Friday, August 5, 2005

Obscure economic indicator... cool...

Like everyone else a few people serious geeks econ geeks, I have an avid interest in unconventional indices that measure conventional economic phenomenon. For example, the Economist's Big Mac index -- which develops exchange rates based on the price of a Big Mac in different countries -- is a crude but pithy way of demonstrating the difference between market exchange rates and purchasing power parity. Even better, it accomplishes a pedagogical task that does not come easily to economists -- providing an intuitive way to appreciate economic phenomenon.

I bring this up because Daniel Gross has an excellent piece in Slate that details an interesting yet obscure leading indicator for economic growth -- parking rates:

Moore began an effort to systematically assess the state of the national parking market. For five years, he's been publishing an annual guide to the ins and outs of parking. If you want to know how much a monthly reserved spot in a covered garage in the Raleigh, N.C., central business district costs, check out Moore's 2005 North America CBD Parking Rate Survey.

But the survey doesn't simply tell you how much it costs to stow your SUV in a garage in Milwaukee for a day ($7). It can tell us something about what's going on in the economy—and about the relative health of the business and consumer sectors. Moore checks out the prices only once a year, but by keeping an eye on prices more frequently, sidewalk analysts might be able to get a leg up on some trends.

The survey charts several rates in 58 markets—monthly reserved and unreserved spots, and daily parking rates. Moore believes that the price for monthly spaces—occupied primarily by commuting workers—moves in sync with the health of the office market. But the daily rates—occupied by theatergoers and shoppers, tourists, people attending conferences, and roving consultants—generally track the health of the broader, consumer-based economy....

parking rates can make a good economic indicator. Parking is a highly competitive business with lots of pricing transparency—as with gasoline, the price is generally displayed on a large public sign. Managers and owners thus have the ability and incentive to react quickly to changed market conditions. As a result, a spurt in growth or a sudden downturn is more likely to show up at the parking garage more rapidly than it would in a GDP number or a company's quarterly earnings. If you see a rash of discounts on monthly reserved spots, it's a sign that companies in the area may be doing poorly. Or if daily prices spike in a garage attached to a downtown retail complex, it's probably good news for the companies inside.

My only objection is that I think Gross might be exaggerating the transparency -- compared to gas stations, parking garages are most likely to have their Early Bird specials in big print to onscure their ordinary rates.

Still, it's a nifty metric.

posted by Dan at 04:41 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

My Normblog profile

Norman Geras has added me to his long list of profiles.

If you're dying to know my favorite proverb or my one useful piece of life wisdom, go check it out

posted by Dan at 09:12 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, August 4, 2005

August's Books of the Month

The general interest book is -- [um, like, it's August. Could you please suggest something that's less.... non-fictiony?--ed.] I'll do that suggestion one better -- I'm not going to recommend a book. Instead, I'm strongly recommending that you go out and purchase Firefly -- the Complete Series -- a DVD of Joss Whedon's sci fi series from 2002. I confess that I missed the show when it first came out, but thanks to Tyler Cowen's suggestion I checked it out and am now completely hooked. There are many, many, many paeans to Firefly in the blogosphere if you're interested in them. Anyone who likes Battlestar Galactica needs to watch this show in order to understand the debt, both in terms of themes and visual style, that Galactica owes to Firefly (this is not meant to diss Galactica, which is a fine show, but rather point to its influences). At its core, Firefly is Whedon doing what Whedon does best -- making his watchers forget the multiple layers of irony they are used to in popular culture and care very deeply about what happens to the little world he has created. Be sure to check out Whedon's commentary tracks for some of the episodes as well -- you'll see that he cares even more about the characters than you do.

[So why now, why not save this until the fall?--ed.] Because Whedon has also accomplished something extrardinary -- he managed to convince a major movie studio to commit a fair amount of money and let him make a movie, called Serenity, based on the show. Here's the synopsis:

Joss Whedon, the Oscar? - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE, ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family ?squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.

Whedon even contributed a final entry on the making-of-the-movie blog.

You can watch the Serenity trailer here. I suspect it will be an entertaining film regardless of whether you have seen Firefly -- Whedon also wrote the screenplays for Speed and Toy Story -- but I bet it will be an even better viewing experience if you have seen all 14 episodes of the show (the Sci Fi channel is also airing them).

[How in the hell did Whedon convince a studio to convert a failed TV show into a movie?--ed.] The best answer I've seen is in this Weekly Standard article by M.E. Russell. Besides the most succinct description of the show I've seen yet, ("Think of it as Star Wars, if Han Solo were the main character, and he still shot Greedo first."), Russell explains why Universal thinks this is worth doing:

Budgeted at a mere $40 million, Serenity will almost certainly break even once box office, home-video, and other aftermarket revenues are counted--which means Universal can afford to use the film to beta-test a new way of selling movies.

Rough-draft versions of films--with temporary music, editing and "placeholder" special effects that look like Nintendo 64 screenshots--usually have a carefully controlled release only to tightly-monitored focus-group screenings. They're never shown repeatedly to their core audiences (paying core audiences, mind you) four months in advance of their official release dates. Nor do actors and producers attend these screenings with barnstorming vigor: But in Serenity's case, all the major cast members have made surprise appearances during the screenings--signing autographs and holding lengthy Q&A sessions afterwards.

At the May 26 showing in Portland, some significant studio brass were on hand. Universal Pictures marketing bigwig Julie Brantley and Serenity executive producer Chris Buchanan introduced the film and watched it from café £hairs on the side of the auditorium....

And even if the producers are worried, it's a calculated gamble. The June 23 wave of previews has been expanded to 35 cities--including a couple in Canada--but the movie has still only been seen by a small percentage of hard-core fans. So the screenings create the illusion of scarcity and keep the fan message boards alive by relieving pre-release suspense in little kettle-steam puffs. It creates all-new sub-hierarchies of fans with "I saw it before you did" bragging rights. It inspires free advertising in the form of entertainment-press stories (including, well, this one) about the "Browncoat phenomenon." And, best of all for Team Whedon, revenue from these screenings will very likely be applied to Serenity's opening-weekend gross.

The marketing plan rises to evil-genius levels when you realize all the ways the move from April to September pried open six months' worth of free-publicity for the entire Firefly/Serenity franchise. Since the fan screenings began, Firefly DVD sales have shot up the genre charts at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. In July, a Dark Horse Serenity comic book, written by Whedon, will hit shelves, and the Sci-Fi Channel will soon start broadcasting the 14 Firefly episodes--all of them, in order.

None of which cost Universal a dime.

Of course, by blogging about this, I've become an unwitting pawn to the whole viral marketing approach.

Mmmm.... unwitting pawns....

Join the Browncoats, and go buy the goram DVD.

This month's international relations book is one that's been killing me for the past few weeks as I've been working on my APSA paper -- Susan Sell's Private Power, Public Law: The Globalization of Intellectual Property Rights.

Sell's book is about the role that software, pharmaceutical, and entertainment firms played in having the United States lobby for the creation of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property system (TRIPS) within the World Trade Organization -- and then the counter-lobbying by developing countries and transnational activist networks that led to the November 2001 Doha Declaration, which explicitly carved out an exception to TRIPS "to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all."

It's the second part of the story that drives me crazy -- because if Sell's narrative is correct, it falsifies the argument I make in my own book on globalization and global governance. When the regulatory status quo is embraced by the two largest trading powers (the US and EU) and by powerful economic sectors embedded in those economies, there is no way that weaker countries and NGOs should be able to budge the status quo. And yet, if Sell's account is correct, that's exactly what happened (Any USTR folks who know otherwise, kindly e-mail me).

It's because Sell's account is so compelling that I'm in the middle of doing something that should happen more often in political science -- examining the cases that cut against my own hypothesis. Either this case is emblematic of a larger problem or it suggests a minor anomaly that I didn't account for in the original model, or the significance of the case is overblown. Reading through, I think it's a combination of the latter two, but it's a credit to Sell's book that she's making me sweat this case. Go check it out.

posted by Dan at 10:36 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (3)

Medicine and the modern pitcher

On his 43rd birthday, Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens has become his generation's Nolan Ryan, the Official Hero to American Middle-Aged Men everywhere.

No Red Sox fan can have an uncomplicated opinion of Clemens -- however, this Alan Schwarz article in provides a nice illustration of how medical advances made Clemens' long career possible:

[F]or most of baseball history, a "sore arm" was like a malevolent genie who visited pitchers in the night, entered their joints and corroded their futures from the inside with no explanation or recourse. Johnny Beazley, Karl Spooner, Mark Fidrych ... they all faded into anonymity before medicine could fix them, medicine we now take for granted. When you consider that almost every top modern pitcher has gone under the knife at some point -- heck, some throw harder after ligament-transplant surgery -- you realize what a lucky era we're in.

So lucky that most people forget that Roger Clemens could have been one of those pitchers we never heard from again. It was 20 years ago that he and his throbbing shoulder lay on the operating table -- before any 20-strikeout games, before any Cy Young awards and before arthroscopy was a sure thing. Before Dr. James Andrews was sure he could fix him....

In June 1985, Clemens learned that a shoulder tendon and nerve were rubbing together, causing "the nerve to rise and get as big as shoelaces," Clemens said then. He tried to pitch through it but ultimately couldn't. On Aug. 23, he was told that he had a "flap tear" in his shoulder and was reportedly "devastated" by the news. The only good news was that the arthroscope, which originally had fixed knees in the 1970s, had come far enough that it could be used, instead of the more invasive scalpel, to shave down the damaged tissue.

"We had very little knowledge [about pitchers] -- they hurt and that's about all we knew," recalls Dr. Andrews, who performed the hour-long surgery on Clemens. "We began to arthroscope shoulders and started being able to see what was inside. Roger was one of the early ones."....

Clemens has been such a machine for the past 20 years that many people can't (or don't want to) believe how close we were to losing him. I asked Andrews to consider what might have happened had Clemens been born just 10 years earlier and hurt his shoulder before the scalpel gave way to the arthroscope.

"We probably wouldn't have been able to fix it," Andrews says sadly. "He probably would have fallen by the wayside."

posted by Dan at 04:51 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

The quaint old coup

Mauritania is a not-so-pleasant reminder of a relatively pleasant fact: military coup d'etats are a post-Cold War rarity. According to Patrick McGowan (‘African Military Coups d’Etat, 1956–2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution’, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 41, issue 3, 2003.):

[T]he military coup is today almost exclusively an African phenomenon. Once frequent and widespread in the global South, since the mid-1980s successful military coups d’e´tat have become relatively rare in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia; whereas between 1985 and 2001 SSA [sub-Saharan Africa] experienced 21 successful coups and 41 failed coup attempts.

Outside of Africa, the only successful coups in the past decade have been in Haiti and Pakistan. Interestingly, the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been independent for 25 years and have avoided coups are Botswana, Cape Verde and Mauritius -- all of which are multiparty democracies. [UPDATE: Hmmm..... this previous sentence came straight from the McGowan article, but Jacob Levy is right to wonder why South Africa isn't on this list. One possibility is that McGowan includes attempted coups, and there might have been one in the late eighties/early nineties that escapes our collective memory.]

Even inside Africa, there is relatively good news -- although the pace of coup activity has not abated, according to McGowan the relative success of coup attempts has declined. In other words, there are as many coup attempts as in the past, but fewer of them succeed.

Why? One obvious reason for the decline in coups is the absence of great power support for them. Another reason might be contained in this London Times story by Jenny Booth:

The African Union today suspended the membership of Mauritania after yesterday's bloodless military coup deposed President Maaouiya Ould Taya.

The AU Peace and Security Council said that the suspension would remain in place until "constitutional order" is returned to the west African state.

"In light of the coup d’etat that took place on August 3... Mauritania’s participation in all AU activities should be suspended until the restoration of constitutional order in the country," the council said in a statement.

Here's a link to an earlier AU condemnation of the coup.

Whether this will actually alter the behavior of the coup plotters is doubtful at this point, but it's worth remembering that even this gesture would never have taken place ten years ago. And such gestures in the past have helped to thwart coups in Latin America.

The rest of the world's response has been along similar lines to what's happened in Mauritania.

Alas, focusing on Mauritania itself, it seems pretty clear that the coup does not do wonders for U.S. foreign policy, according to Booth's report:

The quick return to calm appeared to suggest there was widespread acceptance of President Taya’s overthrow. Islamic opposition parties celebrated the deposition of a ruler who had looked increasingly to the West, in response to alleged threats from al-Qaeda linked militants with ties to radical groups in Algeria.

On the other hand, this International Crisis Group report from March 2005 suggests that fears of radical Islamic activity are overblown. See also Princeton Lyman's CFR briefing on the coup.


posted by Dan at 02:42 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Trade, China, and steel

The Chicago Tribune has two articles in its business section on trade with China -- both of which show that all is not what it seems when you analyze a bilateral economic relationship between two large countries.

The first story by Ameet Sachdev looks at the decision by Nucor to barnstorm in favor of the administration "getting tough" with China:

Under a big white tent adorned with American flags on the grounds of a steel mill, a school choir sang patriotic songs and a dinner of bratwurst and potato salad was laid out for hundreds.

But first, speeches about the economic threat from China.

Mixing an all-American theme with an ominous message, the chief executive of North Carolina-based Nucor Corp. came to the company's plant in Illinois as part of an unusual corporate barnstorming campaign designed to keep everyone focused on what Nucor sees as unfair competition.

"All too often jobs are being sent overseas because foreign competitors refuse to obey the law," said Dan DiMicco, a huge American flag draped behind him. "Too few people are saying anything about it, let alone trying to change it."

While DiMicco rarely mentioned China in his speech, he made it clear that he was referring to China and how it was looking to gobble up his company's jobs....

Manufacturers like Nucor continue to lobby politicians intensely on Capitol Hill about how China's currency controls and state-run companies give it an unfair advantage in global trade.

Nucor's grass-roots campaign in small towns like Bourbonnais is striking because of the commitment DiMicco has made to getting his message out. He has held seven such rallies in the past year, crisscrossing the country to visit towns where the company has steel operations, such as Crawfordsville, Ind., Berkeley, S.C., and Jewett, Texas.

Of course, as the story goes on, things get a bit more complicated:

Once a maker of nuclear testing equipment, Nucor has spent more than $1.1 billion since 2001 to purchase 10 steel plants, including the one in Bourbonnais, from troubled sellers. Thanks to surging steel prices last year the company's profits soared to $1.1 billion, from $62.8 million in 2003.

One of the reasons for high steel prices has been the unprecedented demand from China, though, a fact that was not mentioned at the rally....

[E]conomists say Nucor's statistics don't tell the full story.

"I would say most of the people who have studied this conclude that China is responsible for a very small portion of those job losses," said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C.

"The bigger problem we have is that exports to Europe have fallen," he said.

In a sidebar, Michael Oneal looks at how U.S. firms across the board will react to a further devaluation of the yuan. Turns out there won't be much of areaction:

Jean Blackwell, chief financial officer for Cummins Inc., of Columbus, Ind., said she's all for free trade and a free currency. But she also said it makes little difference in the company's decision-making.

Most of the engines and generators Cummins builds in China are sold in China, taking advantage of the country's economic growth. There is no currency effect.

Where currency does come into play is in the buying of parts. Cummins sources as many components as possible in China and the price of those parts went up along with the currency. On the other hand, demand for Cummins engines in China has been so robust that the company has had to bring in engines made in the U.S. and elsewhere to meet orders. Those products are now priced a little bit more competitively....

Philip Franklin, the chief financial officer at Littelfuse Inc. in Des Plaines, said it is possible a strong enough yuan could make heavy manufacturers selling goods in the U.S. reconsider moving production to China to chase low costs.

But for Littelfuse that wouldn't make sense.

The reason Franklin's company has two plants in China is that all of its customers--electronics makers--manufacture their products there.

If it looked like the yuan was having a negative effect on the economics at its China plants, Littelfuse could shift production to an even lower-cost plant in the Philippines. It wouldn't force production back to the U.S.

For Ralph Faison at Andrew Corp. in suburban Orland Park, the biggest concern these days is the soaring price of the copper Andrew uses in its telecom cable products.

A 100 percent spike in the price of copper over the past couple of years--partially due to soaring demand in growing markets like China--caught Andrew off guard in the most recent quarter, depressing earnings and hammering its stock price.

When it comes to China, however, Andrew is as bullish as it's ever been.

Andrew has three design centers in China and three manufacturing facilities. About a third of its total employment is in the People's Republic. Andrew sells in China a lot of what it makes there, "so we have a natural currency hedge," Faison said.

posted by Dan at 11:21 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

"Where do you find the time to blog?"

This is the question I field the most when the topic of blogging comes up at cocktail parties and BBQs.

The answer is embedded in this CNN story:

Broadband Internet surfers in North America watch two fewer hours of television per week than do those without Internet access, while those using a dial-up connection watch 1.5 fewer hours of TV.

The data come from a Forrester Research study released Tuesday that uses what it calls the longest-running survey of its kind, counting nearly 69,000 people in the U.S. and Canada as participants.

Broadband Internet users watch just 12 hours of TV per week, compared with 14 hours for those who are offline, according to the study, "The State of Consumers and Technology: Benchmark 2005."

The Forrester page is of little use for those of us who aren't Forrester clients, but if you click on the video, you learn an interesting fact: according to their survey, only 2% of households in the United States read a blog once a week.

I should note that my lovely wife has a different answer to the title question -- "it's the time he would otherwise have used to pick up his socks."

posted by Dan at 04:56 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Following up on the avian flu

A follow-up post to June's discussion of the threat of an avian flu pandemic. There's some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that, according to the Financial Times' Clive Cookson, containing the spread of a pandemic is quite feasible:

A human outbreak of avian flu could be “nipped in the bud” preventing the deaths of millions of people in a pandemic if local public health measures are implemented quickly enough, two international research teams reported on Wednesday.

The scientists, based at Imperial College London and Emory University in Atlanta, said their computer modelling revealed two key conditions that must be met to stop an outbreak at source.

First, medical experts would need to identify the new viral strain a mutation of avian flu that spreads easily between humans when fewer than 40 people had been infected.

Second, preventative capsules of the antiviral drug Tamiflu would have to be given to thousands of people who might have come into contact with those infected. This would require the World Health Organisation to build an emergency stockpile of 3m courses of Tamiflu to be deployed anywhere at short notice, said Neil Ferguson, head of the Imperial College team.

At present the WHO holds just 120,000 courses of Tamiflu the only antiviral medicine that works well against all flu strains and can be taken by mouth but it is negotiating with Roche, the drug's Swiss manufacturer, to expand the stockpile to 1m doses or more. The company is expected to donate some or all of the Tamiflu to the WHO.

The bad news is that the computer simulations were based on "an outbreak in rural Thailand of flu caused by the H5N1 avian strain." I'm not sure how they would cope with where the strain has actually migrated. Douglas M. Birch explains in the Baltimore Sun:

A strain of avian influenza virus that can be lethal to humans has spread from Southeast Asia to poultry flocks in Russia and Kazakhstan, a scientific journal reported yesterday, leading a British researcher to warn that the virus may be approaching Europe.

"If we are seeing an expansion in range, that is something we should be concerned about," Ian Brown, head of avian virology at the United Kingdom Veterinary Laboratories Agency, told the journal Nature in an article published yesterday on its Web site.

A Kazakh man who works on a chicken farm recently fell ill with the symptoms of bird flu, Nature reported. The man lives in a village in the Pavlodar region of northeast Kazakhstan, near the Russian border....

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said it was too early to conclude whether the events reported in Nature represent a widening of the outbreak that has struck Southeast Asia.

If a pandemic were to spread this year, it is far from clear whether the United States or the rest of the world would be able to cope.


posted by Dan at 01:21 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

So what do Americans think about their foreign policy?

Foreign Affairs has launched a joint project with Public Agenda to gauge the American public's attitudes towards U.S. foreign policy. The "Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index" is designed to poll public attitudes repeatedly over time, so this first poll mostly serves as a useful baseline.

So what did they find out? Well, according to the press release, Public Agenda Chairman Daniel Yankelovich says:

Americans are broadly uneasy about the quality of our relations with the rest of the world, especially Muslim nations. The questions reveal widespread doubts about the country’s current course. But there is no consensus on which direction to take.

Yankelovich has clearly been using the Pundit Handbook -- replace "the country’s current course" with any public policy problem you like and that sentence can be recycled (I have no doubt Yankelovich also believes that baseball players "just need to play one game at a time").

Seriously, the big news seems to be that Americans are concerned about how non-Americans view their country:

Contrary to conventional wisdom that the American public doesn't know and doesn't care how it is seen abroad, strong majorities of the public believe the view of the United States is suffering abroad and large majorities are worried about it. Three-quarters say they worry that "the U.S. may be losing the trust and friendship of people in other countries" and that "there may be growing hatred of the U.S. in Muslim countries." In both cases, four in ten say they worry "a lot" about this, compared to the one-quarter who say they don't worry at all. A smaller majority, six in ten, say they're at least somewhat worried that accusations of torture against the U.S. will hurt our reputation.

Indeed, at this graph suggests, Americans also seem to prefer using "soft power" approaches to combat radical Islamists:


The irony, of course, is that when asked about some of these economic measures -- say, trade and immigration -- our mercantilist impulse kicks in.

Consider immigration:

58% say tighter controls on immigration would strengthen national security "a great deal." Another 30 percent said tighter immigration would at least "somewhat" strengthen security. Of all the security proposals cited in the survey, this is second only to improving U.S. intelligence operations (65% said that would help a great deal). Another 41% think it would improve security a great deal to have tighter controls on foreign students in American universities. (emphasis added)

Then there is trade:

When it comes to American jobs and the global economy, the best words to sum up public attitudes are frustration and fatalism. The public doesn't believe the government is protecting U.S. jobs, but then again, it seems cynical about whether anyone can.

Half of Americans give the U.S. a "D" or "F" grade on protecting American jobs from going overseas (and three in ten chose "F"). The grades are better, but hardly great, on making international trade agreements that benefit the U.S. Slightly more than half (53%) give the U.S. a grade of "C" or worse.

The immigration questions focus primarily on illegal kind of immigration, and the trade questions have less to do with trade and more to do with jobs, so maybe America's schizophrenia is overrated. But it's certainly there.

Click here to explore the rest of the report.

UPDATE: Yankelovich also has an essay in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs summarizing the poll's findings. One nugget of information that seems interesting:

Americans are at least as polarized on foreign affairs as they are on domestic politics. More surprisingly, this polarization seems to track the public's religiosity: the more often Americans attend religious services, the more likely they are to be content with current U.S. foreign policy.

posted by Dan at 12:01 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Now the President gets intellectually curious

Three weeks ago, the New Republic's Ben Adler asked a group of prominent conservatives what they thought about the "intelligent design" theory of the Earth's creation.

Apparently, Adler could have asked President Bush as well, because it turns out he has some thoughts on the matter:

President Bush said Monday he believes schools should discuss "intelligent design" alongside evolution when teaching students about the creation of life.

During a round-table interview with reporters from five Texas newspapers, Bush declined to go into detail on his personal views of the origin of life. But he said students should learn about both theories, Knight Ridder Newspapers reported.

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," Bush said. "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes."

Glenn Reynolds lists some other "schools of thought" that might be worth teaching our nation's children. Readers are encouraged to come up with other "schools of thought" that might challenge evolution.

I'll just close with Charles Krauthammer's response in Adler's essay:

The idea that [intelligent design] should be taught as a competing theory to evolution is ridiculous. ... The entire structure of modern biology, and every branch of it [is] built around evolution and to teach anything but evolution would be a tremendous disservice to scientific education. If you wanna have one lecture at the end of your year on evolutionary biology, on intelligent design as a way to understand evolution, that's fine. But the idea that there are these two competing scientific schools is ridiculous.


UPDATE: Well, Bush also doesn't believe that Rafael Palmeiro used steroids.

posted by Dan at 05:31 PM | Comments (34) | Trackbacks (0)

Who wants their Gore TV?

Fourteen months ago, Al Gore announced his plans to create a new cable tv channel. That channel -- called Current TV -- launched yesterday. Salon's Heather Havrilesky sums up what Gore is after:

The programming is broken down into short segments, or "pods," generally less than 10 minutes long, which focus on everything from style to newlywed experiences to money management to profiles of inspiring individuals. As each pod progresses, an indicator (like the one you see in QuickTime or iTunes) demonstrates how much time is left in the segment. If you've never seen your TV imitate your laptop before, that's just the beginning: The network hopes to receive a lot of its content from viewers, who are encouraged to shoot short pieces on video and upload them to the Current TV Web site. Viewers will vote on the best segments, and first-time contributors will make $250, while regular contributors will make around $1,000 per pod.

At the press conference for his new cable network, Gore explained in earnest yet detached terms just how revolutionary he intends his venture to be: "I personally believe that when this medium is connected to the grass-roots storytellers that are out there, it will have an impact on the kinds of things that are discussed and the way they are discussed."

Well, Mo Ryan is certainly discussing Current TV in the Chicago Tribune -- and it sounds like Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch can rest easy for now:

For a channel that is supposed to be aimed squarely at 18 to 34 year olds and reflect their views and concerns, Current's remarkably clueless and elitist. And a fair amount of the content could be found just about anywhere else.

We meet a couple of newlyweds who drive a Lexus and fight over whether to get a $1,200 icemaker (the expensive ones, you see, make clear ice, not cloudy ice). Young couples in New York City -- news flash! -- find the real-estate market daunting. We meet a couple who's just had a baby. Baby poop is, apparently, very smelly.

Thanks, Current, for blowing my mind.

Havrilesky dumps on the on-air talent:

[T]he Current hosts are too sexy for their cable network. And not only do they introduce each segment with inane, bubbly comments that make it sound far more fluffy and empty than it is, but they reappear after each segment to sum up their feelings about what happened. This is why we know that watching a pod about dating in Iran makes former Miss USA Shauntay Hinton realize "how lucky I am to be free to do what the hell I wanna do! Yeah!" and watching a segment on suicide in Japan "pretty much took the wind right out of my [host Johnny Bell's] sail." Bell adds, "Not much more to say, but it's tragic." As a result, tuning in to Current TV sometimes feels like going to see a moving documentary with a semiliterate preteen who insists on recasting the entire story in the shallowest of terms the second the credits start to roll.

Hmmm.... this almost makes the hosts sound like.... bloggers. And yes, the channel has its own blog.

In the interest of providing greater depth than the semiliterate preteen, check out Chip Crews in the Washington Post if you want a somewhat more charitable view of their first day.

And, if they manage to hang around for more than a decade, you just know that someone is going to write a TV column that begins, "Remember when Current TV used to run pods?"

posted by Dan at 04:57 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

So what's the deal with Iran's nuclear program?

The past few days have seen a lot of hand-wringing over Iran's decision to defy the principal EU countries and IAEA and proceed with "uranium enrichment activities" as the FT's Gareth Smyth and Najmeh Bozorgmehr put it.

Ordinarily, this development would fill the Bush administration with glee. After all, the administration cut a deal with the Europeans agreeing to let them have the negotiation lead with Iran, and even remove the block from Iran's WTO candidacy -- provided that if the talks ever broke down, the EU countries would back at U.S. resolution to bring the matter to the UN Security Council.

Now, however, I see this front-pager by Dafna Linzer in today's Washington Post:

A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.

The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said that he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but that "all options are on the table."

....At no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to U.S. intelligence, as it did about Iraq in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would require a large-scale nuclear energy program....

The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before "early to mid-next decade," according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures.

The estimate is for acquisition of fissile material, but there is no firm view expressed on whether Iran would be ready by then with an implosion device, sources said.

If you read the whole article (oh, and here's a Q&A with Linzer about the story) , you'll see that the big question Bush officials are asking is whether there will be regime change in Iran before that country acquires a nuclear capability.

I have a different question -- is it possible that the mullahs are copying Saddam Hussein? Recall that even though Iraq's WMD program turned out to be relatively moribund, Hussein repeatedly refused to cooperate fully with UN officials. Among the many possible motivations, one hypothesis was that Hussein was unwilling to expose his relative weakness.

Right now every country in the Middle East fears Iran's growing power -- could the mullahs have an incentive to exaggerate perceptions of that power?


UPDATE: Frank Foer, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, frets that the new NIE will be counterproductive to the "broad consensus that the mullahs must be stopped."

posted by Dan at 12:27 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Chevron wins the rent-seeking war

David Barboza reports in the New York Times that the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has withdrawn its offer for Unocal:

The giant Chinese oil company Cnooc today ended its $18.5 billion takeover bid for the Unocal Corporation of America, citing fierce political opposition to its bid in Washington that it called “regrettable and unjustified."

The decision, which was announced this morning in New York, ends a fierce takeover fight between Cnooc and the Chevron Corporation, which have both been vying to acquire Unocal’s valuable oil and natural gas assets, much of which are based in the United States and Asia.

The move now clears the way for the Chevron Corporation of America to finalize its acquisition of Unocal for about $17 billion in cash and stock, much less than the Chinese bid but an offer that comes with none of the political opposition that Cnooc has encountered in the United States....

People familiar with Cnooc’s decision to pull out of the bidding say the Chinese company was reluctant to increase its own initial bid because Washington seemed unlikely to approve the deal and had even adopted legislation that would slow the approval process. Unocal’s board of directors had also done little to favor Cnooc.

Now I don't doubt that a great deal of hostility towards CNOOC's takeover bid had to do with a fear of China's rising power -- but Barboza's story suggests that it also might have been because while Chevron did not outbid CNOOC for Unocal, they did outbid CNOOC for much Congress:

Cnooc officials pleaded with Washington and Unocal officials, saying that they were attempting a “friendly” takeover of Unocal with a higher bid, and would even pay the $500 million fee if Unocal agreed to break its earlier agreement with Chevron.

Cnooc officials also said they were willing to dispose of most of the United States-based assets of Unocal if that was necessary for Washington’s approval.

Cnooc even hired high-powered Washington lobbyists and had the backing of two of Wall Street’s most powerful investment banks, Goldman Sachs and J..P. Morgan, to help push its deal.

But Chevron came equally armed with Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers. A host of Congressmen who were recipients of Chevron political money also argued in Washington against the Cnooc deal, saying it could threaten America’s long-term energy interests. (emphasis added)

Chevron played this game well -- they spent way less that the $1 billion gap between their offer and CNOOC's, but by pushing Congress in a direction it probably wanted to go anyway, still got Unocal.

Whether Unocal's shareholders benefited is another question entirely.

posted by Dan at 12:08 PM | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, August 1, 2005

That's ambassador Bolton to you

President Bush made the first-ever recess appointment of a UN Ambassador and named John Bolton today. Essentially, this means that Bolton will serve until January 2007.

The myriad political responses to the decision include a lot of apoplexy from Democrats. Ted Kennedy said:

The abuse of power and the cloak of secrecy from the White House continues. ... It's a devious maneuver that evades the constitutional requirement of Senate consent and only further darkens the cloud over Mr. Bolton's credibility at the U.N.

I am shocked to report that Lincoln Chafee -- never thought of as the sharpest tool in the shed -- had the most sagacious comment: "We filibustered the nomineee. We exercised our perogative under the law. He [Bush] exercised his perogative under the law."

Over at Steve Clemons' Washington Note -- and Steve has been leading the blog war against Bolton -- Charles Brown recaps the winners and losers from the Democrat perspective. Ed Kilgore at TPM Cafe is pretty teed off as well.

On the right, Paul Mirengoff thinks this was the right call, though even he's depressed about the long run implications:

We may be moving towards a system in which presidential appointees who have 60 votes will be confirmed and those who can't obtain that many will serve temporarily. That's not a good system, but it's where the Senators Schumer, Dodd, Leahy, Kennedy, etc. seem to be taking us.

My views on Bolton remain unchanged -- from the Bush administration's perspective, this is an unwanted man being sent to an unwanted institution. Given the administration's attitude, it's not clear to me whether anyone else would have been more effective.

posted by Dan at 03:22 PM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (0)

Richard Posner's forthcoming book

Eleven months ago, Richard Posner's review of the 9-11 Commission Report appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. And lo and behold, Posner spun that review into a book of his own on homeland security, Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11.

I bring this up because Judge Posner has another lead review in the NYT Book Review. So in case anyone was curious about the topic of Posner's new book, it appears to be about the political economy of the media.

The mainstream media are predominantly liberal - in fact, more liberal than they used to be. But not because the politics of journalists have changed. Rather, because the rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a political phenomenon, has caused polarization, pushing the already liberal media farther left.

The news media have also become more sensational, more prone to scandal and possibly less accurate. But note the tension between sensationalism and polarization: the trial of Michael Jackson got tremendous coverage, displacing a lot of political coverage, but it had no political valence.

The interesting questions are, first, the why of these trends, and, second, so what?

The why is the vertiginous decline in the cost of electronic communication and the relaxation of regulatory barriers to entry, leading to the proliferation of consumer choices. Thirty years ago the average number of television channels that Americans could receive was seven; today, with the rise of cable and satellite television, it is 71. Thirty years ago there was no Internet, therefore no Web, hence no online newspapers and magazines, no blogs. The public's consumption of news and opinion used to be like sucking on a straw; now it's like being sprayed by a fire hose.

Go read it all -- there's a healthy number of paragraphs about blogs and the media that Glenn Reynolds discusses as well. I'll post an update once I've semi-digested Posner's analysis.

UPDATE: Well, I'm still cogitating -- but Laura McKenna has posted her thoughts on the matter. Be sure to check out her typology of how experts interpret the rise of the blogosphere.

Meanwhile, Jack Shafer rips Posner's essay apart in Slate. Some of it is carping, but this paragraph raises an alarm bell that also went off in my head when I first read it:

When Posner declares that media competition has pushed the established press to the left, he gives only one example: Fox News making CNN more liberal. Has Posner lost his cable connection? The success of Fox News convinced CNN of the opposite. CNN realized that the demographic that has the time and interest to watch a lot of cable news tends to be older and more conservative, as this Pew Research Center report indicates. If anything, the one-worldist CNN of founder Ted Turner has been vectoring right in recent years. Lou Dobbs, for one, now blabs a Buchananesque position on trade and immigration five nights a week. Over at MSNBC, which dumped overt liberal Phil Donahue in 2003, they've given every nonliberal listed in the Yellow Pages a show in hopes of boosting ratings (examples: Michael Savage, Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson, Jesse Ventura, and now, Rita Cosby).

posted by Dan at 01:04 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, July 31, 2005

The revolution in basing affairs?

On the one hand, Donald Rumseld and the DoD have been engaged in a multi-year plan to reorganize and reposition the U.S. military. According to Thom Shanker of the New York Times, the repositioning of 50,000 U.S. troops from Korea and Germany back to the United States is complete.

On the other hand, Maura Reynolds and David Holley report in the Los Angeles Times that some countries are requesting that U.S. forces leave ahead of schedule:

Uzbekistan has issued an eviction notice to a U.S. air base that has been used since 2001 to stage military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Saturday.

The notice, delivered Friday to the U.S. Embassy in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, gives the United States six months to comply, Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said.

"The bottom line is, they want us out," he said.

The Uzbek government has increasingly bristled at the U.S. military presence, especially since the State Department joined international allies in calling for an inquiry into the shooting deaths of protesters during a rally in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May....

Anticipating eviction by Uzbekistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld won pledges from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last week to let the United States continue using airfields there for operations in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan does not border Afghanistan, and Tajikistan's roads into the country are poor, but Rumsfeld expressed optimism that those more distant bases would be adequate should Uzbekistan carry through on its threat to evict U.S. forces.

"We're always thinking ahead. We'll be fine," Rumsfeld said on a tour of Central Asia.

Over at the Christian Science Monitor, Mark Sappenfield suggests that these recent developments suggest the complexity of fighting a global war on terror:

As the Pentagon transforms its military to meet the more flexible needs of the war on terror, it has also begun to recast the footprint of its overseas bases, and nowhere has this been more obvious than in the remote Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

For more than three years, they have allowed the United States to use a pair of austere airfields to provide crucial support for troops in Afghanistan, and they have served as models of how America will wage its wars in the future. Yet even as Kyrgyzstan reaffirmed its commitment to the United States for the duration of the Afghan war last week, Uzbekistan sent US forces an eviction notice.

It is a glimpse of what awaits the Pentagon as it spreads beyond the stability of cold-war bases in Europe and the Far East. New alliances with nations from Southeast Asia to the Horn of Africa promise quick access to the remotest corners of the globe, but they could increasingly link American security to the whims of fickle allies and controversial regimes.

"We're going to be fighting this global war against irregular forces in much different places than we were willing to fight in the past," says Robert Work, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments here. "And in [these places] there are no long-term allies."

Another way of interpreting the data is that the administration is actually willing to put its emphasis on democracy promotion front and center, even in regions considered of geostrategic importance. The willingness to leave nondemocratic Uzbekistan while maintaining bases in democratizing Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan suggests that the U.S. is recalculating the requirements to be a long-term partner of the U.S. (This, by the way, would contradict what I wrote in Diplomatic History last month.)

The LAT report suggests that the Uzbeks might just be bargaining, so we'll see how this unfolds.


UPDATE: Austin Bay has more on Uzbekistan, although, again, I'll be interested to see if whether the U.S. and the Uzbeks wind up cutting a deal.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jonathan Caverley has cogent thoughts about this over at Intel Dump -- now if only he'd listen to me about other things.

posted by Dan at 09:40 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Your absurd suggestion of the day

In the United Kingdom, Sky News reports on a helpful suggestion made by the (privately run) Advertising Standards Authority:

Drinks companies have been ordered to use uglier men in their advertising campaigns.

The Advertising Standards Authority believes "balding" and "paunchy" men would be less likely to encourage women to drink to achieve social success.

The new advertising code stresses that links must not be made between alcohol and seduction.

A campaign for popular sparkling drink Lambrini has become the first to fall foul of the new rules.

The Authority objected to a poster which showed three women "hooking" a slim, young man in a parody of a fairground game.

The industry regulator instructed the firm: "We would advise that the man in the picture should be unattractive - ie overweight, middle-aged, balding etc.

"In its current form we consider that the ad is in danger of implying that the drink may bring sexual/social success, because the man in question looks quite attractive and desirable to the girls.

"If the man was clearly unattractive, we think that this implication would be removed from the ad."

Hat tip to Simon Says for the link.

Oh, and for those Brits reading who want to voice a response to the ASA's suggestion, here's a link to their complaint page.

posted by Dan at 03:45 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)