Sullivan makes it known that he's gay, Cornel West, rumor has it, is black, so if we take them as they are, do we really need to fault Barbara Ehrenreich for focusing on female workers?

posted by Dan at 11:35 AM | Comments (22) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Bill Keller on the blogosphere

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has been quite chatty about the blogosphere as of late. According to this report by Amanda Erickson in the Columbia Spectator:

Keller also sees “blogging,” or online writing that blurs news and commentary, as a mixed blessing. While he celebrated the blogger’s ability to uncover breaking news, he noted that a blog’s inherent bias might be detrimental to the reader. “A blog is still a view of the world through a pinhole,” he said, noting that it can sometimes fall as low as being a “one man circle jerk.”

“There is a pressure to feel well informed without ever confronting an opinion that confronts your prejudices,” he said of blog readers.

Link via Mickey Kaus.

Wow, sounds like this Keller guy is a bit of an anti-blog jerk. Wait, it gets worse -- in an open letter to Jeff Jarvis he says that, "bloggers... are paranoid, propagandistic, unreliable, hate-filled, self-indulgent, self-important and humorless." (link via Glenn Reynolds.)

Now, before anyone gets too upset, bear in mind that the quote I just generated from Keller's letter is not really consistent with the overall tone of his snarky but friendly exchange with Jarvis. Read the whole letter. Let's put that quote in context now:

Can I just state something for the record? While we probably have our differences on the role of the MSM (btw, I personally favor "elite media," at least as it pertains to the NYT) I would like to make clear that I consider blogs relevant and important. I do not hold them in disdain, as you imply. I won't risk embarrassing my favorite bloggers by identifying them (except to say that buzzmachine is bookmarked in my office and at home) but I find the best of them to be a source of provocative insights, first-hand witness, original analysis, rollicking argument and occasional revelation. As I'm sure you will agree, you can also find bloggers who are paranoid, propagandistic, unreliable, hate-filled, self-indulgent, self-important and humorless. (Just like people!)

Sounds correct to me -- I might add that if you take "cable television" or "talk radio" as a media category, the comment still holds.

What's interesting about these different Keller episodes is that the Columbia Spectator reporter probably took just the juiciest bit from Keller's comments regardless of whether they were consistent with the overall tenor of his remarks -- whereas Jarvis ("mediaman by day, blogboy by night") reprinted all of Keller's comments, allowing one to judge Keller's argument in toto.

Oddly enough, this is undoubtedly one trait that good bloggers share with the New York Times. The Times, as the "paper of record," was very good about printing the full text of important documents and speeches before there was a world wide web. The best bloggers, through hyperlinks, can engage in a similar practice when parsing out someone's comments.

Just a thought.

posted by Dan at 11:40 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (1)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Interesting developments in Iraq

In the wake of yesterday's suicide attacks in Iraq, Time's Michael Ware has an exclusive look at back-channel negotiations between U.S. officials and elements of the Iraqi insurgency. The highlights:

The secret meeting is taking place in the bowels of a facility in Baghdad, a cavernous, heavily guarded building in the U.S.-controlled green zone. The Iraqi negotiator, a middle-aged former member of Saddam Hussein's regime and the senior representative of the self-described nationalist insurgency, sits on one side of the table. He is here to talk to two members of the U.S. military. One of them, an officer, takes notes during the meeting. The other, dressed in civilian clothes, listens as the Iraqi outlines a list of demands the U.S. must satisfy before the insurgents stop fighting. The parties trade boilerplate complaints: the U.S. officer presses the Iraqi for names of other insurgent leaders; the Iraqi says the newly elected Shi'a-dominated government is being controlled by Iran. The discussion does not go beyond generalities, but both sides know what's behind the coded language.

The Iraqi's very presence conveys a message: Members of the insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. "We are ready," he says before leaving, "to work with you."

In that guarded pledge may lie the first sign that after nearly two years of fighting, parts of the insurgency in Iraq are prepared to talk and move toward putting away their arms--and the U.S. is willing to listen. An account of the secret meeting between the senior insurgent negotiator and the U.S. military officials was provided to TIME by the insurgent negotiator. He says two such meetings have taken place. While U.S. officials would not confirm the details of any specific meetings, sources in Washington told TIME that for the first time the U.S. is in direct contact with members of the Sunni insurgency, including former members of Saddam's Baathist regime. Pentagon officials say the secret contacts with insurgent leaders are being conducted mainly by U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers. A Western observer close to the discussions says that "there is no authorized dialogue with the insurgents" but that the U.S. has joined "back-channel" communications with rebels. Says the observer: "There's a lot bubbling under the surface today."

Over the course of the war in Iraq, as the anti-U.S. resistance has grown in size and intensity, Administration officials have been steadfast in their refusal to negotiate with enemy fighters. But in recent months, the persistence of the fighting and signs of division in the ranks of the insurgency have prompted some U.S. officials to seek a political solution. And Pentagon and intelligence officials hope the high voter turnout in last month's election will deflate the morale of the insurgents and persuade more of them to come in from the cold.

Hard-line Islamist fighters like Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda group will not compromise in their campaign to create an Islamic state. But in interviews with TIME, senior Iraqi insurgent commanders said several "nationalist" rebel groups--composed predominantly of ex--military officers and what the Pentagon dubs "former regime elements"--have moved toward a strategy of "fight and negotiate." Although they have no immediate plans to halt attacks on U.S. troops, they say their aim is to establish a political identity that can represent disenfranchised Sunnis and eventually negotiate an end to the U.S. military's offensive in the Sunni triangle. Their model is Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, which ultimately earned the I.R.A. a role in the Northern Ireland peace process. "That's what we're working for, to have a political face appear from the battlefield, to unify the groups, to resist the aggressor and put our views to the people," says a battle commander in the upper tiers of the insurgency who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Marwan. Another negotiator, called Abu Mohammed, told TIME, "Despite what has happened, the possibility for negotiation is still open."

Read the whole thing. Ware's story jibes with Patrick Quinn's AP account of the Sunni response to both the election and the latest string of suicide attacks:

As the Shiite majority prepared to take control of the country's first freely elected government, tribal chiefs representing Sunni Arabs in six provinces issued a list of demands – including participation in the government and drafting a new constitution – after previously refusing to acknowledge the vote's legitimacy.

"We made a big mistake when we didn't vote," said Sheik Hathal Younis Yahiya, 49, a representative from northern Nineveh. "Our votes were very important."

....Gathering in a central Baghdad hotel, about 70 tribal leaders from the provinces of Baghdad, Kirkuk, Salaheddin, Diyala, Anbar and Nineveh, tried to devise a strategy for participation in a future government. There was an air of desperation in some quarters of the smoke-filled conference room.

"When we said that we are not going to take part, that didn't mean that we are not going to take part in the political process. We have to take part in the political process and draft the new constitution," said Adnan al-Duleimi, the head of Sunni Endowments in Baghdad....

Meanwhile, a powerful Sunni organization believed to have ties with the insurgents sought Sunday to condemn the weekend attacks that left nearly 100 Iraqis dead.

"We won't remain silent over those crimes which target the Iraqi people Sunnis or Shiites, Islamic or non-Islamic," Sheik Harith al-Dhari, of the Association Muslim Scholars, told a news conference.

Iraqis, he said, should unite "against those who are trying to incite hatred between us."

They include Iraq's leading terror mastermind, the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Even in a best-case scenario, successful negotiations with the Baathist insurgents would not end the violence in Iraq that Zarqawi and others would generate. And, if memory serves, the Sunnis made similar noises about participating in the political process after Hussein's capture.

Still, these are very encouraging signs.


UPDATE: Be sure to check out Phil Carter's post on the spontaneous creation of anti-insurgency militias in Iraq.

posted by Dan at 09:21 PM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (0)

Dumb, dumb A-Rod

[NOTE: If you don't care about baseball, just skip this post entirely.]

Alex Rodriguez reported to spring training for the Yankees today. Over the past week multiple members of the Red Sox have bashed A-Rod to varying degrees over comments he made in the offseason and his on-the-field altercations with the Red Sox during the regular season -- and most infamously, in Game 6 of the ALCS (go to this link and then click on the "Plays of the Game" for the 10/19 game vs. the Yankees).

Here's what he had to say about that play today:

Rodriguez was the face of the Yankees' ALCS loss to the Red Sox, with his "slap play" against Arroyo in Game 6 serving as the frozen moment for fans on both sides of the rivalry. A-Rod laughed when asked about that play on Sunday, saying he still thinks it was the right move for him to make.

"I thought it was a brilliant play -- and we almost got away with it," Rodriguez said. "It took a lot of guts -- and was the right call by Jim Joyce -- to make that call in Yankee Stadium in that environment. I was stuck in an alley, boys. There was nowhere to go.

"I gave my best karate, even though I only got to a yellow belt," he added. "I think Brandon [he meant Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo--DD] is a great pitcher. I played with him in high school. It's just one of those things. If that game was in June, I probably don't do that. But in Game 6, you do silly things. Perhaps it was a silly thing, but at the time I thought it was pretty smart."

To which I can only say, "Huh?"

Recall the situation -- the Red Sox were leading 4-2 with one out in the bottom of the 8th inning and Derek Jeter on first base. A-Rod hits a weak squibbler to Arroyo, and tried to slap it away. For his troubles, A-Rod was called out and Jeter was sent back to first base. If A-Rod doesn't slap at Arroyo's glove, he's advanced Jeter into scoring position with Gary Sheffield at the plate. It sounds minor, but having Jeter at second rather than first makes it much easier for Sheffield to drive in a run.

What A-Rod did wasn't silly -- it was downright stupid.

UPDATE: Speaking of A-Rod, Karen Guregian has a piece in today's Boston Herald excoriating the Red Sox players for bashing A-Rod so much. This is a bit rich -- as Murray Chass points out in today's New York Times, it's the media trying to keep this story alive:

In this new version of "Get the good guy," the Red Sox are blameless. One player, Trot Nixon, ignited the game with negative comments about Rodriguez last week and a torrent of teammates have followed. But the teammates' comments have not been unsolicited. They were at the urging of reporters eager to inflame the game to incendiary levels. They were all but handed a script.

Athletes have long accused reporters of creating stories, and, sadly, this is one of those instances. It has become one of the most distasteful instances I have witnessed in 45 years of covering baseball....

Every player who spoke with reporters last week was asked what they thought of Rodriguez, whether they agreed with what Nixon said. Extended the invitation, some players replied with negative comments, but most of what they said in response to the invitations was far less severe than the resulting articles reflected.

Hat tip: David Pinto.

posted by Dan at 08:31 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)