Saturday, December 24, 2005

So much for the market clearing price

On this last half-day of the holiday shopping season, I gazed upon my son with horror as he broke the spine of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. This has symbolized my reaction to my son's recent interest in my paperback Calvin and Hobbes collections -- joy at watching him read combined with a mild dose of horror at the way he's treating the books. [Dude, he's only five--ed. I didn't say I blamed him -- I said I watched him, mute and helples, as it happened.]

However, I decided to take this as a sign to go online and buy The Complete Calvin and Hobbes from They were listing used & new from $149.99 with the following note:

Due to the number of copies printed, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes is currently unavailable. The publisher is planning to reprint this title in April 2006 and copies will become available soon afterward.
On a lark, I checked to see if Barnes and Noble had it. Not only were they carrying it, but at it was marked down to $105.

I confess to being surprised that there was this much of a price and quantity spread between Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It does make one wonder if the Economist is correct to crow about the advantages of being number two in a business.

Readers are hereby encouraged to post the greatest price spreads they've ecountered in their shopping activities among established online merchants.

UPDATE: Thanks to Rhett in the comments section for offering a plausible explanation for the discrepancy in prices.

posted by Dan at 12:13 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, December 23, 2005

"The judicial equivalent of a bitch slap"

That's Jacob Sullum's assessment of what 4th Circuit Court of Appeals judge Michael Luttig delivered to the Bush administration in denying their request to transfer Jose Padilla from military to civilian custody. Orin Kerr concurs.

Luttig was on Bush's short-list for Supreme Court nominees, but as Sullum points out:

The rebuke is richly deserved. Even a court that was prepared to recognize the detention authority asserted by Bush is not prepared to let him submit his policies to judicial review only when he feels like it.
Indeed, just about every branch or bureaucracy of government is bitch-slapping George W. Bush this month on national security issues.

There's the judicial branch. Beyond Luttig, another federal judge resigned from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in reaction to the NSA domestic surveillance program, forcing the administration to brief the rest of the FISA judges before they faced a full-blown judicial revolt.

There's the legislative branch. As Jim VandeHei and Charles Babington point out in today's Washington Post:

This week's uprising against a four-year extension of the USA Patriot Act was the latest example of a new willingness by lawmakers in both parties to challenge Bush and his notions of expansive executive power.

Since this spring, Congress has forced Bush to scrap plans for a broad restructuring of Social Security, accept tighter restrictions on the treatment of detainees and rewrite his immigration plan. Lawmakers have rebuffed Bush's call to make permanent his first-term tax cuts and helped force the president to speak more candidly about setbacks in Iraq.

"What you have seen is a Congress, which has been AWOL through intimidation or lack of unity, get off the sidelines and jump in with both feet," especially on the national security front, said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

What is most striking is that the pushback is coming not just from Democrats and moderate Republicans, who often disagree with Bush, but also from mainstream conservatives.

The year's events, say some legislators and scholars, reflect more than just a change in the president's legislative scorecard. They suggest Bush may have reached the outer limits of a long-term project to reshape the powers of the presidency.

Finally, there's the permanent bureaucracy. As David Ignatius pointed out earlier this week in the Washington Post the torture question has revealed a clash between the Bush administration and national security professionals (link via Kevin Drum):
The national security structure that the Bush administration created after Sept. 11, 2001, began to crumble this month because of a bipartisan revolt on Capitol Hill. Newly emboldened legislators forced the administration to accept new rules for the interrogation of prisoners, delayed renewal of the Patriot Act and demanded an investigation of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency.

President Bush has bristled at these challenges to his authority over what has amounted to an undeclared national state of emergency. But the intelligence professionals who have daily responsibility for waging the war against terrorism don't seem particularly surprised or unhappy to see the emergency structure in trouble. They want clear rules and public support that will allow them to do their jobs effectively over the long haul, without getting second-guessed or jerked around by politicians. Basically, they don't want to be left holding the bag -- which this nation has too often done with its professional military and intelligence officers....

One little-noted factor in this re-balancing is what I would call "the officers' revolt" -- and by that I mean both military generals in uniform and intelligence officers at the CIA, the NSA and other agencies. There has been growing uneasiness among these national security professionals at some of what they have been asked to do, and at the seeming unconcern among civilian leaders at the Pentagon and the CIA for the consequences of administration decisions.

The quiet revolt of the generals at the Pentagon is a big reason U.S. policy in Iraq has been changing, far more than Bush's stay-the-course speeches might suggest. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is deeply unpopular with senior military officers. They complain privately about a management style that has stretched the military to the breaking point in Iraq. For months they have been working out details of troop reductions next year in Iraq -- not just because such action will keep the Army and Marine Corps from cracking but because they think a smaller footprint will be more effective in stabilizing the country.

A similar revolt is evident at the CIA. Professional intelligence officers are furious at the politicized leadership brought to the agency by ex-congressman Porter Goss and his retinue of former congressional staffers. Their mismanagement has peeled away a generation of senior management in the CIA's Directorate of Operations who have resigned, transferred or signaled their intention to quit when their current tours are up. Many of those who remain are trying to keep their heads down until the current wave of political jockeying and reorganization is over -- which is the last thing you would want at an effective intelligence agency.

The CIA, like the military, wants clear and sustainable rules of engagement. Agency employees don't want their careers ruined by future congressional or legal investigations of actions they thought were authorized. Unhappiness within the CIA about fuzzy rules on interrogation, and the risk of getting clobbered after the fact for doing your job, was a secret driver for Sen. John McCain's push for a new law banning cruel interrogation techniques.

The great thing about the American system of government is that whenever one branch exceeds its traditional scope of authority, that branch is eventually brought to heel by the other parts of government.

This is one of the iron laws of politics that George W. Bush is now facing.

posted by Dan at 03:49 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Why panics, pandemics, and policy don't mix

Concerns about a looming avian flu pandemic have prompted a lot of commentary and blog chatter over the past few months (including from yours truly) about whether governments are adequately pepared to combat an outbreak of avian influenza. However, panicked calls for governments to "do something" without contemplating the costs and risks that come with each strategy generally leads to bad policy.

Consider, for example, that many developed-country governments have been scrambling to load up on the drug Tamiflu as a way to treat the H5N1 variant of the bird flu. In the Financial Times, however, Andrew Jack explains why this might be a problem:

Fresh doubts were cast on the efficacy of Tamiflu as a treatment for bird flu on Wednesday night when one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals published new reports of resistance to the drug and deaths in patients in Vietnam.

Menno de Jong and colleagues from the hospital for tropical diseases in Ho Chi Minh City recorded in the New England Journal of Medicine that four out of eight patients suffering from the H5N1 flu strain and treated with Tamiflu had died, including two who developed resistance.

The reports increase suggested levels of resistance to nearly 10 per cent, or three out of the 31 known human cases of H5N1 treated with Tamiflu, which is marketed by Roche of Switzerland.

The study raises new questions about the drug, which more than 50 governments have ordered in significant quantities in recent months to stockpile as a potential prophylactic and treatment in the case of a flu pandemic.

An accompanying article in the journal reinforced calls for alternative approaches to treatment for a pandemic, including the stockpiling of the rival drug zanamivir, or Relenza.

Here's a link to the actual NEJM paper for all of the M.D.s in the house. Dr. Anne Moscona has a commentary on the paper in the NEJM that's worth reading for non-doctors as well. One disturbing implication:
It is therefore worrisome that personal stockpiling of oseltamivir [Tamiflu] is likely to lead to the use of insufficient doses or inadequate courses of therapy. Shortages during a pandemic would inspire sharing of personal supplies, resulting in inadequate treatment. Such undertreatment is of particular concern in children — the main source for the dissemination of influenza within the community, since they usually have higher viral loads than adults and excrete infectious virus for longer periods. The habit of stopping treatment prematurely when symptoms resolve (a well-established tendency with antibiotic therapy) could also lead to suboptimal treatment of influenza and promote the development of drug resistance....

Like any successful infectious agent, influenza virus will most likely evolve to evade any single drug. By targeting several points in the viral life cycle simultaneously with different drugs, we are more likely to discourage the emergence of viruses that can resist all drugs at once. But we currently rely solely on the neuraminidase inhibitors — and solely on oseltamivir in many situations, such as in patients who cannot use inhaled medication or in patients infected with H5N1 virus, in whom systemic drug levels may be important. We must not abrogate the usefulness of these drugs by exposing circulating influenza to them in such a way as to facilitate the selection of resistant viruses. The study by de Jong et al. confirms that oseltamivir-resistant H5N1 virus is now a reality. The need to learn more about how and when resistance to the neuraminidase inhibitors develops, while we focus on the development of new antiviral drugs, is pressing. This frightening report should inspire us to devise pandemic strategies that do not favor the development of oseltamivir-resistant strains. Improper use of personal stockpiles of oseltamivir may promote resistance, thereby lessening the usefulness of our frontline defense against influenza, and should be strongly discouraged. (emphasis added)

posted by Dan at 05:45 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Is now the winter of my baseball discontent?

When my New York Yankee-loving brother starts posting random comments goading me to blog about baseball, you know it's not a good sign for the Boston Red Sox.

Indeed, Johnny Damon's decision to join the Yankees has prompted quite the media backlash against the performace of Red Sox management since Theo Epstein's departure as GM. One commenter on Jacob Luft's blog put it well:

So right now, the Sox have four guys who played second last year (Graffanino, Loretta, Cora and Pedroia) and three guys who played third (Lowell, Youkilis, and Marte); no real first baseman, no clear shortstop, no center fielder, a disgruntled left fielder and no leadoff hitter.
The New York Daily News' Bill Madden sounds a similar theme:
[A]s of now, [the Red Sox] have no center fielder, no shortstop, no first baseman, no bona fide closer and seemingly no game plan.

On paper anyway, there's been another seismic shift of power in the American League East with the Yankees adding the prototypical leadoff man they haven't had since Chuck Knoblauch in their last world championship season in 2000, and the Red Sox subtracting another pillar from their only world championship team since 1918.

Lest you think the criticism is coming only from Yankee-lovers, consider this Tony Massarotti rant in the Boston Herald (link via David Pinto):
[T]he 2006 Red Sox look like an 84-78 squad with a management team that is playing rotisserie baseball. The Sox still can go out and get players, but there seems little regard for how they fit together. And until we learn otherwise, there is simply no way to know that Mark Loretta and Mike Lowell can shine in Boston, that Julio Lugo or Coco Crisp is coming (or that they, too, can succeed), that Kevin Youkilis can play every day or that Keith Foulke can close again....

For Red Sox ownership and upper management, in particular, there are some bad trends being established, particularly during the last two offseasons. Pedro Martinez left. So did Derek Lowe. Now Damon is gone, too, his departure coming after negotiations with Theo Epstein also resulted in an ugly divorce between the Sox and their young general manager. When it comes to negotiating with their high-profile personalities — Jason Varitek is the exception — the Sox generally seem inclined to let the market dictate the price, then decide they do not want to pay it.

Uh, fellas?

Sooner or later, if you want to keep good people, you will have to fork over the dough.

Of course, while all of this has been going on, the Sox have been throwing away money in other areas. Last winter, even when Epstein was the GM, the Sox overpaid for Matt Clement. They forked over $40 million for Edgar Renteria, then decided he wasn’t worth it (after one year) and shipped him to the Atlanta Braves. They ate $11 million of Renteria’s remaining contract and took on the $18 million due Lowell. In the same trade that brought the Marlins third baseman, they shipped away Hanley Ramirez, a highly regarded prospect who seemed part of their long-term plan.

Confused yet? You should be. Amid all of the comings and goings this offseason, Fenway Park has become baseball’s version of Wisteria Lane. There has been speculation and finger-pointing, controversy and confusion.

Meanwhile, a team suffers.


Is there any hope for Red Sox Nation? I think the answer is yes, but it takes a little work.

First, consider that each of the individual trades/signings that the Red Sox have made this offseason can be defended. No one except the Yankees thought Johnny Damon was worth $13 million a year. Trading a backup catcher for a former All-Star second baseman seems like a shrewd move. Renteria was never comfortable in Boston, and in trading him the Red Sox got one of the top ten prospects in all of baseball. Getting Josh Beckett was worth the costs in prospects -- especially since the Sox also got a premier set-up man and a Gold Glove third baseman. The problem isn't with the individual moves -- it's whether one can see an overall plan when the moves are combined.

Second, left unsaid in all the critiques is the fact that the Sox have done a very good job of rebuilding their pitching staff. In the past few months the Sox have lost Mike Myers and Chad Bradford while acquiring Josh Beckett, Guillermo Mota, and Jermaine Van Buren via trade, re-signing Mike Timlin, signing Rudy Seanez, and picking up Jamie Vermilyea via the Rule V draft. They have also developed a raft of quality arms -- Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Craig Hansen, and Jon Lester -- from their own farm system. That's a set of pretty decent moves made at low cost given the way the market for pitching has gone as of late. And while it may be overly optimistic to expect Curt Schilling or Keith Foulke to perform at their 2004 levels, it would be way to pessimistic to see them be as bad as they were in 2005. To be sure, not all of these pitchers will pan out, but enough of them will for the 2006 pitching staff to look better than the 2005 version.

Third, the off-season is only half over. The $64,000 question is whether the Red Sox can trade from their strengths (pitching, second base, third base, farm system) to improve their weaknesses (leadoff hitter, centerfieldier, shortstop, first base) between now and February. The big concern here is whether these obvious deficiencies will force the Sox into desperate moves in January and February. However, it's also worth remembering that the Sox had uninspiring production from two of those positions in 2005 and still made it to the playoffs.

Finally, it's worth remembering that at this point last year everyone was trashing White Sox GM Ken Williams for a series of moves that laid the foundation for the 2005 team. The only thing that matters is the how the team performs on the field between April and October.


[How convinced are you by your own analysis?--ed. About 55% -- the other 45% of the time I'm with Massarotti.]

UPDATE: Sam Crane offers Confucion and Taoist perspectives on the Damon signing.

posted by Dan at 04:24 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Open Bolivia thread

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Bolivia just elected a former coca farmer turned socialist politician as president. Among his many campaign pledges are to decriminalize coca production and to renationalize the commanding heights of the national economy.

Comment away on the implications of this power transition in Andean region. Noah Millman offers various reasons for why this should concern the United States.

[Hey a few years ago you were pretty sanguine about the rejection of the neoliberal model in Latin America. How about now?--ed.] Well, the spread of Chavez-like politicans throughout Latin America would be intrinsically bad. At the same time, this Associated Press report suggests just how difficult it will be to foster regional solidarity by pursuing a policy of economic nationalism:

The winner of Bolivia's presidential elections has repeated his vow to nationalize oil and gas and said he will void at least some contracts held by foreign companies "looting" the poor Andean nation's natural resources.

Indian coca farmer Evo Morales said he will not confiscate refineries or infrastructure owned by multinational corporations. Instead, his government would renegotiate contracts so that the companies are partners, but not owners, in developing Bolivia's resources, he said....

On Monday, Morales said Brazilian oil company Petrobras must turn two refineries it owns in Bolivia back to Bolivian control.

Morales announced that he had asked Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to return the refineries, which Petrobras purchased in the last decade. Petrobras bought the two refineries from Bolivia's state-owned oil company in 1999 for roughly $100 million....

The top investors in Bolivia are Petroleo Brasileiro SA, known as Petrobras, Spain's Repsol YPF, France's Total SA, British Gas and BP PLC . Foreign energy firms have invested $3.5 billion in Bolivia since 1996. But after the passage of the new hydrocarbons law in May, and amid increasing calls for an outright nationalization of the energy industry in Bolivia, they this year have mostly frozen any new investments. (emphases added)

So, the new Bolivian president's first move is to alienate his top foreign investor, who happens to be.... Brazilian. The last paragraph suggests that staying this course will retard other foreign investors. And note that no U.S.-based multinational appears on that list.

Even if Hugo Chavez lends a hand, I don't think this strategy is going to inspire a lot of solidarity elsewhere in the continent.

posted by Dan at 04:13 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

And you thought Heidi Fleiss' little black book was bad

If this Anne Kornblut story in the New York Times is true, then there are a lot of people inside the beltway who are going to be feeling very, very nauseous for the next few weeks:

Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist under criminal investigation, has been discussing with prosecutors a deal that would grant him a reduced sentence in exchange for testimony against former political and business associates, people with detailed knowledge of the case say.

Mr. Abramoff is believed to have extensive knowledge of what prosecutors suspect is a wider pattern of corruption among lawmakers and Congressional staff members. One participant in the case who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations described him as a "unique resource."

Other people involved in the case or who have been officially briefed on it said the talks had reached a tense phase, with each side mindful of the date Jan. 9, when Mr. Abramoff is scheduled to stand trial in Miami in a separate prosecution.

What began as a limited inquiry into $82 million of Indian casino lobbying by Mr. Abramoff and his closest partner, Michael Scanlon, has broadened into a far-reaching corruption investigation of mainly Republican lawmakers and aides suspected of accepting favors in exchange for legislative work.

posted by Dan at 10:06 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Christmas in the Pacific Rim

I'm back from Hong Kong, and seriously jet-lagged. Before I stop thinking about that jewel of a city, however, I have a question for any cultural anthropologists in the crowd -- what's the deal with Christmas in the Pacific Rim?

The city of Hong Kong -- never shy of neon -- was engulfed in Christmas decorations the week I was there. This web site points out::

Christmas in Hong Kong is the time for the tasteless, the season for the syrupy, the holiday for the horrific -- if we're talking about lights and decorations, that is. There may be another city that can equal Hong Kong in the banality of its Christmas decorations, but it's sure to fall short in terms of sheer volume.
I was told that I would see the same thing in Tokyo as well.

Many Westerners who attended the WTO Ministerial expressed distaste about this phenomenon as well -- not on religious grounds, but rather because to them it epitomizes the homogenization of western tastes.

I think this is much ado about nothing. I doubt that any North American city, with the possible exception of Las Vegas, would festoon itself in the same way Hong Kong has -- but then again, no other American city is as in love with neon as HK. However, to repeat my question to Tyler Cowen or anyone else who would know -- why is Christmas so big in so many non-Christian countries?

My hunch is that it's a marketing opportunity, but I'm open to other suggestions.

posted by Dan at 10:01 PM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Drezner gets results from Pakistan!

Remember when I blogged that an inpressive display of U.S. aid to South Asia following the earthquake their would improve our standing in that part of the globe?

I bring this up only because of some new poll results released by Terror Free Tomorrow:

In the first poll in Pakistan since the earthquake of October 8, 2005, Pakistanis now hold a more favorable opinion of the United States than at any time since 9/11, while support for Al Qaeda in its home base has dropped to its lowest level since then. The direct cause for this dramatic shift in Muslim opinion is clear: American humanitarian assistance for Pakistani earthquake victims....

73% of Pakistanis surveyed in November 2005 now believe suicide terrorist attacks are never justified, up from 46% just last May.

Support for Osama Bin Laden has declined significantly (51% favorable in May 2005 to just 33% in November), while those who oppose him rose over the same period from 23% to 41%.

US favorability among Pakistanis has doubled from 23% in May to more than 46% now, while the percentage of Pakistanis with very unfavorable views declined from 48% to 28%.

For the first time since 9/11, more Pakistanis are now favorable to the United States than unfavorable.
78% of Pakistanis have a more favorable opinion of the United States because of the American response to the earthquake, with the strongest support among those under 35.

Click here to see the full results in .pdf format.

UPDATE: Husain Haqqani and Kenneth Ballen talk about the survey in the Wall Street Jounal. :

posted by Dan at 06:31 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)