Friday, June 10, 2005

My colleges are in the news

Tom Friedman received an honorary degree from my alma mater and -- of course -- manages to turn it into a column. This one highlights a lovely graduation tradition:

Every year, in addition to granting honorary degrees, Williams also honors four high school teachers. But not just any high school teachers. Williams asks the 500 or so members of its senior class to nominate the high school teachers who had a profound impact on their lives. Then each year a committee goes through the roughly 50 student nominations, does its own research with the high schools involved and chooses the four most inspiring teachers.

Each of the four teachers is given $2,000, plus a $1,000 donation to his or her high school. The winners and their families are then flown to Williams, located in the lush Berkshires, and honored as part of the graduation weekend....

"Every time we do this, one of the [high school] teachers says to me, 'This is one of the great weekends of my life,' " said Williams's president, Morton Owen Schapiro. "But it is great for us, too. ...

"When you are at a place like Williams and you are able to benefit from these wonderful kids, sometimes you take it for granted. You think we produce these kids. But as faculty members, we should always be reminded that we stand on the shoulders of great high school teachers, we get great material to work with: well educated, well trained, with a thirst for learning.

"So we have been doing our little part to recognize that. ... We take these teachers, who are not well compensated and often underappreciated, and give them a great weekend."

If you think these awards are not important for the teachers receiving them, then you don't know anything about teachers.

I must also applaud President Schapiro (for whom I was a teaching assistant when he taight Economics 101) to for being savvy enough to lure Friedman out to Williamstown and getting some fine press for the institution in the New York Times.

Meanwhile, my current institution of higher learning has also generated some press which reinforces all the good things you hear about the U of C. Scott Jaschik explains in Inside Higher Ed:

To understand why professors need great libraries, says Andrew Abbott, “you need to think about an ape swinging through the trees.”

Abbott is not an evolutionary biologist, but a sociologist at the University of Chicago. And to Abbott, a scholar in a library is just like a swinging primate. “You’ve got your current source, which is the branch you are on, and then you see the next source, on the next branch, so you swing over. And on that new hanging vine, you see the next source, which you didn’t see before, and you swing again.”

When books aren’t browsable or instantly available, Abbott says, a scholar becomes the ape “with no branch to grab, and you are stopped, hanging on a branch with no place to go.”

At far too many libraries, he says, that is becoming the norm. Many universities are boasting about how they are digitizing collections or building vast, off-site facilities to store millions of books. Even when those books are available within hours, Abbott says, that destroys the way scholars need to think — moving from source to source, not knowing which source they will stumble on.

Abbott heads a faculty committee at Chicago in charge of guiding a mammoth expansion of the Joseph Regenstein Library there. Chicago recently embarked on a plan that will end up with Regenstein housing more volumes — 8 million — under a single roof than any other university library in the United States (the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign currently has the honor, with 7.5 million volumes in its main library). What’s more, none of the library’s collections will be moved off site, most monographs will be browsable, and miles of new stacks will be added in the expansion of 38,000 square feet....

To understand how unusual the Chicago expansion is (Regenstein currently has only 4.5 million volumes), Harvard University offers an illustrative comparison. Harvard has more volumes in total — 15 million — than any American university. But Harvard has more volumes stored off-site (5.5 million) than in its single largest library, Widener Library, which has 3.5 million volumes.

The non-bibliophile might ask, isn’t 3.5 million plenty?

Judith Nadler, director of the library at Chicago, answers with an emphatic No, which isn’t surprising given that she supervises the purchase of 150,000 new volumes a year. “Collections within quick reach matter,” Nadler says. “Our research today is interdisciplinary. You don’t just go in one subject area. So the more you have under one roof, under one classification system, the easier it is, the better it is for scholars.”

Nadler is quick to point out that Chicago is not Luddite with regard to the role of technology in helping libraries. Regenstein’s users, for example, have access online to full text of more than 40,000 journals. But she says that the hype about digitization ignores the limits technology offers, especially for research facilities with global subject matter.

“I think the significance of what we are doing is enormous,” she says. “We have a very, very large and rich collection, and it is rich in area studies, in languages, rich in materials from all parts of the world — including many parts of the world where digitization will not come for a very long time in the future.” Chicago intends to step up its purchasing in such areas in the years ahead, Nadler says, creating a repository of materials that the best search engine couldn’t find.

Thanks to alert reader B.K. for the pointer.

UPDATE: The utility of searching the stacks contrasts nicely with James Falows' lament about computer searches in the New York Times:

Search engines are so powerful. And they are so pathetically weak.

When it comes to digging up a specific name, date, phrase or price, search engines are unstoppable. The same is true for details from the previously concealed past....

Yet for anything but simple keyword queries, even the best search engines are surprisingly ineffective.

Recently, for example, I was trying to track the changes in California's spending on its schools. In the 1960's, when I was in public school there, the legend was that only Connecticut spent more per student than California did. Now, the legend is that only the likes of Louisiana and Mississippi spend less. Was either belief true? When I finally called an education expert on a Monday morning, she gave me the answer off the top of her head. (Answer: right in spirit, exaggerated in detail.) But that was only after I'd wasted what seemed like hours over the weekend with normal search tools. If it sounds easy, try using keyword searches to find consistent state-by-state data covering the last 40 years.

posted by Dan at 10:53 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (1)

Economists are flummoxed

When Alan Greenspan can't explain the bond market, I start to get very, very nervous.

Among the biggest surprises of the past year has been the pronounced decline in long-term interest rates on U.S. Treasury securities despite a 2-percentage-point increase in the federal funds rate. This is clearly without recent precedent. The yield on ten-year Treasury notes, currently at about 4 percent, is 80 basis points less than its level of a year ago. Moreover, even after the recent backup in credit risk spreads, yields for both investment-grade and less-than-investment-grade corporate bonds have declined even more than Treasuries over the same period.

The unusual behavior of long-term interest rates first became apparent almost a year ago. In May and June of last year, market participants were behaving as expected. With a firming of monetary policy by the Federal Reserve widely expected, they built large short positions in long-term debt instruments in anticipation of the increase in bond yields that has been historically associated with a rising federal funds rate. But by summer, pressures emerged in the marketplace that drove long-term rates back down. In March of this year, market participants once again bid up long-term rates, but as occurred last year, forces came into play to make those increases short lived. There remains considerable conjecture among analysts as to the nature of those market forces.

Of course, what Greenspan is sure about doesn't make me feel any better:

Our household saving rate remains negligible. Moreover, modest, if any, progress is evident in addressing the challenges associated with the pending shift of the baby-boom generation into retirement that will begin in a very few years. And although prices of imports have accelerated, we are, at best, in only the earliest stages of a stabilization of our current account deficit--a deficit that now exceeds 6 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Now part of the reason savings is at a historic low is that asset prices have been rising so dramatically over the past ten years -- equities in the late nineties and housing now. So it's tough to say that the American consumer is behaving irrationally -- why save income when your assets are appreciating at a healthy clip?

Tyler Cowen speculates on whether this is true and is just as flummoxed as Greenspan is about the bond market:

So what is the problem? Does liquifying real assets somehow bring excess leverage to the economy? I don't see why. Or does borrowing against real assets lead to a later switch toward consumption, thereby necessitating transformation costs? Each individual thinks he has a more liquid savings position than is the case; borrowing is cheap but society as a whole must incur reallocation costs to convert the real capital into consumption. But how big a factor can this be?

All seems fine. Yet in my neo-Austrian gut I cannot bring myself to think as capital gains as analytically equivalent to abstinence out of income.

I file this one under the category of "macroeconomic problems I've been thinking about for twenty years but haven't made much progress on."

Now is normally the point in the post when I give you my take on things. Not this time -- I'm just as stumped as Cowen and Greenspan on these questions.

posted by Dan at 07:45 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Spin better!!!

One of my favorite Simpsons moments is when Homer is watching a TV set showing Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor -- at which point he bangs on the set and says, "Be funnier!!"

That moment came to my head when I read this Jackie Calmes report in the Wall Street Journal that this year's budget deficit is smaller than projected:

While the administration and Congress won't officially revise their separate annual deficit projections until midsummer for fiscal 2005, which ends Sept. 30, government and private-sector analysts agree the shortfall is more likely to be about $350 billion, rather than the $427 billion the administration forecast in January. Treasury Secretary John Snow is expected to carry the tidings to London for this weekend's summit of finance ministers from the Group of Eight leading nations, who have harped on the growing American debt and foreign borrowing.

Administration officials say the improved fiscal picture suggests the president is on track to deliver more quickly on a campaign promise to cut the annual deficit in half as a share of the total U.S. economy, to 2.3% of gross domestic product. (By comparison, last year's $412 billion deficit was 3.6% of GDP.) Private analysts don't put much stock in that promise, however; even if Mr. Bush claims victory, the nation still faces long-term deficit problems. Overall federal spending is increasing, including for war costs. More broadly, spiraling health-care costs for Medicare and Medicaid programs, including a prescription-drug benefit for seniors starting next year and a wave of baby-boomer retirements after 2008, will drive federal deficits to unsustainable sizes....

"With the president's focus on spending discipline, we are seeing positive signs for the American economy, and for the federal government's balance sheet," Budget Director Joshua Bolten said in a statement. (emphasis added)

Why did I think of that moment? Because Bolten's comment was so absurd that I was tempted to bang the computer and yell "Spin better!!"

Finding out that the annual budget deficit is 20% smaller than previously should be manna from heaven for the administration. And there's an excellent line for the explanation -- the administration's policies have fostered faster-than expected economic growth which has increased tax revenues. So if I were working for the administration, I'd say, "With the president's focus on growing the economy, we're seeing an improved balance sheet for the government." That's spin in the best sense -- accentuating your positive attibutes.

What I wouldn't mention is "the president's focus on spending discipline," which brings up two unformortable facts: a) this administration has no spending discipline; and b) combine that with a Congress that loves to spend as well and you've got widening deficits for some time.

posted by Dan at 10:20 AM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (2)

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Can North Korea overtake South Africa?

Via Oxblog's Patrick Belton, I see that North Korea has managed to get itself sanctioned by another international organization:

Political rivals Japan and North Korea are set to play in a World Cup football qualifier in an empty stadium in Bangkok.

The two teams will take to the field on Wednesday night (1030 GMT, 0630 ET) amid boosted security measures that will ensure no North Korean or Japanese fans are in sight.

In a rare move, the World Cup governing body FIFA moved the game from Pyongyang to Bangkok to punish North Korea after unruly crowd behavior during the country's game against Iran in Pyongyang in March.

This step by FIFA -- and North Korea's ongoing campaign for Rogue State of the Year -- got me to wondering: which country in the world has been the most popular target of sanctions approved by an international organization?

As someone who's written a bit about economic sanctions, I confess to not having a definitive answer -- to my knowledge, no one has ever researched this question. Certainly North Korea has been moving up in the ranks -- the UN (back during the Korean War), the IAEA in 1994, and now FIFA.

However, I'd still be willing to bet that the answer to this question is apartheid-era South Africa. At one point or another, the United Nations, Organization for African Unity, European Economic Community, South African Development Community, and the Commonwealth imposed sancdtions -- not to mention the International Olympic Committee and FIFA.

The hard working staff here at will be on top of this issue to see if and when North Korea can overtake the rogue state of the twentieth century. I hjave no doubt that the regime in Pyongyang is capable of pulling this off.

posted by Dan at 04:13 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

The costs and benefits of military primacy

I've blogged in the past about the security benefits of American military hegemony -- namely, that when one state holds military primacy, the incentives for other countries to engage in arms races and military advanturish declines. One obvious measure of these kind of security benefits is the reduction of aggregate military expenditures. As Gregg Easterbrook noted two years ago:

Annual global military spending, stated in current dollars, peaked in 1985, at $1.3 trillion, and has been declining since, to $840 billion in 2002. That's a drop of almost half a trillion dollars in the amount the world spent each year on arms.

Soooo..... I was a bit chagrined to read this AP report that says global defense spending is on the rise:

Global military spending in 2004 broke $1 trillion for the first time since the Cold War, boosted by the U.S. war against terror and the growing military budgets of India and China, a Swedish think tank said Tuesday.

Led by the United States, which accounted for 47% of military expenditures, the world spent $1.035 trillion, equal to 2.6% of global gross domestic product, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said.

The world total grew 6% in 2004 from the previous year, the institute said. Adjusted for inflation, the total is only 6% lower than its Cold War peak in 1987-88, said researcher Elisabeth Skons, who coauthored the annual report.

Sounds like a strike against the theory of hegemonic stability. However, if you click on the SIPRI report and go to Chapter Eight, you find out the cause of the increase:

The major determinant of the world trend in military expenditure is the change in the USA, which makes up 47 per cent of the world total. US military expenditure has increased rapidly during the period 2002–2004 as a result of massive budgetary allocations for the ‘global war on terrorism’, primarily for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. These have been funded through supplementary appropriations on top of the regular budget. The supplementary appropriations for this purpose allocated to the Department of Defense for financial years 2003–2005 amounted to approximately $238 billion and exceeded the combined military spending of Africa, Latin America, Asia (except Japan but including China) and the Middle East in 2004 ($193 billion in current dollars), that is, of the entire developing world. Thus, while regular military spending has also increased in the USA as well as in several other countries and regions, the main explanation for the current level of and trend in world military spending is the spending on military operations abroad by the USA, and to a lesser extent by its coalition partners.

What are the normative implications of this? We go back to the AP report:

"It's hard to put the United States in the center, or blame everything on the U.S.," said Alyson Bailes, the think tank's director. "Despite all the ongoing problems, the state of world security is a great deal better than it was in the Cold War." (emhasis added)

posted by Dan at 12:15 PM | Comments (57) | Trackbacks (2)

The OECD's recipe for economic growth

Psst... hey, buddy -- want to make some more money?

Chris Giles writes in the Financial Times on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's latest working paper:

Workers in advanced economies could gain the equivalent of a full year's income over their working lives if countries increased competition in their domestic economies and reduced trade barriers, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said on Tuesday.

The international body charged with improving the economic performance of its 30 member countries came down firmly on the side of market liberals after examining the effects of restricting competition.

“At a time when Europe may be losing momentum in its drive to open product and services markets, the study shows that the economic rationale for such liberalisation remains very strong,” said Jean-Phillippe Cotis, the organisation's chief economist.

You can access the OECD's summary here, and the full report here. By barriers, the authors are referring to tariffs, limits on foreign direct investment, and product market regulation. The bulk of the gains come from regulatory reforms.

How big are the benefits? This is from the report's cover letter:

The benefits to be expected from such a liberalisation exercise are... substantial:

  • In the United States, GDP per capita would increase by 1% to 2.5%;

  • In Europe, GDP per capita would be boosted by between 2 to 3%, which is equivalent to two years of growth. Compared with the United States, gains would be stronger in Europe, reflecting its tighter initial stance of regulation.

  • Spill-overs outside the European Union and the United States may be large: 2% for Canada and Mexico, 1.5% for Turkey, Japan and Central Europe....
  • An important lesson of this work is that product market deregulation rather than tariff lowering would provide the main source of economic gains. This finding should not come as a surprise, however, knowing that tariff and non-tariff barriers are now rather small while domestic product market regulations remain often substantial, especially so in the services sector.

    The magnitude of estimated output gains look very significant to us but they may seem too modest to some observers. A first answer would be that our estimation of the gains of liberalisation are indeed very prudent. In this exercise, we have only assessed the “one-shot”or “static gains”, coming from greater international trade specialisation and better allocation of resources. But many would argue that liberalisation produces “dynamic gains”, that is more open product markets stimulate research, innovation and technical progress on a sustained basis. Empirical research indeed suggests that these gains could be quite large although their estimated magnitude is still surrounded by substantial margins of uncertainty.

    Read the whole thing.

    UPDATE: Robert Tagorda at Outside the Beltway has some more thoughts on the OECD report.

    Meanwhile, Gary Hufbauer and Paul Grieco's op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday makes a similar point about the past benefits of economic openness:

    Using four different methods, we estimate that the combination of shrinking distances--thanks to container ships, telecommunications and other new technologies--and lower political barriers to international trade and investment have generated an increase in U.S. income of roughly $1 trillion a year (measured in 2003 dollars), or about 10 percent of gross domestic product. This translates to a gain in annual income of about $10,000 per household.

    Unfortunately for the cause of continued liberalization, Americans do not receive this money as a check marked “payoff from globalization.” Instead, the payoff is hidden within familiar channels: fatter paychecks, lower prices and better product choices (compare the telephones available now with the standard black model of 1980).

    Nevertheless, each of our four methods uncovers a large payoff. First, we parse international data that correlate the expansion of international trade with economic growth. This shows that the increase in U.S. income sparked by more intense trade equates to 13.2 percent of GDP. In the second method, we calculate how lower tariffs stimulate U.S. productivity through competitive forces and bring greater product choices to U.S. producers and consumers. The estimate for these benefits comes to 8.6 percent of GDP. Third, we draw on a computable general equilibrium model to suggest how today's economy would react to the restrictive Smoot-Hawley trading environment of the 1930s. That exercise indicates an estimate of 7.3 percent more in GDP from liberal trade. Finally, we calculate the productivity benefits arising from use of imported components and find a benefit of 9.6 percent of GDP. While none of the four estimates is perfect, the broad result is clear: The benefits of trade and investment liberalization are positive and large.

    Given the large gains from past liberalization, and today's low tariffs and modest investment barriers, skeptical commentators might say, "Been there, done that." But our estimates of future policy liberalization alone (excluding likely benefits from better communications and transportation) indicate that a move from today's commercial environment to global free trade and investment could produce an additional $500 billion in U.S. income annually, or roughly $5,000 per household each year. Much of the benefit would come from sectors of the economy that were effectively ignored during earlier rounds of liberalization: services, agriculture, transportation and trade with developing countries.

    [But the costs... what about the costs!!--ed. Ah, yes, they measure that too:

    Surveying several estimates, we arrive at a middle-of-the-road figure of roughly 225,000 trade-related job losses per year. Most dislocated workers find new jobs in six months, many far sooner; but some are unemployed for an extended period. Even workers who are re-employed may face significant pay cuts. Taking these features into account, we estimate that the lifetime costs of a year's worth of trade-related job losses is roughly $54 billion, about $240,000 per affected worker. This is a huge loss on a personal level, but only about 5 percent of the annual national gains from liberalization. (emphasis added)

    Click here to read more.

    posted by Dan at 12:36 AM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (3)

    Tuesday, June 7, 2005

    492326* words later....

    Readers may have detected a somewhat harried nature to my blog posts of the last few weeks. The reason is that I was preparing to hand in my tenure file -- the packet of information that is sent to external referees asked to write about my case. A tenure file consists of:

    A) Updating my cv;

    B) Compiling hard copy versions of everything that's mentioned in the cv that I want my betters in the field to actually read with a careful eye (i.e., no "occasional publications," op-eds, or blog posts);

    C) A statement that encapsulates the underlying themes of my research and teaching to date.

    If this sounds like all it would require is a cloistered weekend and some toner, well, that's what I thought six weeks ago. I then discovered, however, that writing a statement of research and teaching is the equivalent of writing a ten page cover letter saying, "Look at me!! LOOK AT ME!!!" You'd think with my blog and everything this would be easy to write, but you'd be wrong.

    Then I decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to revise my book manuscript and polish all of the draft articles I have in the wings. Not surprisingly, this took a bit longer than expected, and distracted me a hell of a lot more than my lovely wife expected.

    I handed in the file this morning. As I sank back into my chair, I began to wonder just how many words I had printed out. In a fit of sheer bloody-mindedness, I opened up every document, did a word count, and added it all up. Which is where I got the title to this post.

    [What's with the asterisk?--ed. Because that word count, while accurate, is nevertheless inflated. Like every other political scientist, I publish my scholarly work in both article and book form. Many of my articles are simply book chapters that have been hived off into stand-alone essays. Similarly, I have sometimes published more accessible forms of my research in policy journals. So while the word count is pretty high, there's a lot of duplication. How much duplication?--ed. I'd say that buried beneath that word count are about three big ideas, four pretty big ideas, three smaller ideas, and some nice moments of criticism.]

    Anyway, it's off my desk and out of my hands -- so I'm now off to do some serious drinking.

    After the whole process is over -- i.e., in early 2006 -- I might be motivated to post something about the political economy of getting tenure. For now, however, political scientists should click over to Henry Farrell's informative post about how to get your conference paper accepted for the American Political Science Association annual meeting.

    posted by Dan at 03:25 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (1)

    Monday, June 6, 2005

    What I got out of Mark Felt this week

    The orgy of commentary and journalism produced by the revelation that W. Mark Felt was Deep Throat has been staggering -- and mostly unproductive. The revelation that a key source for Woodward and Bernstein was the number two man in the FBI and a J. Edgar Hoover loyalist has produced a lot of bullshit -- and in the case of Pat Buchanan, outright lies.

    So has there been any commentary of value to be gleaned from this revelation? I've seen two things worth reading -- though both of them are only tangental to Felt's coming out party. Surprisingly enough, they're written by two people who probably don't get along very well -- David Brooks and Sasha Issenberg (click on this Noam Scheiber essay to find out why they don't get along).

    Brooks does a great riff off of Bob Woodward's first person account of how he first met and got to know Felt. This allows him to talk about the topic he covers so well -- what aspiring young people do to get ahead:

    Bob Woodward... was in the midst of the starting-gate frenzy.

    Places like Washington and New York attract large numbers of ambitious young people who have spent their short lives engaged in highly structured striving: getting good grades, getting into college. Suddenly they are spit out into the vast, anarchic world of adulthood, surrounded by a teeming horde of scrambling peers, and a chaos of possibilities and pitfalls. They discover that though they are really good at manipulating the world of classrooms, they have no clue about how actual careers develop, how people move from post to post.

    And all they have to do to find their way amid this confusion is to answer one little question: What is the meaning and purpose of my life?

    ....Entering the world of the Higher Shamelessness, they begin networking like mad, cultivating the fine art of false modesty and calculated friendships. The most nakedly ambitious - the blogging Junior Lippmanns - rarely win in the long run, but that doesn't mean you can't mass e-mail your essays for obscure online sites with little "Thought you might be interested" notes....

    This is now a normal stage of life. And if Bob Woodward could get through something like it, perhaps they will too.

    For that is the purpose of Watergate in today's culture. It isn't about Nixon and the cover-up anymore. It's about Woodward and Bernstein. Watergate has become a modern Horatio Alger story, a real-life fairy tale, an inspiring ode for mediacentric college types - about the two young men who found exciting and challenging jobs, who slew the dragon, who became rich and famous by doing good and who were played by Redford and Hoffman in the movie version.

    As you would expect, one Junior Lippman takes the time to respond -- but if you ask me, Brooks' point has attracted too much attention for it to be dismissed lightly -- see Elizabeth Bumiller and Tim Noah for more on this theme.

    Issenberg, meanwhile, has a great piece in Slate about how Felt's revelations bring to mind an excellent Watergate movie -- and it ain't All the President's Men:

    Unlike the movie that made Woodward and Bernstein into matinee idols, the 1999 comedy Dick stripped Watergate of its cloak-and-dagger and left it in pigtails....

    Superficially, Dick was a spoof on All the President's Men. In place of the earlier film's battle between two grand Washington institutions, Dick renders the White House and the Washington Post as sitcom offices. Heroic Woodward is played not by dashing Redford, but by Will Ferrell, with the halting inanity he brings to every role.

    But Dick was really a riposte to Oliver Stone's 1991 epic JFK, which trolled every nook and cranny of Kennedy-assassination conspiracy. In exploring each little question raised by the events in Dallas (including many that are settled, in the eyes of every serious scholar), Stone seeks out the most abstrusely nefarious explanation possible....

    Our disenchantment with Deep Throat follows a common American narrative: What begins as conspiracy is eventually reduced to camp. Dick sends up what Richard Hofstadter in 1964 identified as "the paranoid style in American politics." The movie doesn't make light of Watergate—the gravity of Nixon's crimes isn't questioned, and his young friends are shocked by his meanness, even if he doesn't come across as diabolical—as much as it spoofs the narrative impulses that drew us to Watergate as a tale. Both Dick and the recent Deep Throat unveiling leave us to reckon with the dissonance of Watergate's importance and its minor-league cast of characters. With JFK, Oliver Stone tried to invent a story that, in its sprawling scope, could be as big as the death of a president—a counterpoint to a Warren Commission version written in a language of narrowing: lone gunman, single-bullet theory. In Dick, both heroes and villains come only in size small: They are all central-casting buffoons.

    Hmmm.... paranoid style in American politics infecting public commentary... yes, that sounds familiar. Well, at least Felt's revelations will put the conspiracy meme to rest on this question. Oh, wait....

    posted by Dan at 06:08 PM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (0)

    When graduate students discover the Internet

    "Alan Mendelsohn" has a pretty funny first-person account in the Chronicle of Higher Education about what happens when a literature department at "a major research university on the West Coast" sets up a blog for grad students. The results are not pretty at all. One example:

    Our discussion group was no longer a safe place. That nascent fear was borne out in full a year later, when our department was interviewing candidates in two areas, Renaissance literature and 20th-century literature by minority authors. Marsha urged everyone to attend the job talks and voice an opinion about the hiring process. "You can have an influence on the hiring process, even if it's not your field," she wrote. She feared that a reactionary candidate would be hired for the Renaissance job, and warned us that the department's conservative professors might hijack the other search by hiring the "Clarence Thomas of Minority Lit."

    Within 10 minutes of her message, Dave had pounced. It was hard enough being a specialist in minority literature, he wrote. "We don't need to be condescended to as well." He angrily questioned why a minority hire must always be associated with tokenism and incompetence. He was galled by Marsha's "unconscious (dare I say) racism."

    Here we go again, I thought: We won't see the last of this for several hours. I was wrong. It would be days.

    In a bizarre performance, Brian vaulted into the discussion to announce that Dave was "the boy who cried racism." Neither Dave nor Marsha wanted a reactionary hire, so what were they arguing about? "We are all on the same fuckin' side," Brian announced: "Diversity is good, hegemony is bad," and if Dave or his supporters felt like protesting, Brian admonished, "bite your tongue."

    Now that's public consensus with a vengeance. (And a tire iron.) Students' network connections had been sparking, but the toss of that oil drum led to an all-out conflagration, bringing out people's worst sides.

    Postings from what seemed like half the students in the department alternately demanded that Dave or Brian apologize, and those postings were themselves attacked as "bad faith." A South Asian woman told a Jewish man that he could have no conception of what racism was. The debate began to develop "threads" that had little to do with the original Clarence Thomas figure of speech: One student emphasized that no charge of racism had ever, in fact, been made -- Dave had attacked the way in which Marsha's rhetoric had been "interpellated" by racist discursive formations, not Marsha herself.

    It was during the follow-up responses that the term "postmodern wanker" was first used, to be deployed by both factions in various ways over the next week.

    Ah, the academy -- almost everyone on the same side of the ideological fence, and nary an agreement in sight.

    "Mendelsohn" concludes that maybe the Internet is not the nirvana of Habermasian discourse, but the academic version of crack:

    Where online environments are concerned, we may not kill each other, but we'll probably end up suing. You can spend so much time drafting a criticism of a theoretical trend that you're bored with the essay by the time it appears in a peer-reviewed journal, but at least you've produced something more lasting than a blog-delivered, "You think you're so sympathetic to the oppressed, Dr. New Historicist, but when it comes to labor activism in the community, you're a no-show."

    Wherever these new technologies take us, I've certainly started living by my own set of rules -- e.g., no postings unless it's for a summer sublet. Spending time on the Internet may well be an academic's version of watching too much of the boob tube, and I'm going to limit myself to one hour a day.

    "Alan Mendelsohn", by the way, is a pseudonym -- and I can't say I blame him. But I will always be grateful to him for the introduction of "postmodern wanker" into my lexicon.

    posted by Dan at 10:45 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (3)

    Sunday, June 5, 2005

    Giving a whole new meaning to "the chosen people" means

    This Economist story makes me very, very uncomfortable:

    The idea that some ethnic groups may, on average, be more intelligent than others is one of those hypotheses that dare not speak its name. But Gregory Cochran, a noted scientific iconoclast, is prepared to say it anyway. He is that rare bird, a scientist who works independently of any institution....

    Together with Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending, of the University of Utah, he is publishing, in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Biosocial Science, a paper which not only suggests that one group of humanity is more intelligent than the others, but explains the process that has brought this about. The group in question are Ashkenazi Jews. The process is natural selection.

    Ashkenazim generally do well in IQ tests, scoring 12-15 points above the mean value of 100, and have contributed disproportionately to the intellectual and cultural life of the West, as the careers of Freud, Einstein and Mahler, pictured above, affirm. They also suffer more often than most people from a number of nasty genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs and breast cancer. These facts, however, have previously been thought unrelated. The former has been put down to social effects, such as a strong tradition of valuing education. The latter was seen as a consequence of genetic isolation. Even now, Ashkenazim tend to marry among themselves. In the past they did so almost exclusively.

    Dr Cochran, however, suspects that the intelligence and the diseases are intimately linked. His argument is that the unusual history of the Ashkenazim has subjected them to unique evolutionary pressures that have resulted in this paradoxical state of affairs.

    Read the whole article to understand the explanation of Cochran et al. Here's a link to their working paper on the topic.

    The thing is, Cochran has also advanced the idea that, "homosexuality is caused by an infection," which is just strange.

    posted by Dan at 04:58 PM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (0)